Chapter no 16

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

March 1944

The knock on his door wakes Lale from a deep sleep. He opens up gingerly, half expecting to see one of the Romani boys. But two young men stand in the doorway, glancing this way and that, clearly frightened.

‘What do you want?’ Lale asks.

‘Are you the Tätowierer?’ one of them asks in Polish. ‘Depends who’s asking.’

‘We need the Tätowierer. We were told he lived here,’ says the other boy. ‘Get in here before you wake the babies.’

Lale shuts the door behind the boys and indicates for them to sit on the bed. They are both tall and skinny, and one has a smattering of freckles.

‘I’ll ask again, what do you want?’

‘We have a friend –’ the freckled boy stammers. ‘Don’t we all?’ Lale interrupts.

‘Our friend is in trouble …’ ‘Aren’t we all?’

The two boys look at each other, trying to decide whether to continue. ‘I’m sorry. Go on.’

‘He got caught, and we’re scared they’re going to kill him.’ ‘Caught doing what?’

‘Well, he escaped last week and they caught him and brought him back here. What do you think they’re going to do to him?’

Lale is incredulous.

‘How the hell did he escape, and how was he then stupid enough to get caught?’

‘We’re not sure of the full story.’

‘Well, he’ll be hanged, probably first thing tomorrow morning. You know that’s the punishment for trying to escape, let alone actually succeeding.’

‘Can you do anything? People say you can help.’

‘I can help if you want some extra food, but that’s about it. Where is the boy right now?’

‘He’s outside.’ ‘Outside this building?’ ‘Yeah.’

‘For god’s sake, get him in here at once,’ Lale says, opening the door.



One of the boys hurries outside and soon returns with a young man, head bowed, shivering with fear. Lale points to the bed and he sits. His eyes are puffy.

‘Your friends tell me you escaped.’ ‘Yes, sir.’

‘How did you do that?’

‘Well, I was working outside and I asked the guard if I could take a crap. He told me to go into the trees because he didn’t want to smell it. Then when I went to return to my detail they were all walking off. I was worried if I ran after them I might get shot by one of the other guards, so I just walked back into the forest.’

‘And?’ asked Lale.

‘Well, I kept walking, didn’t I? Then I got caught when I went into a village to steal some food. I was starving. The soldiers saw my tattooed number and brought me back here.’

‘And now they’re going to hang you tomorrow morning, right?’

The boy’s head drops. Lale reflects that this is how he will look tomorrow when the life has been strangled from him.

‘Is there anything you can do to help us, Tätowierer?’

Lale paces his small room. He pulls up the boy’s sleeve and studies his number. One of mine. He returns to pacing. The boys sit silently.

‘Stay here,’ he says firmly, grabs his bag and hurries from the room.

Searchlights scan the compound outside, as do violent eyes looking for someone to kill. Hugging buildings, Lale makes his way to the administration block and enters the main office. He is instantly relieved to see Bella behind the desk. She looks up at him.

‘Lale, what are you doing here? I have no work for you.’ ‘Hi, Bella. Can I ask you something?’

‘Sure, anything. You know that, Lale.’

‘When I was here earlier today, did I hear talk of a transport going out tonight?’

‘Yes, there’s one leaving for another camp at midnight.’ ‘How many on it?’

Bella picks up a running sheet nearby. ‘One hundred names. Why?’ ‘Names, not numbers?’

‘No, they’re not numbered. They only arrived earlier today and are being sent to a boys’ camp. No one is numbered there.’

‘Can we squeeze one more onto that list?’ ‘I guess so. Who? You?’

‘No, you know I’m not leaving here without Gita. It’s someone else – the less you know the better.’

‘All right, I’ll do that for you. What’s his name?’ ‘Shit,’ Lale says. ‘I’ll be right back.’

Furious with himself, Lale makes haste back to his room. ‘Your name –what’s your name?’

‘Mendel.’ ‘Mendel what?’

‘Sorry, Mendel Bauer.’

Back at the office, Bella adds to the bottom of the typed list.

‘Won’t the guards question a name not typed like the others?’ Lale asks. ‘No, they’re too lazy to question that. It would create too much trouble for

them to get involved. Just tell whoever it is to be in the compound when he sees the truck loading up.’

From his bag, Lale takes a ring encrusted with rubies and diamonds and hands it to Bella. ‘Thank you. This is for you. You can either keep it or sell it. I’ll make sure he is at the transport.’



Back in his room, Lale sweeps Mendel’s two friends off the bed, takes out his bag and sits down beside him.

‘Give me your arm.’

As the boys look on, Lale sets about changing the number into a snake.

The job isn’t perfect, but good enough to conceal the numbers. ‘Why are you doing this?’ one of the boys asks.

‘Where Mendel is going, no one is numbered. It wouldn’t take long for his number to be seen and then he would be right back here, to keep his appointment with the hangman.’

He finishes the job and turns to the two boys looking on.

‘You two get back to your block now, and go carefully. I’m only good for one rescue per night,’ he says. ‘Your friend won’t be here tomorrow. He’s going out on a transport at midnight. I don’t know where he’s going, but wherever it is he will have at least a chance of staying alive. Do you understand?’

The three boys hug and make promises to catch up on the other side of this nightmare. When the friends have gone, Lale sits back down beside Mendel.

‘You’ll stay here until it’s time to go. I’ll take you to the transport and then you’re on your own.’

‘I don’t know how to thank you.’

‘If you manage to escape again, don’t get caught. That will be thanks enough for me.’

A short while later Lale hears the telltale sounds of movement in the compound.

‘Come on, time to go.’

Sneaking out, they edge along the walls of the building until they can see two trucks loading men.

‘Move quickly and try to get in the middle of one of the lines. Push your way in and give them your name when asked.’

Mendel hurries off and manages to get in a line. He wraps his arms around himself to ward off the cold, and to protect the snake he now bears. Lale watches as the guard finds his name and ushers him on board. As the engine starts up and the truck moves off, Lale slinks back to his room.

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