Chapter no 11

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

May 1943

Lale and Leon’s daily lives are still being dictated by the arrival of transports from across Europe. As spring becomes summer, they do not stop coming.

Today the pair are working with long rows of female prisoners. The selection process is taking place a small distance away. They are too busy to pay attention to it. An arm and a piece of paper appear before them, and they do their job. Over and again. These prisoners are unusually quiet, perhaps sensing evil in the air. Lale suddenly hears someone break into whistling. The tune is familiar, perhaps an opera. The whistling grows louder and Lale glances in its direction. A man in a white coat is walking their way. Lale puts his head down, attempting to keep to the rhythm of his job. Don’t look at faces. He takes the paper, makes the number, the way he has a thousand times before.

The whistling stops. The doctor now stands beside Lale, emitting a pungent smell of disinfectant. Leaning over, he inspects Lale’s work and takes the arm he is midway through tattooing. He must be satisfied because he moves on as quickly as he arrived, bastardising another melody. Lale looks up at Leon, who has turned pale. Baretski materialises beside them.

‘What do you think of our new doctor?’

‘Didn’t really introduce himself,’ murmurs Lale.

Baretski laughs. ‘This is one doctor you don’t want to be introduced to, trust me. I’m scared of him. The guy’s a creep.’

‘Do you know what he’s called?’

‘Mengele, Herr Doktor Josef Mengele. You should remember that name, Tätowierer.’



‘What was he doing at the selection?’

‘Herr Doktor has made it known that he will be at many of the selections, as he is looking for particular patients.’

‘I take it being sick is not a criterion for him.’

Baretski doubles over laughing. ‘You can be so funny sometimes, Tätowierer.’

Lale goes back to work. A little while later he hears the whistling start up behind him and the sound shoots such a shock of fear through his body that he slips and stabs the young woman he is tattooing. She cries out. Lale wipes the blood that trickles down her arm. Mengele steps closer.

‘Something wrong, Tätowierer? You are the Tätowierer, are you not?’ Mengele asks.

His voice sends chills down Lale’s spine.

‘Sir, I mean, yes, sir … I am the Tätowierer, Herr Doktor,’ Lale stammers.

Mengele, beside him now, stares him down, his eyes black as coal, devoid of compassion. A strange smile stretches across his face. Then he moves on.

Baretski approaches and punches Lale hard on the arm. ‘Having a hard day, Tätowierer? Perhaps you’d like to take a break and clear the latrines instead?’

That night Lale tries to wash the dried blood from his shirt with water from a puddle. He partially succeeds, but then decides a stain will be an appropriate reminder of the day he met Mengele. A doctor, Lale suspects, who will cause more pain than he eases, whose very existence threatens in ways Lale doesn’t want to contemplate. Yes, a stain must remain to remind Lale of the new danger that has entered his life. He must always be wary of this man whose soul is colder than his scalpel.



The next day, Lale and Leon find themselves at Auschwitz again, to number young women. The whistling doctor is present. He stands before the parade of girls, deciding their fate with a flick of his hand: right, left, right, right, left, left. Lale can’t see any logic to the decisions. They are all in the prime of their lives, fit and healthy. He sees Mengele watching him, being watched. Lale can’t take his eyes away as Mengele grabs the next girl’s face in his big hands, twists it back and forward, up and down, and opens her mouth. And then with a slap to the face he pushes her to the left. Rejected. Lale stares him down. Mengele calls an SS officer over and speaks to him. The officer looks over at Lale and begins walking in his direction. Shit.

‘What do you want?’ he demands with more confidence than he feels. ‘Shut up, Tätowierer.’ The SS officer turns to Leon. ‘Leave your things and

come with me.’

‘Wait a minute – you can’t take him. Can’t you see the number of people still to be done?’ Lale asks, now terrified on his young assistant’s behalf.

‘Then you’d better get on with your work or you will be here all night, Tätowierer. And Herr Doktor won’t like that.’

‘Leave him, please. Let us get on with our work. I’m sorry if I’ve done something to upset Herr Doktor,’ Lale says.

The officer points his rifle at Lale. ‘Do you want to come too, Tätowierer?’ Leon says, ‘I’ll go. It’s OK, Lale. I’ll be back as soon as I can.’

‘I’m sorry, Leon.’ Lale can no longer look at his friend. ‘It’s all right. I’ll be all right. Get back to work.’

Leon is marched off.

That evening Lale, greatly distressed, trudges alone, head down, back to Birkenau. Something just off the track catches his eye, a flash of colour. A flower, a single flower, waving in the breeze. Blood red petals around a jet black middle. He looks for others but there are none. Still, it is a flower, and he wonders again about the next time he could give flowers to someone he cares for. Images of Gita and his mother come to him, the two women he loves the most, floating just out of reach. Grief comes in waves, threatening to drown him. Will the two ever meet? Will the younger learn from the older? Will Mumma welcome and love Gita as I do?



He had learned and practised the art of flirting on his mother. Though he was fairly sure she didn’t realise what he was doing, he knew; he knew what he was doing; he learned what worked on her and what didn’t, and he quickly worked out what was appropriate and inappropriate behaviour between a man and a woman. He suspected all young men embarked on this learning process with their mothers, though he often wondered if they consciously realised it. He had brought it up with several of his friends, who had reacted with shock, claiming they did no such thing. When he questioned them further about whether they got away with more from their mother than their father, they all admitted to behaviours that could be construed as flirting – they thought they were just getting around Mum because she was easier than Dad. Lale knew exactly what he was doing.

Lale’s emotional connection to his mother had shaped the way he related to girls and women. He was attracted to all women, not just physically but emotionally. He loved talking to them; he loved making them feel good about themselves. To him, all women were beautiful and he believed there was no harm in telling them so. His mother and also his sister subliminally taught Lale what it was a woman wanted from a man, and so far he had spent his life trying to live up to these lessons. ‘Be attentive, Lale; remember the small things, and the big things will work themselves out.’ He heard his mother’s sweet voice.

He bends and gently picks the short stem. He will find a way to give it to Gita tomorrow. Back in his room, Lale carefully places the precious flower beside his bed before falling into a dreamless sleep, but next morning when he wakes, the petals from his flower have separated and lie curled up beside the black centre. Death alone persists in this place.

You'll Also Like