Chapter no 23

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

For weeks, Lale and Gita’s time together is spent mostly in silence as she tries in vain to console him. He has told her what happened, and while she understands his distress, she doesn’t share it to the same degree. It isn’t her fault she never got to know Lale’s ‘other family’. She had delighted in hearing his stories of the children and their attempts to play, with no toys, kicking balls made out of snow or debris, seeing who could jump the highest to touch the timber slats on their building, mostly just playing chase. She tries to get him to talk about his biological family, but Lale has become stubborn and is refusing to say anything more until she shares information about her own life. Gita doesn’t know how to break the spell of Lale’s grief. They have both withstood, for more than two and a half years, the worst of humanity. But this is the first time she’s seen Lale sink to this depth of depression. ‘What about the thousands of our people?’ she yells at him one day. ‘What about what you have seen at Auschwitz, with Mengele? Do you know how many people have been through these two camps? Do you?’ Lale does not reply. ‘I see the cards with the names and ages – babies, grandparents – I see their names and their numbers. I can’t even count that high.’

Lale doesn’t need Gita to remind him of the number of people who have passed through the camps. He has marked their skin himself. He looks at her; she is studying the ground. He realises that while to him they were just numbers, to Gita they were names. Her job means that she knows more about these people than he does. She knows their names and ages, and he realises that this knowledge will forever haunt her.



‘I’m sorry, you’re right,’ he says. ‘Any death is one too many. I’ll try not to be so gloomy.’

‘I want you to be yourself with me, but it’s been going on for too long, Lale, and one day is a long time for us.’

‘Smart, and beautiful. I’ll never forget them, you know?’

‘I couldn’t love you if you did. They were your family, I know that. I know it’s a strange thing for me to say, but you will honour them by staying alive, surviving this place and telling the world what happened here.’

Lale leans over to kiss her, his heart weighted by love and sorrow.

A massive explosion rings out, shaking the ground beneath them. From their spot behind the administration block they jump to their feet and run to the front of the building. A second explosion makes them look towards the nearby crematorium, where smoke rises and pandemonium is breaking out. The Sonderkommando workers are running from the building, most of them

towards the fence that surrounds the camp. Gunfire erupts from the top of the crematorium. Lale looks up and sees Sonderkommando up there, shooting wildly. The SS fire heavy machine guns in retaliation. Within minutes they have put an end to the shooting.

‘What’s happening?’ Gita says.

‘I don’t know. We need to get indoors.’

Bullets strike the ground around them as the SS take aim at anyone in their sights. Lale pulls Gita up hard against a building. Another loud explosion.

‘That’s Crematorium Four – someone’s blowing it up. We have to get out of here.’

Prisoners run from the administration building and are gunned down.

‘I have to get you back to your block. It’s the only place you’ll be safe.’

An announcement on the loudspeakers: ‘All prisoners return to your blocks. You will not be fired upon if you go now.’

‘Go, quickly.’

‘I’m frightened, take me with you,’ she cries.



‘You’ll be safer in your own block tonight. They’re bound to do a rollcall.

My darling, you can’t get caught outside your block.’ She hesitates.

‘Go now. Stay in your block tonight, and go to work as normal tomorrow. You must not give them any reason to look for you. You must wake up tomorrow.’

She takes a deep breath and turns to run.

In parting Lale says, ‘I’ll find you tomorrow. I love you.’

That night, Lale breaks his rule and joins the men, mostly Hungarians, in his block to find out what he can about the afternoon’s events. It appears some of the women working in an ammunition factory nearby had been smuggling tiny amounts of gunpowder back to Birkenau, pushed up into their fingernails. They had been getting it to the Sonderkommando, who made crude grenades out of sardine tins. They had also been stockpiling weapons, including small arms, knives and axes.

The men in Lale’s block also tell him of rumours about a general uprising, which they wanted to join but didn’t believe was meant to happen on this day. They have heard that the Russians are advancing, and the uprising was planned to coincide with their arrival, to assist them in liberating the camp. Lale admonishes himself for not having made friends with his block companions sooner. Not having this knowledge nearly got Gita killed. He questions the men extensively on what they know about the Russians and when they are likely to arrive. The replies are vague, but are enough to

provoke slight optimism.

It has been months since the American plane flew overhead. The transports have kept coming. Lale has seen no lessening of the dedication of the Nazi machine to the extermination of Jews and other groups. Still, these latest arrivals have a more recent connection with the outside world. Perhaps liberation is coming. He is determined to tell Gita what he has learned, and ask her to be vigilant in the office, to glean any information she can.

At last, a glimmer of hope.

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