Chapter no 24

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Autumn is bitterly cold. Many don’t survive. Lale and Gita hold on to their glimmer of hope. Gita lets her block-mates know of the rumours about the Russians and encourages them to believe that they can outlive Auschwitz. As 1945 begins, temperatures plummet further. Gita cannot stop morale ebbing away. Warm coats from the Canada cannot keep out the chill and fear of another year captive in the forgotten world of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The transports slow. This has a perverse effect on those prisoners who work for the SS, particularly the Sonderkommando. Having less work to do puts them in danger of execution. As for Lale, he has built up some reserves but his supply of new currency is much diminished. And the locals, including Victor and Yuri, are no longer coming in to work. Construction has halted. Lale has heard promising news that two of the crematoria damaged in the explosions by the resistance fighters are not going to be repaired. For the first time in Lale’s memory, more people are leaving Birkenau than are entering. Gita and her co-workers take turns processing those being shipped out, supposedly to other concentration camps.

Snow is thick on the ground on a late January day when Lale is told that Leon has ‘gone’. He asks Baretski, as they walk together, if he knows where to. Baretski offers no answer, and warns Lale that he too might find himself on a transport out of Birkenau. But Lale can still make his way mostly unobserved, not required to report at rollcall each morning and evening. He hopes this will keep him at the camp, but he doesn’t have the same confidence that Gita will remain.



Baretski laughs his insidious laugh. The news of Leon’s probable death taps into reserves of pain Lale did not know he still had.

‘You see your world reflected in a mirror, but I have another mirror,’ Lale says.

Baretski stops. He looks at Lale, and Lale holds his stare.

‘I look into mine,’ says Lale, ‘and I see a world that will bring yours down.’

Baretski smiles. ‘And do you think you will live to see that happen?’ ‘Yes, I do.’

Baretski places his hand on his holstered pistol. ‘I could shatter your mirror right now.’

‘You won’t do that.’

‘You’ve been out in the cold too long, Tätowierer. Go and get warm and come to your senses.’ Baretski walks away.

Lale watches him leave. He knows that if they were ever to meet on a dark

night on equal terms it would be he who would walk away. Lale would have no qualms about taking this man’s life. He would have the last word.

One morning in late January, Gita stumbles through the snow towards Lale, running towards his block, somewhere he’s told her never to come near.

‘There’s something happening,’ she cries. ‘What do you mean?’

‘The SS, they’re acting strange. They seem to be panicking.’ ‘Where’s Dana?’ Lale asks with concern.

‘I don’t know.’

‘Find her, go to your block and stay there until I come.’ ‘I want to stay with you.’

Lale pulls her off him, holding her at arm’s length.

‘Hurry, Gita, find Dana and go to your block. I’ll come and find you when I can. I need to find out what’s going on. There haven’t been any new arrivals for weeks now. This could be the beginning of the end.’

She turns and moves reluctantly away from Lale.

He reaches the administration building and cautiously enters the office, so familiar to him from years of obtaining supplies and instructions. Inside, it’s chaos. SS are yelling at frightened workers, who cower at their desks as the SS pull books, cards and paperwork from them. An SS worker hurries past Lale, her hands full of papers and entry books. He bumps into her and she spills what she is carrying.

‘I’m sorry. Here, let me help you.’

They both bend down to gather up the papers. ‘Are you all right?’ he says as gently as possible. ‘I think you may be out of a job, Tätowierer.’ ‘Why? What’s going on?’



She leans into Lale, whispering now.

‘We’re emptying the camp, starting tomorrow.’ Lale’s heart leaps. ‘What can you tell me? Please.’ ‘The Russians, they’re nearly here.’

Lale runs from the building to the women’s camp. The door to Block 29 is shut. No one stands guard outside. Entering, Lale finds the women huddled together at the back. Even Cilka is here. They gather around him, frightened and full of questions.

‘All I can tell you is that the SS appear to be destroying records,’ Lale says. ‘One of them told me the Russians are nearby.’ He withholds the news that the camp is going to be emptying out the next day because he doesn’t want to cause further alarm by admitting that he doesn’t know where to.

‘What do you think the SS are going to do with us?’ Dana asks.

‘I don’t know. Let’s hope they will run off and let the Russians liberate the camp. I’ll try to find out more. I’ll come back and tell you what I learn. Don’t leave the block. There are bound to be some trigger-happy guards out there.’

He takes Dana by both hands. ‘Dana, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but while I have the chance I want to tell you how much I will always be grateful to you for being Gita’s friend. I know you have kept her going many times when she has wanted to give up.’

They embrace. Lale kisses her on the forehead and then hands her over to Gita. He turns to Cilka and Ivana and wraps them both in a bear hug.

To Cilka, he says, ‘You are the bravest person I have ever met. You must not carry any guilt for what has happened here. You are an innocent –remember that.’

In between sobs she replies, ‘I did what I had to do to survive. If I hadn’t, someone else would have suffered at the hands of that pig.’

‘I owe my life to you, Cilka, and I will never forget that.’ He turns to Gita.

‘Don’t say anything,’ she says. ‘Don’t you dare say a word.’ ‘Gita …’

‘No. You don’t get to say anything to me other than you’ll see me tomorrow. That’s all I want to hear from you.’

Lale looks at these young women and realises that there is nothing left to say. They were brought to this camp as girls, and now – not one of them yet having reached the age of twenty-one – they are broken, damaged young women. He knows they will never grow to be the women they were meant to be. Their futures have been derailed and there will be no getting back on the same track. The visions they once had of themselves, as daughters, sisters, wives and mothers, workers, travellers, and lovers, will forever be tainted by what they’ve witnessed and endured.



He leaves them to go in search of Baretski and information about what the next day will bring. The officer is nowhere to be found. Lale trudges back to his block, where he finds the Hungarian men anxious and worried. He tells them what he knows, but it’s of little comfort.

In the night, SS officers enter every block in the women’s camp and paint a bright red slash down the back of each girl’s coat. Once again, the women are marked for whatever fate awaits them. Gita, Dana, Cilka and Ivana take comfort in all of them being marked alike. Whatever happens tomorrow will happen to all of them – together they will live or die.

Some time during the night Lale finally falls asleep. He is woken by a great commotion. It takes a few moments for the noises to penetrate his groggy brain. Memories of the night the Romani were taken flood back. What is this new horror? The sound of rifle shots jolts him fully awake. Putting on his shoes and wrapping a blanket around his shoulders, he cautiously goes outside. Thousands of women prisoners are being corralled into rows. There is obvious confusion, as if neither guards nor prisoners know quite what is expected. The SS pay Lale no attention as he walks quickly up and down the rows of women who bunch together from the cold and in fear of what is to come. Snow continues to fall. Running is impossible. Lale watches as a dog snaps at the legs of one of the women and brings her to the ground. A friend reaches down to help her to her feet, but the SS officer holding the dog draws his pistol and shoots the fallen woman.

Lale hurries on, looking down the rows, searching, desperate. Finally he sees her. Gita and her friends are being pushed towards the main gates, clinging to each other, but he can’t see Cilka among them, or anywhere in the sea of faces. He focuses back on Gita. She has her head down, and Lale can tell by the movement of her shoulders that she is sobbing. At last she is crying, but I can’t comfort her. Dana spots him. She pulls Gita towards the outside of their row and points Lale out to her. Gita finally looks up and sees him. Their eyes meet, hers wet, pleading, his full of sorrow. Focused on Gita, Lale doesn’t see the SS officer. He is unable to move out the way of the rifle that swings at him, connecting with his face and sending him to his knees. Gita and Dana both scream and try to force their way back through the column of women. To no avail. They are swept up in the tide of moving bodies. Lale struggles to his feet, blood streaming down his face from a large gash above his right eye. Frantic now, he plunges into the moving crowd, searching each row of distraught women. As he gets near the gates he sees her again – within arm’s length. A guard steps in front of him and pushes the muzzle of his rifle into Lale’s chest.

Gita!’ he screams.



Lale’s world is spinning. He looks up at the sky, which seems only to be getting darker as the morning breaks. Above the noise of screaming guards and barking dogs he hears her.

‘Furman. My name is Gita Furman!’

Sinking to his knees in front of the unmoving guard, he shouts, ‘I love you.’

Nothing comes back. Lale remains on his knees. The guard moves away.

The cries of the women have stopped. The dogs cease barking.

The gates of Birkenau are shut.

Lale kneels in the snow, which continues to fall heavily. Blood from the wound in his forehead covers his face. He’s locked in, alone. He’s failed. An officer comes over to him. ‘You’ll freeze to death. Come on, go back to your block.’

He reaches a hand down and pulls Lale to his feet. An act of kindness from the enemy at the eleventh hour.

Cannon fire and explosions wake Lale the next morning. He rushes outside with the Hungarians to be greeted by panicked SS, and a chaos of prisoners and captors on the move, seemingly oblivious to each other.

The main gates are wide open.

Hundreds of prisoners walk through, unchallenged. Dazed, weak from malnourishment, some stumble around and then choose to return to their block to escape the cold. Lale walks out the gates he has been through hundreds of times before on the way to Auschwitz. A train is standing nearby, belching smoke into the sky, ready to leave. Guards and dogs begin rounding up men and pushing them towards the train. Lale gets caught up in the scrum and finds himself scrambling on board. The gates of his wagon are slammed closed. He pushes his way to the side and peers out. Hundreds of prisoners still wander around aimlessly. As the train pulls away, he sees SS open fire on those who remain.

He stands, staring through the slats of the wagon, through the snow falling heavily, mercilessly, as Birkenau disappears.

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