Chapter no 14

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The next morning, Lale appears in the administration office and approaches Bella at the main desk.

‘Lale, where have you been?’ Bella says with a warm smile. ‘We thought something had happened to you.’


‘Ah, say no more. You must be low on supplies – wait here and I’ll stock you up.’

‘Not too much, Bella.’

Bella looks over at Gita. ‘Of course. We need to make sure you come back tomorrow.’

‘You know me too well, young Bella. Thank you.’

Bella wanders off to get his supplies and Lale leans on the desk and stares at Gita. He knows she has seen him come in but is playing coy and keeping her head down. She runs a finger over her lips. Lale aches with desire.

He also notices that the chair next to her, Cilka’s, is empty. Again he tells himself to find out what is happening with her.



He leaves the office and heads over to the selection area, having already noted that a truck has arrived with new prisoners. As he is setting up his table, Baretski appears.

‘I’ve got someone here to see you, Tätowierer.’

Before Lale can look up, he hears a familiar voice, no more than a whisper. ‘Hello, Lale.’

Leon stands beside Baretski – pale, thinner, stooped over, carefully placing one foot in front of the other.

‘I’ll leave you two to get reacquainted.’ A smiling Baretski walks off. ‘Leon, oh my god, you’re alive.’ Lale rushes to embrace him. He can feel

every bone through his friend’s shirt. He holds him at arm’s length, examining him.

‘Mengele. Was it Mengele?’ Leon can only nod. Lale gently runs his hands down Leon’s skinny arms, touches his face.

‘The bastard. One day he’ll get his. As soon as I’ve finished here I can get you plenty of food. Chocolate, sausage, what do you want? I’ll fatten you up.’

Leon smiles weakly at him. ‘Thanks, Lale.’

‘I knew the bastard was starving prisoners. I thought he was only doing it to girls.’

‘If only that was all it was.’ ‘What do you mean?’

Now Leon stares directly into Lale’s eyes. ‘He cut my fucking balls off, Lale,’ he says, his voice strong and steady. ‘Somehow you lose your appetite when they cut your balls off.’

Lale reels back in horror, and turns away, not wanting Leon to see his shock. Leon fights back a sob and struggles to find his voice as he searches the ground for something to focus on.

‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said it like that. Thank you for your offer. I am grateful to you.’

Lale breathes deeply, trying to control his anger. He badly wants to lash out, to take revenge on the crime committed against his friend.

Leon clears his throat. ‘Any chance I can have my job back?’

Lale’s face floods with warmth. ‘Of course. Glad to have you back – but only when you’ve regained your strength,’ he says. ‘Why don’t you go back to my room? If any of the Gypsies stop you, tell them you’re my friend and I’ve sent you there. You’ll find supplies under my bed. I’ll see you when I’m done here.’

A senior SS officer approaches. ‘Go now, hurry.’

‘Hurrying is not something I can do right now.’ ‘I’m sorry.’

‘It’s OK. I’m gone. See you later.’



The officer watches Leon walk off and turns back to what he was doing previously: determining who should live and die.

The next day, Lale reports to the administration office to be told that he has the day off. No transports are arriving at either Auschwitz or Birkenau and there is no request from Herr Doktor to assist him. He spends the morning with Leon. He’d bribed his old kapo in Block 7 to take Leon in, on the understanding he will work for him when he has regained his strength. He gives him food that he had been planning to give to his Romani friends and to Gita for distribution.

As Lale is leaving Leon, Baretski calls out to him. ‘Tätowierer, where have you been? I have been looking for you.’

‘I was told I had the day off.’

‘Well, you don’t anymore. Come, we have a job.’ ‘I have to get my bag.’

‘You don’t need your tools for this job. Come.’

Lale hurries after Baretski. They are heading towards one of the crematoria.

He catches up with him. ‘Where are we going?’

‘Are you worried?’ Baretski laughs. ‘Wouldn’t you be?’


Lale’s chest tightens; his breath comes too short. Should he run? If he does, Baretski will surely turn his weapon on him. But then, what would it matter? A bullet is surely preferable to the ovens.

They are very close to Crematorium Three before Baretski decides to put Lale out of his misery. He slows his long strides.

‘Don’t worry. Now come on before we both get into trouble and end up in the ovens.’

‘You’re not getting rid of me?’



‘Not just yet. There are two prisoners in here who appear to have the same number. We need you to look at them. It must have been you or that eunuch who made the marks. You have to tell us which one is which.’

The red brick building looms in front of them; large windows disguise the purpose, but the size of the chimneys confirms its horrifying true nature. They are met at the entrance by two SS, who joke with Baretski and ignore Lale. They point to closed doors inside the building and Baretski and Lale walk towards them. Lale looks around at this final stretch of the road to death at Birkenau. He sees the Sonderkommandos standing by, defeated, ready to do a job no one on earth would volunteer for: removing corpses from the gas chambers and putting them into the ovens. He tries to make eye contact with them, to let them know he too works for the enemy. He too has chosen to stay alive for as long as he can, by performing an act of defilement on people of his own faith. None of them meets his eye. He has heard what other prisoners say about these men and the privileged position they occupy – housed separately, receiving extra rations, having warm clothing and blankets to sleep under. Their lives parallel his and he feels a sinking in his gut at the thought that he too is despised for the role he plays at the camp. Unable to express in any way his solidarity with these men, he walks on.

They are led to a large steel door. In front of it stands a guard.

‘It’s all right, all the gas has gone. We need to send them to the ovens, but can’t until you identify the correct numbers.’

The guard opens the door for Lale and Baretski. Pulling himself up to his full height, Lale looks Baretski in the eye and sweeps his hand from left to right.

‘After you.’

Baretski bursts out laughing and slaps Lale on the back, ‘No, after you.’ ‘No, after you,’ Lale repeats.

‘I insist, Tätowierer.’



The SS officer opens the doors wide and they step into a cavernous room. Bodies, hundreds of naked bodies, fill the room. They are piled up on each

other, their limbs distorted. Dead eyes stare. Men, young and old; children at the bottom. Blood, vomit, urine and faeces. The smell of death pervades the entire space. Lale tries to holds his breath. His lungs burn. His legs threaten to give way beneath him. Behind him Baretski says, ‘Shit.’

That one word from a sadist only deepens the well of inhumanity that Lale is drowning in.

‘Over here,’ an officer indicates, and they follow him to a side of the room where two male bodies are laid out together. The officer starts talking to Baretski. For once words fail him, and he indicates that Lale can understand German.

‘They both have the same number. How could that be?’ he asks.

Lale can only shake his head and shrug his shoulders. How the hell should I know?

‘Look at them. Which one is correct?’ the officer snaps.

Lale leans down and takes hold of one of the arms. He is grateful for a reason to kneel and hopes it will stabilise him. He looks closely at the numbers tattooed on the arm he holds.

‘The other?’ he asks.

Roughly, the other man’s arm is thrust at him. He looks closely at both numbers.

‘See here. This is not a three, it’s an eight. Part of it is faded, but it’s an eight.’

The guard scribbles on each cold arm the correct numbers. Without asking for permission, Lale gets up and leaves the building. Baretski catches up with him outside, where he is doubled over and breathing deeply.

Baretski waits a moment or two. ‘Are you all right?’



‘No, I’m not fucking all right. You bastards. How many more of us must you kill?’

‘You’re upset. I can see that.’

Baretski is just a kid, an uneducated kidBut Lale can’t help wondering how he can feel nothing for the people they have just seen, the agony of death inscribed on their faces and twisted bodies.

‘Come on, let’s go,’ says Baretski.

Lale pulls himself up to walk beside him, though he cannot look at him. ‘You know something, Tätowierer? I bet you’re the only Jew who ever

walked into an oven and then walked back out of it.’

He laughs loudly, slaps Lale on the back and strides off ahead.

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