Chapter no 12

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Lale doesn’t want to look at the flower anymore, so he leaves his block to throw it away. Baretski is there but Lale ignores him, preferring to head back inside and into his room. Baretski follows him and leans in the doorway. He studies the distraught-looking Lale. Lale is aware that he sits on a lumpy fortune of gems, currency, sausage and chocolate. He grabs his bag and pushes past Baretski, forcing him to turn and follow him outside.

‘Wait up, Tätowierer. I need to talk to you.’ Lale stops.

‘I have a request for you.’

Lale remains silent, looking at a point beyond Baretski’s shoulder.

‘We – I mean my fellow officers and I – are in need of some entertainment, and as the weather is improving we were thinking of a game of football. What do you think?’

‘I’m sure it would be fun for you.’ ‘Yes, indeed.’



Baretski plays the game and waits.

Lale eventually blinks. ‘How can I help you?’

‘Well, now that you’ve asked, Tätowierer, we need you to find eleven prisoners to take on a team of SS in a friendly match.’

Lale considers laughing but keeps his gaze at the point over Baretski’s shoulder. He thinks long and hard about his reply to this bizarre request.

‘What, no substitutes?’ ‘No substitutes.’

‘Sure, why not.’ Where did that come from? There are a million other things I could say. Like, ‘Fuck off.’

‘Good, great. Get your team together and we’ll meet in the compound in two days’ time – Sunday. Oh, and we’ll bring the ball.’ Laughing loudly, Baretski walks off. ‘By the way, Tätowierer, you can have the day off. There are no transports today.’

Lale spends part of the day sorting his treasure into small bundles. Food for the Romani and the boys in Block 7 and of course Gita and her friends. Gems and currency sorted by type. The process is surreal. Diamonds with diamonds, rubies with rubies, dollars with dollars, and even a stack of currency he has never seen before, bearing the words ‘South African Reserve Bank’ and

‘Suid-Afrikaans’. He has no idea of its value or how it found its way into Birkenau. Taking several gems, he goes looking for Victor and Yuri to make the day’s purchases. He then plays for a while with the boys from his block as he tries to formulate what he will say to the men in Block 7 upon their return from work.

In the evening, Lale is surrounded by dozens of men looking at him incredulously.

‘You have got to be fucking kidding,’ one of them says. ‘No,’ Lale replies.

‘You want us to play football with the fucking SS?’ ‘Yes. This coming Sunday.’



‘Well, I’m not gonna do it. You can’t make me,’ the same person replies. From the back of the group a voice calls out: ‘I’ll play. I’ve played a little.’

A small man pushes his way through the gathered men and stands in front of Lale. ‘I’m Joel.’

‘Thanks, Joel. Welcome to the team. I need another nine of you. What have you got to lose? This is your one chance to get a little physical with the bastards and get away with it.’

‘I know a guy in Block 15 who played in the Hungarian national team. I’ll ask him, if you like?’ another prisoner pipes up.

‘What about you?’ Lale asks.

‘Yeah, sure. I’m Joel too. I’ll ask around, see who I can get. Is there any chance we can have a practice before Sunday?’

‘Plays football and has a sense of humour – I like this guy. I’ll be back tomorrow night to see how you’ve done. Thanks, Big Joel.’ Lale looks over at the other Joel. ‘No offence.’

‘None taken,’ Little Joel replies.

Lale produces bread and sausage from his bag and lays it upon a nearby bunk. As he leaves he watches two of the men share out the food. Each recipient breaks their portion into bite-size pieces and hands them around. No pushing, no fighting, an orderly distribution of life-saving nourishment. He overhears one man say, ‘Here, Big Joel, you have mine – you’ll need your energy.’ Lale smiles. A day that started badly is ending with a magnanimous gesture from a starving man.

The day of the game arrives. Lale wanders into the main compound to see SS painting a white line into what is far from an oblong shape. He hears his name being called and finds his ‘team’ gathered together. He joins the men.

‘Hey, Lale, I’ve got fourteen players, counting you and me – a couple in reserve if some of us fall over,’ Big Joel tells him proudly.

‘Sorry, I was told no substitutes. Just one team. Choose the fittest.’

The men look at each other. Three hands rise, and those volunteering to take no part walk away. Lale watches as several of the men stretch and jump up and down in the manner of a professional warm-up.

‘Some of these guys look like they know what they are doing,’ Lale mutters to Little Joel.

‘They should. Six of them have played semi-professionally.’ ‘You’re kidding!’

‘Nope. We’re gonna kick their arses.’

‘Little Joel, you can’t. We can’t win. I guess I didn’t make myself clear.’ ‘You said get a team together and I did.’

‘Yeah, but we can’t win. We can’t do anything to humiliate them. We mustn’t tempt them to open fire on everyone. Look around you.’

Little Joel sees the hundreds of prisoners gathered. There is an air of excitement in the camp, as they push and shove for a vantage point around the perimeter of the painted playing area. He sighs. ‘I’ll tell the others.’



Lale scans the crowd for one face only. Gita stands with her friends and waves to him furtively. He waves back, wanting desperately to run to her, sweep her up in his arms and disappear behind the administration building. He hears loud banging and turns to see several SS pounding large poles into the ground at each end to make goalposts.

Baretski approaches him. ‘Come with me.’

At one end of the field, the crowd of prisoners parts as the SS team enters. None of them are in uniform. Several wear clothing that will make playing a game of football much easier. Shorts, singlets. Behind the team a heavily guarded Commandant Schwarzhuber and Lale’s boss, Houstek, approach Lale and Baretski.

‘This is the captain of the prisoner team, the Tätowierer.’ Baretski introduces Lale to Schwarzhuber.

‘Tätowierer.’ He turns to one of his guards. ‘Have we got something we can play for?’

A senior SS takes a cup from a soldier beside him and shows it to his commandant.

‘We have this. It will make a more than suitable trophy. The inscription says “1930 World Cup”. I believe the winners were France.’ He shows the trophy to Lale. ‘What do you think?’

Before Lale can respond, Schwarzhuber takes the trophy and holds it aloft for everyone to see. The SS cheer. ‘Start the game, and may the best team win.’

As Lale jogs back to his team he mutters, ‘May the best team live to see the sun come up tomorrow.’

Lale joins his team and they gather in the middle of the field. The

spectators cheer. The referee kicks the ball towards the SS team and it’s game on.

Ten minutes into the game, the prisoners have scored two goals to nil. While Lale enjoys the goals, common sense prevails when he looks at the angry faces of the SS. He subtly lets his players know to slow it down for the remainder of the half. They have had their moments of glory, and it is now time to let the SS into the game. The half ends two all. While the SS are given drinks during the short break, Lale and his team gather to discuss tactics. Eventually Lale impresses on them that they cannot win this game. It is agreed that to help boost morale for the watching prisoners two more goals can be scored, as long as they lose by one goal in the end.



As the second half begins, ash rains down on players and spectators. The crematoria are in action and this core task of Birkenau has not been interrupted by sport. Another goal goes in for the prisoners and another for the SS. As their appallingly inadequate diet begins to tell, the prisoners tire. The SS score two further goals. The prisoners don’t need to throw the game, they simply can’t compete any longer. With the SS two up, the referee blows his whistle for full time. Schwarzhuber makes his way onto the field and presents the trophy to the SS captain, who raises it aloft to muted cheers from the guards and officers present. As the SS make their way back to their barracks to celebrate, Houstek walks past Lale.

‘Well played, Tätowierer.’

Lale gathers his team and tells them what a great job they’ve done. The crowd has begun to disperse. He looks around to find Gita, who hasn’t moved from her spot. He jogs over to her and takes her by the hand. They move through the other prisoners towards the administration block. As Gita drops to the ground behind the building, Lale looks around for prying eyes. Satisfied, he sits beside her. He watches Gita as she runs her fingers through the grass, examining it intently.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Looking for four-leaf clover. You’d be surprised by how many there are here.’

Lale smiles, charmed. ‘You’re kidding.’

‘No, I’ve found several. Ivana finds them all the time. You look shocked.’ ‘I am. You’re the girl who doesn’t believe she’ll get out of here, yet you are

looking for good luck charms!’

‘They’re not for me. It’s true I don’t believe in such things.’ ‘For who then?’

‘Do you know how superstitious the SS are? If we find a four-leaf clover we treasure it. It’s like currency for us.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Whenever we are in danger from the SS we hand it over and sometimes it

stops them from hitting us. If we take one to a mealtime we might even get extra rations.’

Lale gently strokes her face. That he cannot protect the girl he loves anguishes him greatly. Gita leans back down and continues her search. Grabbing a handful of grass, she throws it at Lale with a smile. He grins back. Playfully he nudges her over and she lies on her back. Leaning over her he plucks a handful of grass and slowly lets it sprinkle down onto her face. She blows it away. Another handful of grass goes onto her neck and the top of her chest. She leaves it there. He undoes the top button on her shirt, drops more grass and watches it disappear down her cleavage.

‘May I kiss you?’ he asks.



‘Why would you want to? I haven’t brushed my teeth for I don’t know how long.’

‘Me neither, so I guess we cancel each other out.’

Gita answers him by raising her head towards his. Their previous fleeting kiss ignited a year’s worth of longing. Pent-up passions collide as they explore each other now. They want, they need, more of each other.

The moment is broken by the sound of a barking dog nearby. They know the animal must have a handler attached to it. Lale stands and pulls Gita up into his arms. One last kiss before they run back to the safety of the compound and a crowd they can melt into.

In the women’s camp, they spot Dana, Ivana and Cilka and begin walking towards them.

Lale notices Cilka’s pallor. ‘Is Cilka all right?’ Lale asks. ‘She doesn’t look well.’

‘She’s as well as can be expected. Under the circumstances.’ ‘Is she sick? Do you need medicine?’

‘No, she’s not sick. You’re better off not knowing.’

As they near the girls, Lale leans into Gita, whispering, ‘Tell me. Maybe I can help.’

‘Not this time, my love.’ Gita is encircled by the girls and they walk off.

Cilka, head down, lags behind.

My love!

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