Chapter no 21

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

‘Are you sure you’re not a cat?’

Lale hears the words and struggles to register where he is. He opens his eyes to find a grinning Baretski leaning over him.


‘You must be a cat, because you sure have more lives than anyone else here.’

Lale struggles to sit up. ‘It was …’

‘Cilka, yes, I know. Must be nice to have friends in high places.’ ‘I’d gladly give my life for her not to need such friends.’

‘You nearly did give your life. Not that it would’ve helped her.’ ‘Yeah, that’s one situation I can’t do anything about.’

Baretski laughs. ‘You really think you run these camps, don’t you? Hell, maybe you do. You’re still alive and you shouldn’t be. How did you get out of Block 11?’

‘I have no idea. When they took me out, I was sure I was headed for the Black Wall, but then I was thrown in a truck and brought back here.’

‘I’ve never known anyone to walk away from the Strafkompanie, so well done,’ Baretski says.

‘That’s one piece of history I don’t mind making. How come I’ve got my old room back?’

‘Easy. It comes with the job.’ ‘What?’

‘You’re the Tätowierer, and all I can say is, thank God. The eunuch who replaced you was no match.’

‘Houstek is letting me have my job back?’

‘I wouldn’t go anywhere near him. He didn’t want you back; he wanted you shot. It was Schwarzhuber who had other plans for you.’

‘I need to get my hands on at least some chocolate for Cilka.’

‘Tätowierer, don’t. You will be watched very closely. Now come on, I’ll take you to work.’

As they are leaving the room Lale says, ‘I’m sorry I wasn’t able to get you the nylons you wanted. I’d made arrangements but got derailed.’

‘Mm, well, at least you tried. Anyway, she’s not my girlfriend anymore.

She dumped me.’



‘Sorry to hear that. I hope it wasn’t because of something I suggested you say to her.’

‘I don’t think so. She just met someone who is in the same town – hell, the same country – as her.’

Lale considers saying something more, but decides to let it drop. Baretski leads him out of his block and into the compound, where a truckload of men has arrived and a selection is taking place. He smiles inwardly at the sight of Leon working, dropping the tattoo stick, spilling ink. Baretski wanders off and Lale approaches Leon from behind.

‘Need a hand?’

Leon turns around, knocking a bottle of ink over as he grasps Lale by the hand, shaking it vigorously, overjoyed.

‘It’s so good to see you!’ he cries.

‘Believe me, it’s good to be back. How are you?’

‘Still pissing sitting down. Otherwise I’m OK. So much better now that you’re here.’

‘Let’s get on with it then. Looks like they’re sending quite a few our way.’ ‘Does Gita know you’re back?’ Leon asks.

‘I think so. It was her friend Cilka who got me out.’ ‘The one who … ?’

‘Yes. I’ll try to see them tomorrow. Give me one of those sticks. I’d better not give them any excuse to throw me back where I was.’

Leon holds out his tattoo stick as he rummages around in Lale’s bag for another one. Together they begin work, tattooing the newest residents of Birkenau.

The next afternoon, Lale waits outside the administration building as the girls leave work. Dana and Gita don’t see him until he stands right in front of them, blocking their path. A moment passes before they react. Then both girls throw their arms around him and hug him tightly. Dana cries. No tears come from Gita. Lale releases them and takes each by the hand.

‘Both still beautiful,’ he tells them.

Gita smacks him on the arm with her free hand.

‘I thought you were dead. Again. I thought I’d never see you again.’ ‘Me too,’ says Dana.

‘But I’m not. Thanks to you, and to Cilka, I’m not. I’m here with the two of you, where I should be.’

‘But …’ cries Gita.

Lale pulls her towards him and holds her securely.

Dana kisses him on the cheek. ‘I’ll leave you two. It’s so good to see you, Lale. I thought Gita would die of a broken heart if you didn’t come back soon.’

‘Thank you, Dana,’ says Lale. ‘You’re a good friend, to both of us.’ She walks off, the smile not leaving her face.

Hundreds of prisoners mill around the compound, as Lale and Gita stand there, not knowing what to do next.

‘Close your eyes,’ Lale says. ‘What?’

‘Close them and count to ten.’ ‘But –’

‘Just do it.’

One eye at a time, Gita does as she is told. She counts to ten, then opens them. ‘I don’t understand.’

‘I’m still here. I’ll never leave you again.’

‘Come on, we have to keep moving,’ she tells him.

They walk towards the women’s camp. With no bribe for the kapo, Lale can’t risk Gita being late back. They lean gently in towards each other.



‘I don’t know how much longer I can stand this.’

‘It can’t last forever, my darling. Just hang in there, please hang in there.

We’ll have the rest of our lives together.’ ‘But –’

‘No buts. I promised you we’d leave this place and make a life together.’ ‘How can we? We can’t know what tomorrow will bring. Look at what just

happened to you.’

‘I’m here with you now, aren’t I?’ ‘Lale –’

‘Leave it, Gita.’

‘Will you tell me what happened to you? Where you’ve been?’

Lale shakes his head. ‘No. I’m back here with you now. What matters is what I’ve told you many times, that we will leave this place and have a free life together. Trust me, Gita.’

‘I do.’

Lale likes the sound of that.

‘One day you will say those two little words to me under different circumstances. In front of a rabbi, surrounded by our family and friends.’

Gita giggles and lays her head briefly on his shoulder as they reach the entrance to the women’s camp.

As Lale walks back to his block, two youths approach and walk alongside him.

‘You’re the Tätowierer?’ ‘Who’s asking?’ says Lale.

‘We hear you might be able to get us some extra food.’ ‘Whoever told you that was mistaken.’

‘We can pay,’ one of them says, opening his clenched fist to reveal a small but perfect diamond.



Lale grits his teeth.

‘Go on, take it. If you can get us anything we would really appreciate it, mister.’

‘What block are you in?’ ‘Nine.’

How many lives does a cat have?

The next morning, Lale hangs around the main gates, bag in hand. Twice SS approach him.

‘Politische Abteilung,’ he says on both occasions, and is left alone. But he is more apprehensive than he used to be. Victor and Yuri break from the line of men entering the camp and greet Lale warmly.

‘Do we ask where you’ve been?’ Victor asks. ‘Best not,’ Lale replies.

‘You back in business?’

‘Not like before. I’m scaling it down, OK? Just a little extra food, if you can, no more nylons.’

‘Sure. Welcome back,’ Victor says with enthusiasm.

Lale extends his hand, Victor takes it, and the diamond changes hands. ‘Down payment. See you tomorrow?’


Yuri looks on. ‘It’s good to see you again,’ he says quietly. ‘You too, Yuri. Have you grown?’

‘Yeah, I reckon I have.’

‘Say,’ said Lale, ‘you wouldn’t happen to have any chocolate on you? I really need to spend some time with my girl.’

Yuri takes a block out of his bag, handing it to Lale with a wink.

Lale heads straight to the women’s camp and Block 29. The kapo is where she always is, soaking up the sun. She watches Lale approach.

‘Tätowierer, good to see you again,’ she says.

‘Have you lost weight? You’re looking good,’ Lale says with the merest hint of irony.

‘You haven’t been around for a while.’

‘I’m back now.’ He hands her the chocolate. ‘I’ll get her for you.’

He watches her walk towards the administration building and speak to a

female SS officer outside. Then he enters the block and sits, waiting for Gita to walk through the door. He doesn’t have to wait long before she appears. She closes the door and walks toward him. He stands and leans on the bunk post. He fears he will struggle to say the words he needs to. He arranges his face into a mask of self-control.

‘To make love whenever and wherever we want. We may not be free, but I choose now and I choose here. What do you say?’

She throws herself into his arms, smothering his face with kisses. As they begin to undress, Lale stops and holds Gita’s hands.

‘You asked me if I would tell you where I disappeared to, and I said no, remember?’


‘Well, I still don’t want to talk about it, but there is something I can’t keep from you. Now, you’re not to be frightened, and I’m all right, but I did take a little bit of a beating.’

‘Show me.’

Lale slides his shirt off slowly and turns his back to her. She says nothing but runs her fingers ever so softly over the welts on his back. Her lips follow and he knows nothing more needs to be said. Their lovemaking is slow and gentle. He feels tears well up and fights them back. This is the deepest love he’s ever felt.

You'll Also Like