Chapter no 2

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

‘Outside. Everyone outside!’

Whistles blow and dogs bark. Sunlight from a clear morning streams through the door into Block 7. The men disentangle themselves from each other, climb down from their bunks and shuffle outside. They stand around just outside the building. No one is prepared to move too far away. They wait. And wait. Those who were shouting and blowing whistles have disappeared. The men shuffle their feet back and forth, whisper to the person nearest them. Looking over at other blocks, they see the same scene being played out. What now? Wait.

Eventually, an SS officer and a prisoner approach Block 7, which falls silent. No introductions are made. The prisoner calls out numbers from a clipboard. The SS officer stands alongside, tapping his foot impatiently, slapping his thigh with his swagger stick. It takes a moment for the prisoners to realise that the numbers relate to the tattoos they each bear on their left arm. When the rollcall is over, two numbers have received no response.

‘You –’ the roll caller points to a man on the end of the row – ‘go back inside and see if anyone is still there.’

The man looks at him with questioning eyes. He hasn’t understood a word. The man beside him whispers the instruction and he hurries inside. A few moments later he returns, holds up his right hand and extends his index and middle finger: two dead.

The SS officer steps forward. He speaks in German. The prisoners have learned, already, to keep their mouths shut and stand obediently waiting, hoping some among them will be able to translate. Lale gets it all.

‘You will have two meals a day. One in the morning and one in the evening. If you survive until evening.’ He pauses, a grim smile on his face. ‘After your morning meal you will work until we tell you to stop. You will continue with the construction of this camp. We have many more people to transport here.’ His smile becomes a proud grin. ‘Follow the instructions of your kapo and those in charge of the building programme and you will see the sun go down.’

There is a sound of clanging metal and the prisoners turn to see a group of men approaching, carrying two cauldrons and armfuls of small metal tins. Breakfast. A few prisoners start to head towards the smaller group, as though to offer assistance.

‘If anyone moves they will be shot,’ barks the SS officer, raising his rifle. ‘There will be no second chances.’

The officer leaves and the prisoner who conducted the rollcall addresses the group. ‘You heard him,’ says the man, in Polish-accented German. ‘I am your kapo, your boss. You will form two lines to get your food. Anyone complaining will suffer consequences.’

The men jockey into line and several start whispering among themselves, asking if anyone has understood what ‘the German’ said. Lale tells those nearest to him and asks them to pass it along. He will translate as much as he can.

As he reaches the front of the line he gratefully accepts a small tin cup, its contents slopping over the rough hands that thrust it at him. He steps aside and examines his meal. It is brown, contains nothing solid and has a smell he cannot identify. It is neither tea, coffee, nor soup. He fears he will bring the foul liquid back up if he drinks it slowly. So he closes his eyes, pinches his nostrils with his fingers and gulps it down. Others are not so successful.

Aron, standing nearby, raises his cup in a mock toast. ‘I got a piece of potato, what about you?’

‘Best meal I’ve had in ages.’ ‘Are you always so upbeat?’

‘Ask me again at the end of the day,’ Lale says with a wink. Returning his empty cup to the prisoner who handed it to him, Lale thanks him with a quick nod and half a smile.

The kapo shouts, ‘When you lazy bastards have finished your dining, get back into line! You have work to do!’

Lale passes on the instruction.

‘You’ll follow me,’ the kapo shouts, ‘and you’ll follow the instructions of the foreman. Any slacking off, I’ll know about it.’

Lale and the others find themselves in front of a partially erected building, a replica of their own block. Other prisoners are already there: carpenters and bricklayers all quietly labouring in the established rhythm of people used to working together.

‘You. Yes, you. Get up on the roof. You can work up there.’

The command is directed at Lale. Looking around, he spies a ladder going up to the roof. Two prisoners squat there, waiting to receive the tiles which are being shuttled up to them. The two men move aside as Lale clambers up. The roof consists only of wooden beams for supporting the tiles.

‘Be careful,’ one of the workmen warns him. ‘Move further up the roofline and watch us. It’s not difficult – you’ll soon get the hang of it.’ The man is Russian.

‘My name’s Lale.’

‘Introductions later, OK?’ The two men exchange a look. ‘You understand me?’

‘Yes,’ Lale replies in Russian. The men smile.

Lale watches as they receive the heavy clay tiles from the pair of hands poking over the lip of the roof, crawl to where the last tiles were laid and carefully overlap them, before moving back to the ladder for the next one. The Russian had been correct – it’s not difficult work – and it isn’t long before Lale joins them in accepting and laying the tiles. On the warm spring day only the hunger pains and cramps prevent him from matching the more experienced workers.

A few hours pass before they are permitted to take a break. Lale heads for the ladder but the Russian stops him.

‘It’s safer to stay up here and rest. You can’t be seen well this high up.’

Lale follows the men, who clearly know the best place to sit and stretch out: the corner where stronger timber was used to reinforce the roof.

‘How long have you been here?’ Lale asks as soon as they settle down. ‘About two months, I think. Hard to tell after a while.’

‘Where did you come from? I mean, how did you end up here? Are you Jewish?’

‘One question at a time.’ The Russian chuckles and the younger, larger worker rolls his eyes at the ignorance of the newcomer, yet to learn his place in the camp.

‘We’re not Jewish, we are Russian soldiers. We got separated from our unit and the fucking Germans caught us and put us to work. What about you? A Jew?’

‘Yes. I’m part of a large group brought in yesterday from Slovakia – all Jews.’

The Russians exchange a glance. The older man turns away, closing his eyes, raising his face to the sun, leaving it to his companion to continue the conversation.

‘Look around. You can see from up here how many blocks are being built and how much land they have to keep clearing.’

Lale pushes himself onto his elbows and observes the vast area contained within the electrified fence. Blocks like the one he is helping construct stretch out into the distance. He experiences a jolt of horror at what this place might become. He wrestles with what to say next, not wanting to give voice to his distress. He settles back down, turning his head away from his companions, desperate to bring his emotions under control. He must trust no one, reveal little about himself, be cautious …

The man watches him closely. He says, ‘I’ve heard the SS boasting that this is going to be the biggest concentration camp of all.’

‘Is that right?’ says Lale, forcing his voice above a whisper. ‘Well, if we’re

going to build it together, you might as well tell me your name.’

‘Andor,’ he says. ‘And this big oaf with me is Boris. He doesn’t say much.’ ‘Talking can get you killed here,’ Boris mutters as he stretches his hand out

to Lale.

‘What else can you tell me about the people here?’ says Lale. ‘And who the hell are these kapos?’

‘You tell him,’ says Boris, yawning.

‘Well, there are other Russian soldiers like us, but not many, and then there are all the different triangles.’

‘Like the green triangle my kapo wears?’ Lale says.

Andor laughs. ‘Oh, the greens are the worst – they’re criminals: killers, rapists, that kind of man. They make good guards because they’re terrible people.’ He continues, ‘Others are here because of their anti-German political views. They wear a red triangle. You’ll see a few, not many, with a black triangle – they are lazy bastards and they don’t last long. And finally there is you and your friends.’

‘We wear the yellow star.’

‘Yes, you wear the star. Your crime is to be Jewish.’ ‘Why don’t you have a colour?’ asks Lale.

Andor shrugs. ‘We’re just the enemy.’

Boris snorts. ‘They insult us by sharing our uniforms with the rest of you.

They can’t do much worse than that.’

A whistle blows and the three men get back to work.

That night, the men in Block 7 gather in small groups, to talk, share what they’ve learned, and question. Several move to the far end of the hut where they offer prayers to their God. These mingle into something unintelligible. Are they praying for guidance, vengeance, acceptance? It seems to Lale that, without a rabbi to guide them, each man prays for what is most important to him. And he decides this is as it should be. He moves between the groups of men, listening, but taking no part.

By the end of his first day Lale has exhausted the knowledge of his two Russian co-workers. For the rest of the week he heeds his own advice: keeps his head down, does what he is asked, never argues. At the same time, he observes everyone and everything going on around him. It is clear to him, looking at the design of the new buildings, that the Germans lack any architectural intelligence. Whenever possible, he listens to the talk and gossip

of the SS, who don’t know he understands them. They give him ammunition of the only sort available to him, knowledge, to be stored up for later. The SS stand around most of the day, leaning against walls, smoking, keeping only one eye on things. By eavesdropping he learns that Camp Commandant Hoess is a lazy bastard who hardly ever shows his face, and that accommodation for Germans at Auschwitz is superior to that at Birkenau, which has no access to cigarettes or beer.

One group of workers stands out to Lale. They keep to themselves, wear civilian clothes and speak to the SS without fearing for their safety. Lale determines to find out who these men are. Other prisoners never pick up a piece of wood or tile but instead walk casually around the compound on other business. His kapo is one such. How to get a job like that? Such a position would offer the best chance to find out what is going on in the camp, what the plans are for Birkenau and, more importantly, for him.

Lale is on the roof, tiling in the sun, when he spies his kapo heading in their direction. ‘Come on, you lazy bastards, work faster,’ Lale yells. ‘We’ve got a block to finish!’

He continues barking orders as the kapo appears below. Lale has made a habit of acknowledging him with a deferential nod of the head. On one occasion he received a short nod back. He has spoken to him in Polish. At the least, his kapo has accepted him as a subservient prisoner who will not cause problems.

With a half-smile the kapo makes eye contact with Lale and beckons him down from the roof. Lale approaches him with his head bowed.

‘Do you like what you’re doing, on the roof?’ says the kapo. ‘I’ll do whatever I’m told to do,’ replies Lale.

‘But everyone wants an easier life, yes?’ Lale says nothing.

‘I need a boy,’ the kapo says, playing with the fraying edge of his Russian army shirt. It’s too big for him, chosen to make the little man appear larger and more powerful than those he must control. From his gap-toothed mouth Lale experiences the pungent smell of partially digested meat.

‘You will do whatever I ask you to. Bring me my food, clean my boots, and you must be beside me whenever I want you. Do this and I can make life easier for you; fail me and there will be consequences.’

Lale stands beside his kapo, as his answer to the job offer. He wonders if by moving from builder to dogsbody he is making a deal with the devil.

On a beautiful spring day, not too hot, Lale watches as a large enclosed truck continues past the usual point for unloading building supplies. It drives around the back of the administration building. Lale knows that the boundary fence lies not far beyond and he has never dared venture to this area, but curiosity gets the better of him now. He walks after it with an air of ‘I belong here, I can go where I want’.

He peers around the corner at the back of the building. The truck pulls up beside an odd bus. It has been adapted into a bunker of sorts, with steel plates nailed across the window frames. Lale watches as dozens of naked men are herded out of the truck and led towards the bus. Some enter willingly. Those who resist are hit by a rifle butt. Fellow prisoners drag the semi-conscious objectors to their fate.

The bus is so full that the last men to board cling to the steps with their tiptoes, their naked bottoms hanging out the door. Officers shove their weight against the bodies. Then the doors are slammed shut. One officer walks around the bus, rapping on the metal sheets, checking everything is secure. A nimble officer clambers onto the roof with a canister in his hand. Unable to move, Lale watches as he opens a small hatch on the roof of the bus and upends the canister. Then he slams the lid down and latches it. As the guard scurries down, the bus shakes violently and muffled screams are heard.

Lale drops to his knees, retching. He remains there, sick in the dirt, as the screams fade.

When the bus is still and quiet, the doors are opened. Dead men fall out like blocks of stone.

A group of prisoners is marched out from beyond the other corner of the building. The truck backs up and the prisoners begin transferring the bodies onto it, staggering under the weight while trying to hide their distress. Lale has witnessed an unimaginable act. He staggers to his feet, standing on the threshold of hell, an inferno of feelings raging inside him.

The next morning he cannot rise. He is burning up.

It takes seven days for Lale to regain consciousness. Someone is pouring water gently into his mouth. He registers a cool damp rag on his forehead.

‘There, boy,’ says a voice. ‘Take it easy.’

Lale opens his eyes to see a stranger, an older man, peering gently into his face. He pushes himself up onto his elbows and the stranger supports him to sit. He looks around, confused. What day is it? Where is he?

‘The fresh air might do you good,’ says the man, taking Lale’s elbow.

He is escorted outside into a cloudless day, one that seems made for joy, and he shivers at the memory of the last day like this. His world spins and he

staggers. The stranger supports him, leading him to a nearby pile of timber.

Pulling up Lale’s sleeve, he points to the tattooed number.

‘My name is Pepan. I am the Tätowierer. What do you think of my handiwork?’

‘Tätowierer?’ says Lale, ‘You mean, you did this to me?’

Pepan shrugs, looking Lale directly in the eye. ‘I wasn’t given a choice.’

Lale shakes his head. ‘This number wouldn’t have been my first choice of tattoo.’

‘What would you have preferred?’ asks Pepan. Lale smiles slyly.

‘What’s her name?’

‘My sweetheart? I don’t know. We haven’t met yet.’

Pepan chuckles. The two men sit in companionable silence. Lale traces a finger over his numbers.

‘What is your accent?’ says Lale. ‘I am French.’

‘And what happened to me?’ Lale asks finally. ‘Typhus. You were destined for an early grave.’

Lale shudders. ‘Then why am I sitting here with you?’

‘I was walking past your block just as your body was being thrown onto a cart for the dead and dying. A young man was pleading with the SS to leave you, saying that he would take care of you. When they went into the next block he pushed you off the cart and started dragging you back inside. I went and helped him.’

‘How long ago was this?’

‘Seven, eight days. Since then the men in your block have looked after you during the night. I’ve spent as much time as I can during the day caring for you. How do you feel?’

‘I feel OK. I don’t know what to say, how to thank you.’

‘Thank the man who pushed you from the cart. It was his courage that held you back from the jaws of death.’

‘I will when I find out who it was. Do you know?’ ‘No. I’m sorry. We didn’t exchange names.’

Lale closes his eyes for a few moments, letting the sun warm his skin, giving him the energy, the will, to go on. He lifts his sagging shoulders, and resolve seeps back into him. He is still alive. He stands on shaking legs, stretching, trying to breathe new life back into an ailing body in need of rest, nourishment and hydration.

‘Sit down, you’re still very weak.’

Conceding the obvious, Lale does so. Only now his back is straighter, his voice firmer. He gives Pepan a smile. The old Lale is back, almost as hungry for information as he is for food. ‘I see you wear a red star,’ he says.

‘Ah yes. I was an academic in Paris and was too outspoken for my own good.’

‘What did you teach?’ ‘Economics.’

‘And being a teacher of economics got you here? How?’

‘Well, Lale, a man who lectures on taxation and interest rates can’t help but get involved in the politics of his country. Politics will help you understand the world until you don’t understand it anymore, and then it will get you thrown into a prison camp. Politics and religion both.’

‘And will you go back to that life when you leave here?’ ‘An optimist! I don’t know what my future holds, or yours.’ ‘No crystal ball then.’

‘No, indeed.’

Through the noise of construction, dogs barking and guards shouting, Pepan leans forward and asks, ‘Are you as strong in character as you are physically?’

Lale returns Pepan’s gaze. ‘I’m a survivor.’

‘Your strength can be a weakness, given the circumstances we find ourselves in. Charm and an easy smile will get you in trouble.’

‘I am a survivor.’

‘Well, then maybe I can help you survive in here.’ ‘You have friends in high places?’

Pepan laughs and slaps Lale on the back. ‘No. No friends in high places. Like I told you, I am the Tätowierer. And I have been told the number of people coming here will be increasing very soon.’

They sit with the thought for a moment. What lodges in Lale’s mind is that, somewhere, someone is making decisions, plucking numbers from – where? How do you decide who comes here? What information do you base those decisions on? Race, religion, or politics?

‘You intrigue me, Lale. I was drawn to you. You had a strength that even your sick body couldn’t hide. It brought you to this point, sitting in front of me today.’

Lale hears the words but struggles with what Pepan is saying. They sit in a place where people are dying every day, every hour, every minute.

‘Would you like a job working with me?’ Pepan brings Lale back from the bleakness. ‘Or are you happy doing whatever they have you doing?’

‘I do what I can to survive.’ ‘Then take my job offer.’

‘You want me to tattoo other men?’ ‘Someone has to do it.’

‘I don’t think I could do that. Scar someone, hurt someone – it does hurt, you know.’

Pepan pulls back his sleeve to reveal his own number. ‘It hurts like hell. If you don’t take the job, someone with less soul than you will, and hurt these people more.’

‘Working for the kapo is not the same as defiling hundreds of innocent people.’

A long silence follows. Lale again enters his dark place. Do those making the decisions have a family, a wife, children, parents? They can’t possibly.

‘You can tell yourself that, but you are still a Nazi puppet. Whether it is with me or the kapo, or building blocks, you are still doing their dirty work.’

‘You have a way of putting things.’ ‘So?’

‘Then, yes. If you can arrange it, I will work for you.’

‘Not for me. With me. But you must work quickly and efficiently and not make trouble with the SS.’


Pepan stands, goes to walk away. Lale grabs at his shirtsleeve. ‘Pepan, why have you chosen me?’

‘I saw a half-starved young man risk his life to save you. I figure you must be someone worth saving. I’ll come for you tomorrow morning. Get some rest now.’

That night as his block-mates return, Lale notices that Aron is missing. He asks the two others sharing his bed what has happened to him, how long he’s been gone.

‘About a week,’ comes the reply. Lale’s stomach drops.

‘The kapo couldn’t find you,’ the man says. ‘Aron could have told him you were ill, but he feared the kapo would add you to the death cart again if he knew, so he said you were already gone.’

‘And the kapo discovered the truth?’

‘No,’ yawns the man, exhausted from work. ‘But the kapo was so pissed off he took Aron anyway.’

Lale struggles to contain his tears.

The second bunkmate rolls onto his elbow. ‘You put big ideas into his head. He wanted to save “the one”.’

‘To save one is to save the world.’ Lale completes the phrase.

The men sink into silence for a while. Lale looks at the ceiling, blinks away tears. Aron is not the first person to die here and will not be the last.

‘Thank you,’ he says.

‘We tried to continue what Aron started, to see if we could save the one.’

‘We took turns,’ a young boy says from below, ‘smuggling water and sharing our bread with you, forcing it down your throat.’

Another picks up the story. He rises from the bunk below, haggard, with cloudy blue eyes, his voice flat, but still full of the need to tell his part of the story. ‘We changed your soiled clothes. We swapped them with someone who had died overnight.’

Lale is now unable to stop the tears that roll down his emaciated cheeks. ‘I can’t …’

He can’t do anything but be appreciative. He knows he has a debt he cannot repay, not now, not here, realistically not ever.

He falls asleep to the soulful sound of Hebrew chants from those who still cling to faith.

The next morning Lale is in the queue for breakfast when Pepan appears by his side, takes his arm quietly and steers him away towards the main compound. There the trucks unload their human cargo. He feels as though he has wandered into a scene from a tragic play. Some of the actors are the same, most are new, their lines unwritten, their role not yet determined. His life experience has not equipped him to understand what is happening. He has a memory of being here before. Yes, not as an observer, but a participant. What will my role be nowHe closes his eyes and imagines he is facing another version of himself, looking at the left arm. It is unnumbered. Opening his eyes again, he looks down at the tattoo on his real left arm, then back to the scene in front of him.

He takes in the hundreds of new prisoners who are gathered there. Boys, young men, terror etched on each of their faces. Holding on to each other. Hugging themselves. SS and dogs shepherd them like lambs to the slaughter. They obey. Whether they live or die this day is about to be decided. Lale stops following Pepan and stands frozen. Pepan doubles back and guides him to some small tables with tattooing equipment on them. Those passing selection are moved into a line in front of their table. They will be marked. Other new arrivals – the old, infirm, no skills identified – are walking dead.

A shot rings out. Men flinch. Someone falls. Lale looks in the direction of the shot, only for Pepan to grab his face and twist his head away.

A group of SS, mostly young, walk towards Pepan and Lale, guarding an older SS officer. Mid- to late forties, straight-backed in his immaculate uniform, his cap sitting precisely on his head – a perfect mannequin, thinks Lale, like those he occasionally helped dress when he worked in the department store in Bratislava.

The SS stop in front of them. Pepan steps forward, acknowledging the

officer with a bowed head as Lale watches.

‘Oberscharführer Houstek, I have enlisted this prisoner to help.’ Pepan indicates Lale standing behind him.

Houstek turns to Lale.

Pepan continues. ‘I believe he will learn fast.’

Houstek, steely-eyed, glares at Lale before wagging a finger for him to step forward. Lale does so.

‘What languages do you speak?’

‘Slovakian, German, Russian, French, Hungarian and a little Polish,’ Lale answers, looking him in the eye.

‘Humph.’ Houstek walks away.

Lale leans over and whispers to Pepan, ‘A man of few words. I take it I got the job?’

Pepan turns on Lale, fire in his eyes and his voice, though he speaks quietly. ‘Do not underestimate him. Lose your bravado, or you will lose your life. Next time you talk to him, do not raise your eyes above the level of his boots.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Lale says. ‘I won’t.’

When will I learn?

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