Chapter no 18

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Spring has chased away the bitterest demons of winter. The warmer weather offers a ray of hope to everyone who has survived the elements along with their captors’ cruel whims. Even Baretski is behaving less callously.

‘I know you can get things, Tätowierer,’ he says, his voice lower than usual.

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ says Lale.

‘Things. You can get them. I know you have contacts from the outside.’ ‘What makes you say that?’

‘Look, I like you, OK? I haven’t shot you, have I?’ ‘You’ve shot plenty of others.’

‘But not you. We’re like brothers, you and I. Haven’t I told you my secrets?’

Lale chooses not to challenge the brotherhood claim. ‘You talk. I listen,’ says Lale.

‘Sometimes you have given me advice, and I have listened. I’ve even tried writing nice things to my girlfriend.’

‘I didn’t know that.’

‘Now you do,’ says Baretski, his expression earnest. ‘Now listen – there’s something I want you to try to get for me.’

Lale is nervous that someone might overhear this conversation. ‘I told you …’

‘It’s my girlfriend’s birthday soon and I want you to get me a pair of nylon stockings to send to her.’

Lale looks at Baretski in disbelief.

Baretski smiles at him. ‘Just get them for me and I won’t shoot you.’ He laughs.

‘I’ll see what I can do. It might take a few days.’ ‘Just don’t take too long.’



‘Anything else I can do for you?’ Lale asks.

‘No, you’ve got the day off. You can go and spend time with Gita.’

Lale cringes. It is bad enough that Baretski knows Lale spends time with her, but how he hates hearing the bastard say her name.

Before doing what Baretski has suggested, Lale goes looking for Victor. He eventually finds Yuri, who tells him Victor is sick and not at work today. Lale says he is sorry to hear that and walks off.

‘Can I do something for you?’ Yuri asks.

Lale turns back. ‘I don’t know. I have a special request.’

Yuri raises an eyebrow. ‘I might be able to help.’

‘Nylon stockings. You know, the things girls wear on their legs.’ ‘I’m not a kid, Lale. I know what nylons are.’

‘Could you get me a pair?’ Lale reveals two diamonds in his hand. Yuri takes them. ‘Give me two days. I think I can help you.’

‘Thanks, Yuri. Send my best to your father. I hope he’s feeling better soon.’

Lale is crossing the compound to the women’s camp when he hears the sound of an aircraft. He looks up as a small plane flies low over the compound and begins to circle back. So low that Lale can identify the symbol of the United States Air Force.

A prisoner shouts out, ‘It’s the Americans! The Americans are here!’

Everyone looks up. A few people start jumping up and down, waving their arms in the air. Lale looks over at the towers surrounding the compound and notices the guards on full alert, training their rifles down into the compound where the men and women are making a commotion. Some of them are simply waving to get the attention of the pilot, many others are pointing towards the crematoria and screaming, ‘Drop the bombs. Drop the bombs!’ Lale considers joining in as the plane flies over a second time and circles for a third pass. Several prisoners run towards the crematoria, pointing, desperate to get their message across. ‘Drop the bombs. Drop the bombs!’

On its third pass over Birkenau the plane gains height and flies off. The prisoners continue to shout. Many drop to their knees, devastated that their cries have been ignored. Lale begins to back up against a nearby building. Only just in time. Bullets rain down from the towers onto those in the compound, hitting dozens of people too slow to move to safety.



Faced with the trigger-happy guards, Lale decides against organising to see Gita. Instead, he goes back to his block, where he is greeted by wailing and crying. The women cradle young boys and girls who have suffered bullet wounds.

‘They saw the plane and joined the other prisoners running around in the compound,’ says one of the men.

‘What can I do to help?’

‘Take the other children inside. They don’t need to see this.’ ‘Sure.’

‘Thanks, Lale. I’ll send the old women in to help you. I don’t know what to do with the bodies. I can’t leave them here.’

‘The SS will be around to pick up the dead, I’m sure.’ It sounds so callous, matter of fact. Tears burn behind Lale’s eyes. He shuffles on the spot. ‘I’m so sorry.’

‘What are they going to do with us?’ the man says. ‘I don’t know what fate lies in store for any of us.’ ‘To die here?’

‘Not if I can help it, but I don’t know.’

Lale sets about gathering the young boys and girls to shepherd them indoors. Some cry, some are too shocked to cry. Several of the older women join him. They take the surviving children to the far end of the block and start telling them stories, but this time they don’t work. The children cannot be comforted. Most of them remain in a silent state of trauma.

Lale goes to his room and returns with chocolate, which he and Nadya break up and offer around. Some of the children take it, others look at it as if it too will harm them. There is nothing more he can do. Nadya takes him by the hand, raising him to his feet.

‘Thank you. You have done all you can.’ She brushes his cheek with the back of her hand. ‘Leave us now.’

‘I’ll go and help the men,’ Lale responds in a faltering voice.

He staggers off outside. There, he helps the men gather the small bodies into a pile for the SS to take away. He notices they are already picking up the bodies that lie in the compound. Several mothers refuse to hand over their precious children and it is heartbreaking to Lale, to see small lifeless forms being wrenched from their mothers’ arms.



Yisgadal veyiskadash shmei rabbah – May his name be magnified and made holy …’ Lale recites the Kaddish in a whisper. He doesn’t know how or with what words the Romani honour their dead, but feels a reflex to respond to these deaths in a way he has always known. He sits outside for a long time, looking skyward, wondering what the Americans had seen and thought. Several of the men join him in silence, a silence that is no longer quiet. A wall of grief surrounds them.

Lale thinks about the date, the fourth of April 1944. When he’d seen it on his work sheets that week, ‘April’ had jarred with him. April, what was it about April? Then he realised. In three weeks’ time, he will have been here for two years. Two years. How has he done it? How is he still breathing, when so many aren’t? He thinks back to the vow he made at the beginning. To survive and see those responsible pay. Maybe, just maybe, those in the plane had understood what was going on, and rescue was on the way. It would be too late for those who died today, but maybe their deaths would not be entirely in vain. Hold that thought. Use it to get out of bed tomorrow morning, and the next morning, and the next.

The twinkling of stars overhead is no longer a comfort. They merely remind him of the chasm between what life can be and what it is now. Of warm summer nights as a boy when he would sneak outside after everyone had gone to bed, to let the night breeze caress his face and lull him to sleep; of

the evenings he spent with young ladies, walking hand in hand in a park, by a lake, their way lit by thousands of stars above. He used always to feel comforted by the heavenly roof of the night sky. Somewhere my family will be looking at the same stars now and wondering where I am. I hope they can get more comfort from them than I can.

It was in early March 1942 that Lale said goodbye to his parents, brother and sister, in his hometown of Krompachy. He had given up his job and apartment in the city of Bratislava the previous October. He had made this decision after catching up with an old friend, a non-Jew who worked for the government. The friend had warned him that things were changing politically for all Jewish citizens and that Lale’s charm would not save him from what was coming. His friend offered him a job that he said would protect him from persecution. After meeting with his friend’s supervisor, he was offered a job as an assistant to the leader of the Slovakian National Party, which he took. Being part of the SNP was not about religion. It was about keeping the country in the hands of Slovakians. Dressed in a party uniform, which too closely resembled a military uniform, Lale spent several weeks travelling around the country, distributing newsletters, and speaking at rallies and gatherings. The party tried in particular to impress on the youth the need to stand together, to challenge the government, who were utterly failing to denounce Hitler and offer protection to all Slovaks.

Lale knew all Jews in Slovakia had been ordered to wear the yellow Star of David on their clothing when out in public. He had refused. Not out of fear. But because he saw himself as a Slovakian: proud, stubborn and even, he conceded, arrogant about his place in the world. His being Jewish was incidental and had never before interfered with what he did and who he befriended. If it came up in conversation, he acknowledged it and moved on. It was not a defining trait for him. It was a matter discussed more often in the bedroom than in a restaurant or club.



In February 1942, he was given advance warning that the German Foreign Ministry had requested that the Slovakian government begin transporting Jews out of the country as a source of labour. He requested leave to visit his family, which was granted, and was told he could return to his position in the party at any time – that his job there was secure.

He never considered himself naive. Like so many living in Europe at that time, he was worried about the rise of Hitler and the horrors that the Führer was inflicting on other small nations, but he couldn’t accept that the Nazis would invade Slovakia. They didn’t need to. The government was giving them what they wanted, when they wanted it, and posed no threat. Slovakia

just wanted to be left alone. At dinners and at gatherings with family and friends they sometimes discussed the reports of Jewish persecution in other countries, but they did not consider that, as a group, Slovakian Jews were particularly at risk.

And yet here he is now. Two years have passed. He lives in a community largely split into two – Jewish and Romani – identified by their race, not their nationality, and this is something Lale still cannot understand. Nations threaten other nations. They have the power, they have the military. How can a race spread out across multiple countries be considered a threat? For as long as he lives, be it short or long, he knows he will never comprehend this.

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