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Chapter no 17

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The months that follow are particularly harsh. Prisoners die in all manner of ways. Many are taken by disease, malnutrition and exposure to the cold. A few make it to an electrified fence, killing themselves. Others are shot by a tower guard before they can. The gas chambers and crematoria are also working overtime, and Lale and Leon’s tattooing stations teem with people as tens of thousands are transported to Auschwitz and Birkenau.

Lale and Gita see each other on Sundays when possible. On those days they mingle among other bodies, sneaking touches. Occasionally they can steal time together alone in Gita’s block. This keeps them committed to staying alive and, in Lale’s case, planning a shared future. Gita’s kapo is getting fat from the food Lale brings her. On occasion, when Lale is prevented from seeing Gita for an extended period, she asks outright, ‘When’s your boyfriend coming next?’

 

 

On one Sunday, Gita finally, after repeated requests, tells Lale what is going on with Cilka. ‘Cilka is the plaything of Schwarzhuber.’

‘Oh God. For how long has it been going on?’ ‘I don’t know exactly. A year, maybe more.’

‘He’s nothing more than a drunken, sadistic bastard,’ Lale says, clenching his fists. ‘I can only imagine how he treats her.’

‘Don’t say that! I don’t want to think about it.’ ‘What does she tell you about their time together?’

‘Nothing. We don’t ask. I don’t know how to help her.’

‘He’ll kill her himself if she rejects him in any way. I suspect Cilka’s already worked that out, otherwise she would have been dead long ago. Getting pregnant is the biggest worry.’

‘It’s all right, no one is going to get pregnant. You have to be, you know, having your monthly cycle for that to happen. Didn’t you know that?’

An embarrassed Lale says, ‘Well, yes, I knew that. It’s just that, it’s not something we’ve talked about. I guess I didn’t think.’

‘Neither you nor that sadistic bastard need to worry about Cilka or me having a baby. OK?’

‘Don’t compare me to him. Tell her I think she’s a hero and I’m proud to say I know her.’

‘What do you mean, hero? She’s not a hero,’ Gita says, with some annoyance. ‘She just wants to live.’

‘And that makes her a hero. You’re a hero too, my darling. That the two of you have chosen to survive is a type of resistance to these Nazi bastards.

Choosing to live is an act of defiance, a form of heroism.’ ‘In that case, what does it make you?’

‘I have been given the choice of participating in the destruction of our people, and I have chosen to do so in order to survive. I can only hope I am not one day judged as a perpetrator or a collaborator.’

Gita leans over and kisses him. ‘You are a hero to me.’

Time has run on and they are startled when other girls start returning to the block. They are fully clothed and so Lale’s exit is not as embarrassing as it might otherwise have been.

‘Hello. Hi. Dana, lovely to see you. Girls. Ladies,’ he says as he leaves.

The kapo, in her normal position at the entrance to the building, shakes her head at Lale.

‘You need to be out of here when the others return. OK, Tätowierer?’ ‘Sorry, won’t happen again.’

Lale moves around the compound with half a spring in his step. He is surprised when he hears his name and looks around to see who is calling him. It is Victor. He and the other Polish workers are heading out of the camp. Victor summons him over.

‘Hi Victor. Yuri. How are you doing?’

 

 

‘Not as good as you by the look of it. What’s going on?’ Lale waves his hand. ‘Nothing, nothing.’

‘We have supplies for you and thought we wouldn’t be able to hand them over. Have you got room in your bag?’

‘Absolutely. Sorry, I should’ve come and seen you sooner, but I, er, was busy.’

Lale opens his bag and both Victor and Yuri fill it. There is too much to fit

in.

‘Do you want me to bring the rest back tomorrow?’ Victor asks. ‘No, I’ll take it, thanks. I’ll see you tomorrow with payment.’

There is one girl, besides Cilka, among the tens of thousands in Birkenau,

whom the SS have let keep her hair long. She is about Gita’s age. Lale has never spoken to her but he has seen her from time to time. She stands out, with her flowing blonde mane. Everybody else tries as best they can to hide their cropped heads beneath a scarf, often torn from their shirt. Lale had asked Baretski one day what the deal was with her. How is she permitted to keep her hair long?

‘On the day she came into the camp,’ Baretski answered, ‘Commandant Hoess was at the selections. He saw her, thought her quite beautiful and said her hair was not to be touched.’

Lale has often been astounded by the things he sees in both camps, but for Hoess to think only one girl is beautiful, out of the hundreds of thousands who have come through, truly confounds him.

As Lale hurries back to his room with a sausage shoved down his pants, he turns a corner and there she is, the only ‘beautiful’ girl in the camp, staring at him. He makes it back to his room in record time.

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