Chapter no 13

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

That night Lale lies on his bed, the happiest he’s been for as long as he can remember.

In her own bed, Gita lies curled up next to a sleeping Dana, her eyes wide open, staring into the darkness, reliving the moments she lay with Lale: his kisses, the longing her body felt for him to continue, to go further. Her face grows hot as fantasies of their next encounter play out in her mind.

In a grand four-poster bed Schwarzhuber and Cilka lie in each other’s arms. His hands explore her body as she stares into nothing, feeling nothing. Numb.

In his private dining room at Auschwitz, Hoess sits at an elegant table for one. Fine food rests on fine china. He pours 1932 Château Latour into a crystal goblet. He swirls, sniffs, tastes the wine. He won’t let the stresses and strains of his job impede life’s little luxuries.

A drunken Baretski stumbles into his room in the barracks at Auschwitz. Kicking the door shut, he staggers and falls awkwardly onto his bed. With difficulty, he removes the belt holding his sidearm and slings it over the bedpost. Sprawled on his bed, he registers the overhead light – still on, shining into his eyes. After an unsuccessful attempt to get up, he locates his weapon with a clumsy arm and pulls it from its holster. With his second shot he kills the recalcitrant light bulb. His gun drops to the floor as he passes out.

The next morning, Lale winks at Gita as he collects his supplies and instructions from Bella in the administration office. His smile disappears when he notices Cilka sitting beside Gita, her head down, once again not acknowledging him. This has been going on far too long. He resolves to force Gita to tell him what is wrong with Cilka. Outside he is met by a very hungover, angry Baretski.

‘Hurry up. I’ve got a truck waiting to take us to Auschwitz.’



Lale follows him to the truck. Baretski climbs into the cab, shutting the door. Lale gets the message and scrambles into the back. There he endures the trip to Auschwitz, tossed from one side to the other.

When they arrive at Auschwitz, Baretski tells Lale that he is going to lie down and that Lale is to make his way to Block 10. Once he finds the block, Lale is directed around the back by the SS officer standing out front. Lale notices that it looks different to the blocks back at Birkenau.

The first thing he sees as he rounds the corner of the building is the wire fence that encloses part of the back yard. Slowly he registers small movements in the enclosed area. He stumbles forward, transfixed at what lies beyond the fence: girls, dozens of them, naked – many lying down, some sitting, some standing, hardly any of them moving. Paralysed, Lale watches as a guard comes into the enclosure and walks through the girls, picking up their left arms, looking for a number, one possibly made by Lale. Finding the girl he wants, the guard drags her through the bodies. Lale looks at the girls’ faces. Vacant. Silent. He notices several leaning against the wire fence. Unlike the other fences at Auschwitz and Birkenau, this one is not electrified. The option of self-destruction has been taken from them.

‘Who are you?’ a voice behind him demands.

Lale turns. An SS officer has come out from a back door. Slowly Lale holds up his bag.


‘So what are you standing out here for? Get inside.’

One or two of the doctors and nurses in white coats greet him cursorily as he walks through a large room towards a desk. The prisoners here don’t look like people. More like marionettes abandoned by their puppeteers. He approaches the nurse sitting behind the desk and holds up his bag.


She looks at him with disgust, sneers, stands and walks off. He follows her. She leads him down a long corridor and into a large room. About fifty young girls stand there in a line. Silent. The room smells sour. At the front of the line Mengele is examining one of the girls, roughly opening her mouth, grasping her hips, then her breasts, as tears fall silently down her face. Finishing his examination, he waves her off to the left. Rejected. Another girl is pushed into her vacated place.

The nurse walks Lale up to Mengele, who stops his examination.

‘You are late,’ he says with a smirk, clearly enjoying Lale’s discomfort. He indicates a small group of girls standing to his left.

‘Those I am keeping. Do their numbers.’ Lale moves off.

‘One day soon, Tätowierer, I will take you.’

Lale looks back and there it is. That tight pull of the lips that constitutes a sick smile. Once again a chill spreads throughout his body. His hands shake. Lale picks up his pace, hurrying to a small table where another nurse sits with identification cards at the ready. She makes room for him to set up. He tries to control the shaking in his hands as he lines up his tools and ink bottles. He looks over at Mengele, who has another frightened girl in front of him, and is running his hands over her hair and down her breasts.

‘Don’t be frightened, I’m not going to hurt you,’ Lale hears him tell her.



Lale watches the girl shiver in fear.

‘There, there. You’re safe, this is a hospital. We take care of people here.’

Mengele turns to a nearby nurse. ‘Get a blanket for this pretty young thing.’

Turning back to the girl, he says, ‘I’ll take good care of you.’

The girl is sent in Lale’s direction. Lale puts his head down and prepares to get into the rhythm of tattooing the numbers shown to him by the nurse assisting.

When his work is complete, Lale leaves the building and looks again into the fenced area. It is empty. He drops to his knees and dry retches. He has nothing to bring up; the only fluid in his body is tears.

That night, Gita returns to her block to learn that there are several new arrivals. The established residents eye the newcomers with resentment. They don’t want to have to talk about the horrors that lie in store, nor share their rations.

‘Gita. Is that you, Gita?’ a feeble voice calls out.

Gita approaches the group of women, many of whom seem older. Older women are rarely seen in Birkenau, which is home to the young who can work. A woman steps forward, her arms outstretched. ‘Gita, it is me, your neighbour Hilda Goldstein.’

Gita stares and suddenly recognises a neighbour from her hometown of Vranov nad Topl’ou, paler and thinner than when Gita saw her last.

Memories flood Gita, scents and textures and flashes of the past: a familiar doorway, the aroma of chicken soup, a cracked bar of soap by the kitchen sink, happy voices on warm summer nights, her mother’s arms.

‘Mrs Goldstein …’ Gita moves closer, clasps the woman’s hand. ‘They took you too.’

The woman nods. ‘They took us all away maybe a week ago. I got separated from the others and put on a train.’

A rush of hope. ‘My parents and sisters are with you?’

‘No, they took them several months ago. Your parents and your sisters. Your brothers have been gone for a long time – your mother said they joined the resistance.’

‘Do you know where they were taken?’



Mrs Goldstein drops her head. ‘I’m sorry. We were told they were … They were …’

Gita crumbles to the floor as Dana and Ivana rush to her, sit on the ground and embrace her. Above them Mrs Goldstein continues to speak: ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ Both Dana and Ivana are crying, holding the dry-eyed Gita. They

babble words of condolence at Gita. Gone. No memories come now. She feels a terrible emptiness inside her. She turns to her friends and asks in a halting, broken voice, ‘Do you think maybe it’s OK for me to cry? Just a little bit?’

‘Do you want us to pray with you?’ asks Dana.

‘No, just a few tears. That’s all I’ll let these murderers have from me.’

Ivana and Dana both wipe their own tears with the backs of their sleeves as silent tears begin to roll down Gita’s face. They take turns wiping them away. Finding a strength she didn’t know she possessed, Gita stands and embraces Mrs Goldstein. Around her she can feel the recognition of those witnessing her moment of grief. They look on in silence, each going into their own dark place of despair, not knowing what has become of their own families. Slowly, the two groups of women – the long-termers and the newcomers – join together.

After supper, Gita sits with Mrs Goldstein, who brings her up to date with events back home; how slowly, family by family, it was torn apart. Stories had filtered back about the concentration camps. No one quite knew that they had been turned into production lines of death. But they knew people were not coming back. And yet only a few had left their homes to seek a safe haven in a neighbouring country. It becomes obvious to Gita that Mrs Goldstein will not survive long if she is made to labour here. She is older than her years –physically and emotionally broken.

The next morning, Gita approaches their kapo to ask for a favour. She will ask Lale to try to get the kapo anything she wants if Mrs Goldstein can be spared hard work and spend the day in the block. She suggests that Mrs Goldstein empty the toilet buckets each night, a task usually given to a person chosen each day by the kapo, often someone she believes has spoken badly of her. The kapo’s price is a diamond ring. She’s heard the rumours of Lale’s treasure chest. The deal is struck.

For the next several weeks, Lale goes to Auschwitz every day. The five crematoria are working to full capacity, but large numbers of prisoners still have to be tattooed. He receives his instructions and supplies from the administration building at Auschwitz. He has no time and no need to go to the administration building at Birkenau, so he has no opportunity to see Gita. He wants to get a message to her that he is safe.

Baretski is in a good, even a playful mood – he has a secret and he wants Lale to guess what it might be. Lale plays Baretski’s juvenile game.

‘You’re letting us all go home?’

Baretski laughs and punches Lale on the arm. ‘You’ve been promoted?’

‘You’d better hope not, Tätowierer. Otherwise someone not as nice as me will end up minding you.’

‘OK, I give up.’

‘I’ll tell you then. You’re all going to be given extra rations and blankets next week for a few days. The Red Cross are coming to inspect your holiday camp.’

Lale thinks hard. What can this mean? Will the outside world finally see what is happening here? He works to keep his emotions in check in front of Baretski.

‘That will be nice. Do you think this camp will pass the humanitarian test of imprisonment?


Lale can see Baretski’s brain ticking over, almost hear the little clicks. He finds his lack of comprehension amusing, though he doesn’t dare smile.

‘You’ll be well fed for the days they are here – well, those of you we let them see.’

‘So it will be a controlled visit?’

‘Do you think we’re stupid?’ Baretski laughs. Lale lets that question pass.

‘Can I ask a favour?’

‘You can ask,’ says Baretski.

‘If I write a note to Gita telling her I’m OK and just busy at Auschwitz, will you get it to her?’

‘I’ll do better. I’ll tell her myself.’ ‘Thank you.’

Although Lale and a select group of prisoners do receive some extra rations for a few days, they soon dry up and Lale is unsure if the Red Cross ever did enter the camp. Baretski is more than capable of making up the whole idea. Lale has to trust that his message to Gita will be conveyed –though he doesn’t trust Baretski to do that straightforwardly either. He can only wait and hope that a Sunday when he doesn’t have to work will arrive soon.

Finally the day comes when Lale finishes work early. He races between the camps and gets to the Birkenau administration building just as the workers are leaving. Impatiently, he waits. Why does she have to be one of the last ones out today? At last she appears. Lale’s heart leaps. He wastes no time grabbing her by the arm and taking her to the back of the building. She trembles as he

pushes her up against the wall.



‘I thought you were dead. I thought I’d never see you again. I …’ she stammers.

He runs his hands along her face. ‘Did you not get my message from Baretski?’

‘No. I got no message from anyone.’

‘Shh, it’s OK,’ he says. ‘I’ve been at Auschwitz every day for weeks.’ ‘I was so frightened.’

‘I know. But I’m here now. And I have something to say to you.’ ‘What?’

‘First, let me kiss you.’

They kiss, clutching, pressing, passionately, before she pushes him away. ‘What do you want to say?’

‘My beautiful Gita. You’ve bewitched me. I’ve fallen in love with you.’ They feel like words he’s waited all his life to say.

‘Why? Why would you say that? Look at me. I’m ugly, I’m dirty. My hair … I used to have lovely hair.’

‘I love your hair the way it is now, and I will love it the way it will be in the future.’

‘But we have no future.’

Lale holds her firmly around her waist, forces her to meet his gaze.

‘Yes, we do. There will be a tomorrow for us. On the night I arrived here I made a vow to myself that I would survive this hell. We will survive and make a life where we are free to kiss when we want to, make love when we want to.’

Gita blushes and turns away. He gently moves her face back to him. ‘To make love wherever, whenever we want to. Do you hear me?’ Gita nods.

‘Do you believe me?’ ‘I want to, but –’



‘No buts. Just believe me. Now, you’d better get back to your block before your kapo starts wondering.’

As Lale begins to walk off, Gita pulls him back and kisses him hard. Breaking the kiss, he says, ‘Maybe I should stay away more often.’ ‘Don’t you dare,’ she says, hitting him on the chest.

That night Ivana and Dana pepper Gita with questions, relieved to see their friend smiling again.

‘Did you tell him about your family?’ says Dana. ‘No.’

‘Why not?’

‘I can’t. It’s too painful to talk about … and he was so happy to see me.’ ‘Gita, if he loves you as he says he does, he would want to know you have

lost your family. He would want to comfort you.’

‘You might be right, Dana, but if I tell him then we’ll both be sad, and I want our time together to be different. I want to forget where I am and what’s happened to my family. And when he holds me in his arms, I do forget, just for those few brief moments. Is it wrong of me to want to escape reality for a bit?’

‘No, not at all.’

‘I’m sorry that I have my escape, my Lale. You know I wish with all my heart the same for you two.’

‘We are very happy that you have him,’ says Ivana.

‘It is enough that one of us has a little happiness. We share in it, and you let us – that’s enough for us,’ says Dana.

‘Just don’t keep any secrets from us, all right?’ says Ivana. ‘No secrets,’ says Gita.

‘No secrets,’ agrees Dana.

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