Chapter no 20

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Lale is helped from the truck and dragged into Oberscharführer Houstek’s office. The two SS officers hold him by an arm each.

‘We got nothing out of him even after the big Jew had a go,’ one of them says.

Houstek turns to Lale, who raises his head.

‘So you really didn’t know their names? And they didn’t shoot you?’ ‘No, sir.’

‘Returned you to me, hey? Now you’re my problem again.’ ‘Yes, sir.’

Houstek addresses the officers.

‘Take him to Block 31.’ He turns to Lale. ‘We will get some hard work out of you before your number is up, mark my words.’

Lale is dragged from the office. He tries to keep pace with the SS officers. But halfway across the compound he gives up and sacrifices the skin on the top of his feet to the gravel. The officers open the door to Block 31 and toss him inside before taking their leave. Lale lies on the floor, exhausted in body and soul. Several inmates approach him cautiously. Two try to help him up, but Lale cries out in pain and they stop. One of the men pulls up Lale’s shirt, revealing the large welts across his back and buttocks. More gently this time they pick him up and place him on a bunk. He soon falls asleep.

‘I know who this is,’ one of the prisoners says. ‘Who?’ another asks.

‘It’s the Tätowierer. Don’t you recognise him? He probably made your number.’

‘Yeah, you’re right. I wonder who he pissed off.’

‘I got extra rations from him when I was in Block 6. He was always handing out food.’



‘I don’t know about that. I’ve only been in this block. I pissed someone off the day I arrived.’ The men chuckle quietly.

‘He can’t make it to supper. I’ll bring him some of mine. He’s gonna need it tomorrow.’

A short while later Lale is woken by two men, each with a small piece of bread. They offer it to him and he gratefully accepts.

‘I’ve got to get out of here.’

The men laugh.

‘Sure, my friend. You have two options then: one is quick, the other might take a little longer.’

‘And what are they?’

‘Well, tomorrow morning you can go outside and throw yourself on the death cart when it comes around. Or you can come and work in the fields with us until you drop or beg them to shoot you.’

‘I don’t like those options. I’ll have to find another way.’

‘Good luck, my friend. You’d better get some rest. You’ve got a long day ahead of you, especially in your condition.’

That night, Lale dreams of his departures from home.

The first time he’d left home he was a young man full of promise, in search of a future to make his own. He would find a job he enjoyed and could grow in. He would have rich experiences, visiting the romantic cities of Europe that he’d read about in books: Paris, Rome, Vienna. Above all, he wanted to find that one person he would fall in love with, shower with affection and the things his mother had said were important: flowers, chocolates, his time and attention.

His second departure, full of uncertainty and the unknown, rattled him.



What lay ahead?

He arrived in Prague after a long, emotionally painful journey away from his family. He reported as instructed to the relevant government department and was told to find accommodation nearby and to report back weekly until his role was decided. On 16 April, a month later, he was told to report with his belongings to a local school. There he was housed with a number of young Jewish men from across Slovakia.

Lale prided himself on his appearance, and his living situation did not prevent him from looking his best. Each day he washed and cleaned his clothes in the school toilet block. He didn’t know where he was headed but wanted to make damned sure he looked his best when he arrived.

After five days of sitting around, bored, frightened, mostly bored, Lale and the others were told to gather up their possessions and were marched to the railway station. They were told nothing of where they were going. A train designed to transport cattle pulled up, and the men were ordered to climb aboard. Some objected, explaining that the filthy wagon insulted their dignity. Lale watched the response, seeing for the first time his fellow countrymen raise their rifles at Jews, and strike the ones who continued protesting. He climbed on board along with all the others. When no one else could be pushed into his wagon, Lale watched as the doors were slammed shut and heard them

bolted by members of the Slovakian army, men whose job it should have been to protect him.

Over and over he hears the sound of the doors being slammed and bolted, slammed and bolted.

The next morning the two kind prisoners help Lale from the block and stand with him to await rollcall. How long has it been since I’ve stood like this? Numbers, numbers. Survival is always about your number. Being ticked off your kapo’s list tells you that you are still alive. Lale’s number is last on the list, since he is the newest occupant of Block 31. He doesn’t respond the first time it is called, has to be nudged. After a cup of old, weak coffee and a thin slice of stale bread, they are marched off towards their labour.

In a field between the two camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau, they are made to carry large rocks from one side to the other. When the rocks have all been moved over, they are told to take them back again. And so the day goes on. Lale thinks of the hundreds of times he has walked the road alongside and seen this activity taking place. No, I only glimpsed it. I couldn’t watch what these men were enduring. He quickly works out that the SS shoot the last one to arrive with his rock.

Lale needs to use all of his strength. His muscles ache but his mind stays strong. On one occasion he is the second last to arrive. When the day ends, those still living gather up the bodies of those slain and carry them back to the camp. Lale is excused from this task, but told he has one day’s grace only. Tomorrow he will have to pull his weight, provided he’s still alive.

As they trudge back into Birkenau, Lale sees Baretski standing inside the gates. He falls into step beside Lale.

‘I heard what happened to you.’

Lale looks at him. ‘Baretski, can you help me with something?’ By asking for assistance he admits to the other men that he is different from them. He knows the officer’s name and can ask him for help. Marking himself as friendly with the enemy brings acute shame, but he needs this.

‘Maybe … What is it?’ Baretski looks uncomfortable. ‘Can you get a message to Gita?’

‘Do you really want her to know where you are? Isn’t it better that she thinks you’re already dead?’



‘Just tell her exactly where I am – Block 31 – and tell her to tell Cilka.’ ‘You want her friend to know where you are?’

‘Yes, it’s important. She’ll understand.’

‘Hmm. I’ll do it if I feel like it. Is it true you had a fortune in diamonds under your mattress?’

‘Did they mention the rubies, emeralds, the Yankee dollars, the British and South African pounds?’

Baretski shakes his head, laughing, slapping Lale painfully on the back as he walks off.

‘Cilka. Gita must tell Cilka,’ he calls after him.

A backward wave of Baretski’s arm dismisses Lale.

Baretski enters the women’s camp as they are lining up for dinner. Cilka sees him approach the kapo and then point at Gita. The kapo beckons Gita with her finger. Cilka draws Dana in close as Gita slowly walks over to Baretski. They cannot hear what he says, but his message causes Gita to cover her face with her hands. She then turns towards her friends and runs back into their arms.

‘He’s alive! Lale is alive,’ she says. ‘He said I’m to tell you, Cilka, that he is in Block 31.’

‘Why me?’

‘I don’t know, but he said Lale had insisted I tell you.’ ‘What can she do?’ Dana asks.

Cilka looks away, her mind working feverishly.

‘I don’t know,’ says Gita, not in the mood to analyse. ‘I only know that he is alive.’

‘Cilka, what can you do? How can you help?’ Dana pleads. ‘I will think about it,’ says Cilka.

‘He’s alive. My love is alive,’ Gita repeats.

That night, Cilka lies in the arms of Schwarzhuber. She can tell he is not yet asleep. She opens her mouth to say something but is silenced by him retrieving his arm from underneath her.

‘Are you all right?’ she asks tentatively, fearing he will be suspicious of such an intimate question.


There is a softness in his voice she has not heard before and, emboldened, Cilka presses on. ‘I have never said no to you for anything, have I? And I’ve never asked you for anything before?’ she says tentatively.

‘That’s true,’ he responds. ‘Can I ask for one thing?’

Lale makes it through the next day. He does his bit, helping to carry one of the murdered men back. He hates himself for having thoughts only of the pain it causes him, with little compassion for the dead man. What is happening to me? Step by step the pain in his shoulders threatens to drag him down. Fight it, fight it.



As they enter the camp, Lale’s attention is caught by two people standing just beyond the fence that separates the prisoners from the staff quarters. The diminutive Cilka stands beside Lagerführer Schwarzhuber. A guard on Lale’s side of the fence is talking to them. Lale stops, slackening his grip on the corpse, which causes the prisoner holding the other end of the body to stumble and fall. Lale looks at Cilka, who peers back at him before saying something to Schwarzhuber. He nods and points to Lale. Cilka and Schwarzhuber walk away as the guard approaches Lale.

‘Come with me.’

Lale rests the legs he’s been carrying on the ground and looks for the first time at the dead man’s face. His compassion returns and he bows his head at this tragic end to yet another life. He gives an apologetic glance to the other man carrying the body and hurries to follow the guard. The other inmates of Block 31 all stare after him.

The guard tells Lale, ‘I’m instructed to take you to your old room in the Gypsy camp.’

‘I know the way.’

‘Suit yourself.’ The guard leaves him.

Lale stops outside the Gypsy camp, watching the children run around. Several of them look at him, trying to make sense of his return. The Tätowierer, they have been told, is dead. One of them runs to Lale, throwing his arms around his waist, hugging him tight, welcoming him ‘home’. The others join in, and before long adults are coming out of the block to greet him. ‘Where have you been?’ they ask. ‘Are you injured?’ He deflects all their questions.

Nadya is standing at the back of the group. Lale makes eye contact with her. Pushing his way through the men, women and children, he stops in front of her. With a finger he wipes a tear from her cheek. ‘It’s good to see you, Nadya.’

‘We’ve missed you. I’ve missed you.’

All Lale can do is nod. He needs to get away quickly before he breaks down in front of everyone. He rushes to his room, closes the door on the world and lies on his old bed.

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