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Chapter no 25

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Gita and her friends are on the march with thousands of other women from Birkenau and Auschwitz, trudging along a narrow track through ankle-deep snow. As carefully as they can, Gita and Dana search the rows, all too aware that any straggling is dealt with by a bullet. They ask a hundred times, ‘Have you seen Cilka? Have you seen Ivana?’ The answer is always the same. The women try to support each other by linking arms. At seemingly random times they are halted and told to take a rest. Despite the cold they sit in the snow, anything to give their feet some relief. Many remain there when the order to move on comes, dead or dying, unable to take another step.

Day becomes night, and still they march. Their numbers dwindle, which only makes it harder to escape the watchful eye of the SS. During the night, Dana drops to her knees. She can go on no longer. Gita stops with her and for a while they are unseen, screened by other women. Dana keeps telling Gita to go on, to leave her. Gita protests. She would rather die here with her friend, in a field somewhere in Poland. Four young girls offer to help carry Dana. Dana will not hear of it. She tells them to take Gita and go. As an SS officer advances on them, the four girls pull Gita to her feet and drag her with them. Gita looks back at the officer, who has stopped beside Dana but moves on without drawing his pistol. No shot rings out. Clearly he thinks she is already dead. The girls continue to drag Gita. They will not let her go as she attempts to break free and get back to Dana.

Through the dark the women stumble on, the sound of random shots barely even registering now. No longer do they turn around to see who has fallen.

As day breaks, they are brought to a halt in a field by a train track. An engine and several cattle wagons stand waiting. They brought me here. Now they will take me away, thinks Gita.

She has learned that the four girls she is now travelling with are Polish and not Jewish. Polish girls taken from their families for reasons they do not know. They come from four different towns and hadn’t known each other before Birkenau.

Across the field stands a lone house. Behind it a dense wood spreads out. SS bark out orders as the train engine is stoked with coal. The Polish girls turn to Gita. One of them says, ‘We’re going to make a run for that house. If we get shot then we will die here, but we’re not going any further. Do you want to come with us?’

Gita stands up.

 

 

Once the girls are running, they don’t look back. The act of loading

thousands of exhausted women onto the train takes all the guards’ attention. The door to the house is opened before they reach it. Inside, they collapse in front of a roaring fire, adrenaline and relief surging through them. Hot drinks are placed in their hands, along with bread. The Polish girls talk frantically to the homeowners, who shake their heads in disbelief. Gita says nothing, not wanting her accent to give away the fact she isn’t Polish. It’s better their saviours think she is one of them – the quiet one. The man of the house says they can’t stay with them as the Germans often search the premises. He tells them to take their coats off. He takes them out the back of the house. When he returns, the red slashes are gone and the coats smell of petrol.

Outside, they hear repeated shooting, and peering through the curtains they watch as all surviving women are finally herded onto the train. Bodies litter the snow beside the tracks. The man gives the girls the address of a relative in a nearby village, as well as a supply of bread and a blanket. They leave the house and enter the woods, where they spend the night on the freezing ground, curled up together in a vain attempt to stay warm. The bare trees provide little in the way of protection, either from being seen or from the elements.

It is early evening before they arrive in the next village. The sun has gone down and the weak street lamps cast little light. They are forced to ask a passer-by for help finding the address they have been given. The kind woman takes them to the house they seek and stays with them while they knock on the door.

‘Look after them,’ she says when the door opens, and walks away.

A woman stands aside as the girls enter her home. Once the door is closed they explain who sent them here.

‘Do you know who that was just now?’ the woman stammers. ‘No,’ one of the girls answers.

 

 

‘She’s SS. A senior SS officer.’

‘Do you think she knows who we are?’

‘She’s not stupid. I’ve heard stories about her being one of the cruellest people in the concentration camps.’

An elderly woman comes out of the kitchen.

‘Mother, we have some guests. These poor things were in one of the camps. We must give them something warm to eat.’

The older woman makes a fuss over the girls, taking them into the kitchen, sitting them at the table. Gita can’t remember the last time she sat on a chair at a kitchen table. From a stove the older woman ladles hot soup for them and then peppers them with questions. The owners decide it is not safe for them to

stay here. They are afraid the SS officer will report the girls’ presence.

The older woman excuses herself and leaves the house. A short while later she returns with a neighbour. Her house has both a roof cavity and a cellar. She is willing to let the five of them sleep in the roof. With the heat from the fireplace rising, it will be warmer up there than in the cellar. They won’t be able to stay in the house during the day though, as every house can be searched at any time by the Germans, even though they seem to be retreating.

Gita and her four Polish friends sleep in the roof space each night and spend the days hiding in the nearby woods. Word sweeps through the small village and the local priest has his parishioners bring food to the house owner each day. After a few weeks the remaining Germans are flushed out by the advancing Russian soldiers, several of whom set up house in the property directly opposite where Gita and her friends sleep. One morning the girls are late leaving for the woods and are stopped by a Russian standing guard outside the building. They show him their tattoos and try to explain where they have been and why they are here now. Compassionate to their plight, he offers to place a guard outside the house. This means they no longer have to spend their days in the woods. Where they live is no longer a secret and they receive a smile or a wave from the soldiers when they come and go.

One day one of the soldiers asks Gita a direct question, and when she answers he immediately recognises that she isn’t Polish. She tells him she is from Slovakia. That evening he knocks on the door and introduces a young man dressed in a Russian uniform but who is in fact from Slovakia. The two of them talk into the night.

 

 

The girls have been pushing their luck in staying by the fire later into the evening. A degree of complacency has set in. One evening, they are caught off guard when the front door bursts open and a drunken Russian staggers in. The girls can see their ‘guard’ lying unconscious outside. Waving a pistol, the intruder singles out one of the girls and attempts to rip her clothes off. At the same time he drops his trousers. Gita and the others scream. Several Russian soldiers soon burst into the room. Seeing their comrade on top of one of the girls, one of them pulls out his pistol and shoots him in the head. He and his comrades drag the would-be rapist from the house, apologising profusely.

Traumatised, the girls decide they must move on. One of them had a sister living in Krakow. Maybe she is still there. As a further apology for the attack the previous night, a senior Russian soldier arranges a driver and a small truck to take them to Krakow.

They find the sister still living in her small apartment above a grocery store. The flat is crowded with people, friends who had fled the city and are now

returning, homeless. No one has any money. To get by, they visit a market every day and each steals one item of food. From these pickings they make a nightly meal.

One day at the market, Gita’s ears prick up at the sound of her native language being spoken by a truck driver unloading produce. She learns from him that several trucks a week travel from Bratislava to Krakow, bringing fresh fruit and vegetables. He accepts her request to travel back with them. She runs and tells the people she has been living with that she is leaving. Saying goodbye to the four friends she escaped with is very difficult. They come with her to the market and wave her off as the truck carrying her and two of her countrymen leaves in the direction of a host of unknowns. She has long accepted that her parents and two young sisters are dead, but she prays that at least one of her brothers has survived. Becoming partisan fighters with the Russians might have kept them safe.

In Bratislava, just as in Krakow, Gita joins other survivors of the camps in shared, crowded apartments. She registers her name and address with the Red Cross, having been told that all returning prisoners are doing this in the hope they can find missing relatives and friends.

One afternoon she looks out of her apartment window to see two young Russian soldiers jumping over the back fence into the property where she lives. She is terrified, but as they come closer she recognises her two brothers, Doddo and Latslo. Running down the stairs, she flings open the door and hugs them with all her strength. They dare not stay, they tell her. Even though the Russians liberated the town from the Germans, the locals are suspicious of anyone wearing a Russian uniform. Not wanting to spoil the brief sweetness of their reunion, Gita keeps what she knows about the rest of the family to herself. They will find out soon enough, and this is not something to be spoken of in a few snatched minutes.

Before they separate, Gita tells them how she too has worn a Russian uniform: it was the first clothing she was given on arrival at Auschwitz. She says she looked better in it than they do and they all laugh.

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