Chapter no 19

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

‘Have you lost your faith?’ Gita asks, as she leans back into Lale’s chest at their place behind the administration building. She has chosen this moment to ask the question as she wants to hear his response, not see it.

‘Why do you ask?’ he says, stroking the back of her head. ‘Because I think you have,’ she says, ‘and that saddens me.’ ‘Then clearly you haven’t?’

‘I asked first.’

‘Yes, I think I have.’ ‘When?’

‘The first night I arrived here. I told you what happened, what I saw. How any merciful god could let that happen, I don’t know. And nothing has happened since that night to change my mind. Quite the opposite.’

‘You have to believe in something.’

‘I do. I believe in you and me and getting out of here, and making a life together where we can –’

‘I know, whenever and wherever we want.’ She sighs. ‘Oh, Lale, if only.’ Lale turns her around to face him.

‘I will not be defined by being a Jew,’ he says. ‘I won’t deny it, but I am a man first, a man in love with you.’

‘And if I want to keep my faith? If it is still important to me?’ ‘I have no say in that.’

‘Yes, you do.’

They fall into an uneasy silence. He watches her, her eyes downcast.

‘I have no problem with you keeping your faith,’ says Lale gently. ‘In fact, I will encourage your faith if it means a lot to you and keeps you by my side. When we leave here, I will encourage you to practise your faith, and when our babies come along, they can follow their mother’s faith. Does that satisfy you?’

‘Babies? I don’t know if I will be able to have children. I think I’m screwed up inside.’

‘Once we leave here and I can fatten you up a little, we will have babies, and they will be beautiful babies; they will take after their mother.’

‘Thank you, my love. You make me want to believe in a future.’

‘Good. Does that mean you will tell me your surname and where you come from?’

‘Not yet. I told you, on the day we leave this place. Please don’t ask me again.’

After parting from Gita, Lale seeks out Leon and a few others from Block 7. It’s a beautiful summer’s day and he intends to enjoy the sun and his friends while he can. They sit against the wall of one of the blocks. Their conversation is simple. At the sound of the siren, Lale says his goodbyes and makes his way back to his block. As he nears the building he senses something is wrong. The Romani children stand around, not running to meet him, but stepping aside as he walks by. He greets them, but they don’t respond. He understands why immediately when he opens the door to his room. Displayed on his bed are the gems and currency from under his mattress. Two SS officers are waiting.



‘Care to explain this, Tätowierer?’ Lale can find no words.

One of the officers snatches Lale’s bag from his hands and empties his tools and ink bottles onto the floor. Then they put the bounty into the bag. With pistols drawn they face Lale squarely and motion for him to move. The children stand aside as Lale is marched out of the Gypsy camp for what he believes will be the last time.

Lale stands in front of Houstek, the contents of his bag spread out over the Oberscharführer’s desk.

Houstek picks up and examines each precious stone and piece of jewellery, one at a time. ‘Where did you get all this?’ he asks, not looking up.

‘Prisoners gave it to me.’ ‘Which prisoners?’

‘I do not know their names.’

Houstek looks up at Lale, sharp. ‘You don’t know who gave you all this?’ ‘No, I do not.’

‘I’m meant to believe that?’

‘Yes, sir. They bring it to me, but I do not ask them their names.’ Houstek slams his fist on the desk, causing the gems to jangle.

‘This makes me very angry, Tätowierer. You are good at your job. Now I will have to find someone else to do it.’ He turns to the escorting officers. ‘Take him to Block 11. He’ll soon remember the names there.’

Lale is marched out and placed in a truck. Two SS officers sit either side of him, each ramming a pistol into his ribs. During the four-kilometre drive Lale silently says goodbye to Gita and the future they were just imagining. Closing his eyes, he mentally says the names of each of his family members. He cannot picture his siblings as clearly as he used to. His mother he can see

perfectly. But how do you say goodbye to your mother? The person who gave you breath, who taught you how to live? He cannot say goodbye to her. He gasps as his father’s image comes before him, causing one of the officers to push his pistol harder into his ribs. The last time he saw his father he was crying. He doesn’t want this to be how he remembers him, so he searches for another image and comes up with his father working with his beloved horses. He always spoke so warmly to them in contrast to the way he expressed himself to his children. Lale’s brother Max, older and wiser. He tells him he hopes he hasn’t let him down, that he has tried to act as Max would have in his place. When he thinks of his little sister, Goldie, the pain is too much.

The truck comes to a sudden halt, throwing Lale against the officer next to him.



He is placed in a small room in Block 11. The reputation of Blocks 10 and 11 are well known. They are the punishment blocks. Behind these secluded torture houses stands the Black Wall, the execution wall. Lale expects that he will be taken there after being tortured.

For two days he sits in the cell, the only light coming in through a crack under the door. While he listens to the cries and screams of others, he relives every moment he has spent with Gita.

On the third day, he is blinded by sunlight spilling into the room. A large man blocks the doorway and hands him a bowl of liquid. Lale takes it, and as his eyes adjust, he recognises the man.

‘Jakub, is that you?’

Jakub enters the room, the low ceiling forcing him to stoop. ‘Tätowierer. What are you doing here?’ Jakub is visibly shocked.

Lale struggles to his feet, his hand outstretched. ‘I often wondered what had happened to you,’ he says.

‘As you predicted, they found work for me.’ ‘So you’re a guard?’

‘Not just a guard, my friend.’ Jakub’s voice is grim. ‘Sit and eat and I will tell you what I do here and what will happen to you.’

Apprehensively, Lale sits and looks at the food Jakub has given him. A thin, dirty broth containing a single piece of potato. Starving a few moments ago, he finds his appetite has now left him.

‘I have never forgotten your kindness,’ Jakub says. ‘I was sure I would die of starvation the night I arrived here, and there you were to feed me.’

‘Well, you need more food than most.’

‘I’ve heard stories of you smuggling food. Are they true?’

‘That’s why I’m in here. The prisoners working in the Canada smuggle me money and gems and I use them to buy food and medicine from the villagers, which I distribute. I guess someone missed out and told on me.’

‘You don’t know who?’



‘Do you?’

‘No, it’s not my job to know. My job is to get names from you – names of prisoners who might be planning to escape or resist, and of course the names of the prisoners who get the money and jewels to you.’

Lale looks away. The enormity of what Jakub is saying begins to register. ‘Like you, Tätowierer, I do what I have to do, to survive.’

Lale nods.

‘I am to beat you until you give me names. I am a killer, Lale.’ Lale shakes his hanging head, mutters every swear word he knows. ‘I have no choice.’

Mixed emotions race through Lale. Names of dead prisoners flit through his mind. Could he give Jakub those names? No. They’ll find out eventually, and then I’ll be back here again.

‘The thing is,’ Jakub says, ‘I can’t let you give me any names.’ Lale stares, confused.

‘You were kind to me and I will make the beating look worse than it is, but I will kill you before I let you tell me a name. I want as little innocent blood on my hands as possible,’ Jakub explains.

‘Oh, Jakub. I never imagined this would be the work they found for you.

I’m so sorry.’

‘If I must kill one Jew to save ten others, then I will.’

Lale reaches his hand up to the large man’s shoulder. ‘Do what you have to.’

‘Speak only in Yiddish,’ says Jakub, turning away. ‘I don’t think the SS here know you or that you speak German.’

‘OK, Yiddish it is.’

‘I’ll be here again later.’



Back in darkness, Lale ponders his fate. He resolves to speak no names. It is now a matter of who kills him: a bored SS officer whose supper is getting cold, or Jakub, carrying out a just killing to save others. A sense of calm comes over him as he resigns himself to death.

Will someone tell Gita what happened to him, he wonders, or will she spend the rest of her life never knowing?

Lale falls into a deep, exhausted sleep.

‘Where is he?’ his father roars, storming into the house.

Once again Lale has not turned up to work. His father is late home for supper because he had to do Lale’s work for him. Lale runs and tries to hide behind his mother, pulling her away from the bench where she stands, putting a barrier between himself and his father. She reaches back and grabs hold of

whatever part of Lale or his clothing she can, protecting him from what would otherwise be a cuff over the head at the least. His father doesn’t force her away or make any further attempt to reach Lale.

‘I’ll deal with him,’ his mother says. ‘After dinner I’ll punish him. Now sit down.’

Lale’s brother and sister roll their eyes. They’ve seen and heard it all before.

Later that evening, Lale promises his mother he will try to be more helpful to his father. But it is so hard to help his father out. Lale fears he will end up like him, old before his time, too tired to pay his wife a simple compliment about her looks or the food she spends all day preparing for him. That is not who Lale wants to be.

‘I’m your favourite, aren’t I, Mumma?’ Lale would ask. If the two of them were alone in the house, his mother would hug him tightly. ‘Yes, my darling, you are.’ If his brother or sister were present, ‘You are all my favourites.’ Lale never heard his brother or sister ask this question, but they might have in his absence. When he was a young boy, he would often announce to his family that he was going to marry his mother when he grew up. His father would pretend not to hear. His siblings would goad Lale into a fight, pointing out that their mother was already married. After breaking up their fights his mother would take him aside and explain to him that he would find someone else one day to love and care for. He never wanted to believe her.

As he became a young man he would run home to his mother each day for the hugged greeting, the feel of her comforting body, her soft skin, the kisses she planted on his forehead.

‘What can I do to help you?’ he would say.

‘You’re such a good boy. You will make someone a wonderful husband one day.’

‘Tell me what to do to be a good husband. I don’t want to be like Papa. He doesn’t make you smile. He doesn’t help you.’

‘Your papa works very hard to earn money for us to live.’

‘I know, but can’t he do both? Earn money and make you smile?’ ‘You have a lot to learn before you grow up, young man.’

‘Then teach me. I want the girl I marry to like me, to be happy with me.’



Lale’s mother sat down, and he took a seat across from her. ‘You must first learn to listen to her. Even if you are tired, never be too tired to listen to what she has to say. Learn what she likes, and more importantly what she doesn’t like. When you can, give her little treats – flowers, chocolates – women like these things.’

‘When was the last time Papa brought you a treat?’

‘It doesn’t matter. You want to know what girls want, not what I get.’ ‘When I’ve got money, I’ll bring you flowers and chocolates, I promise.’

‘You should save your money for the girl who captures your heart.’ ‘How will I know who she is?’

‘Oh, you’ll know.’

She drew him into her arms and stroked his hair: her boy, her young man.

Her image dissolves – tears, the picture blurs, he blinks – and he imagines Gita in his arms, him stroking her hair.

‘You were right, Mumma. I do know.’

Jakub comes for him. He drags him down a corridor to a small windowless room. A single light bulb hangs from the ceiling. Handcuffs dangle from a chain on the back wall. There is a birch rod lying on the floor. Two SS officers talk together, seemingly oblivious to Lale’s presence. He shuffles backwards, not raising his eyes above the floor. Without warning, Jakub swings a punch into Lale’s face, sending him stumbling back against the wall. The officers now pay attention. Lale attempts to stand. Jakub winds his right foot slowly back. Lale anticipates the coming kick. He backs away just as Jakub’s foot connects with his ribs, then exaggerates the impact by rolling and heaving and clutching his chest. As he slowly rises Jakub punches him in the face again. He takes the full force this time, though Jakub had telegraphed his intention to hit him. Blood runs freely from his smashed nose. Jakub pulls Lale roughly to his feet and handcuffs him to the dangling chain.

Jakub picks up the birch, tears the shirt from Lale’s back, and lashes him five times. Then he pulls Lale’s trousers and underpants down and whips him across the buttocks five more times. Lale’s yelps are not feigned. Jakub jerks Lale’s head back.

‘Give us the names of the prisoners who steal for you!’ Jakub says, firm and menacing.

The officers look on, standing casually.

Lale shakes his head, whimpering, ‘I don’t know.’ Jakub strikes Lale ten more times. Blood runs down his legs. The two officers begin to pay more attention and step closer. Jakub jerks Lale’s head back and snarls at him, ‘Talk!’ He whispers in his ear, ‘Say you don’t know and then faint.’ And then louder, ‘Give us the names!’

‘I never ask! I don’t know. You have to believe me …’

Jakub punches Lale in the stomach. He buckles at the knees, rolls his eyes back and pretends to pass out. Jakub turns to the SS officers.

‘He is a weak Jew. If he knew the names, he would’ve told us by now.’ He

kicks Lale’s legs as he dangles from the chains.

The officers nod and walk from the room.

The door closes and Jakub quickly releases Lale, laying him gently on the floor. With a cloth hidden in his shirt he wipes the blood from Lale’s body and gently pulls up his pants for him.

‘I’m so sorry, Lale.’

He helps him to his feet, carries him back to his room and lays him on his stomach.

‘You did good. You’ll need to sleep like this for a while. I’ll come back later with some water and a clean shirt. Get some rest now.’

Over the next few days Jakub visits Lale each day with food and water and the occasional change of shirt. He reports to Lale the extent of his injuries and that they are healing. Lale knows he will be marked for life. Perhaps the Tätowierer deserves that.

‘How many times did you strike me?’ Lale asks. ‘I don’t know.’



‘Yes, you do.’

‘It’s over, Lale, and you’re healing. Leave it alone.’

‘Did you break my nose? I’m having trouble breathing through it.’ ‘Probably, but not too bad. The swelling’s gone down and it’s hardly out of

shape. You’re still handsome. You’ll still have the girls chasing you.’ ‘I don’t want girls chasing me.’

‘Why not?’

‘I’ve found the one I want.’

The next day the door opens and Lale looks up to greet Jakub but instead there are two SS officers. They indicate for Lale to get to his feet and come with them. Lale stays sitting as he tries to compose himself. Can this be the end? Am I for the Black Wall? He silently says his goodbyes to his family and, lastly, to Gita. The SS become impatient, step into his room and point their rifles at him. He follows them outside on trembling legs. Feeling the sun on his face for the first time in more than a week he staggers along, between the two officers. Looking up, preparing to meet his fate, he sees several other prisoners being bundled into a nearby truck. Maybe this isn’t the end. His legs give out and the officers drag him the remaining short distance. They throw him on and he doesn’t look back. He clings to the side of the truck all the way to Birkenau.

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