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Chapter no 26

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Lale’s train moves across the countryside. He leans against the compartment wall, fiddling with the two pouches tied inside his trousers that contain the gems he’s risked bringing with him. The bulk of them he left under his mattress. Whoever searches his room can have them.

Later that evening, the train grinds to a halt and rifle-toting SS order everyone to scramble out, just as they had nearly three years ago in Birkenau. Another concentration camp. One of the men in Lale’s wagon jumps down with him.

‘I know this place. I’ve been here before.’ ‘Yeah?’ Lale says.

‘Mauthausen, in Austria. Not quite as terrible as Birkenau, but nearly.’ ‘I’m Lale.’

‘Joseph, pleased to meet you.’

 

 

Once the men have all disembarked the SS wave them through, telling them to go and find themselves a place to sleep. Lale follows Joseph into a block. The men here are starving – skin-covered skeletons – yet they still have enough life in them to be territorial.

‘Piss off, there’s no room in here.’

One man per bunk, each claims his space and looks prepared to fight to defend it. Two more blocks elicit the same response. Finally they find one with more space and claim their turf. As others come into the block, searching for a place to sleep, they call out the accepted greeting: ‘Piss off, we’re full here.’

The next morning Lale sees men from the blocks near him lining up. He realises he is to be strip-searched and asked for information about who he is and where he has come from. Again. From his gem pouches he takes the three largest diamonds and puts them in his mouth. He rushes to the back of the block while the rest of the men are still gathering and scatters the remaining gems there. The inspection of the line of naked men begins. He watches the guards yanking open the mouths of those before him so he rolls the diamonds under his tongue. He has his mouth open before the inspecting party reaches him. After a quick glance they walk on by.

For several weeks Lale, along with all the other prisoners, sits around doing virtually nothing. Almost all he can do is watch, in particular the SS guarding

them, and he tries to work out who can be approached and who must be avoided. He starts to talk occasionally to one of them. The guard is impressed that Lale speaks fluent German. He has heard about Auschwitz and Birkenau, has not been there, and wants to hear about it. Lale paints a picture removed from reality. Nothing can be gained by telling this German the true nature of the treatment of prisoners there. He tells him what he did there and how he much preferred to work than to sit around. A few days later the guard asks him if he’d like to move to a sub-camp of Mauthausen, at Saurer Werke in Vienna. Thinking it cannot be any worse than here, and with assurances from the guard that conditions are slightly better and the commandant is too old to care, Lale accepts the offer. The guard points out that this camp does not take Jews so he should keep quiet about his religion.

The next day the guard tells Lale, ‘Gather your things. You’re out of here.’ Lale looks around. ‘Gathered.’

‘You leave by truck in about an hour. Line up at the gate. Your name is on the list,’ he laughs.

‘My name?’

‘Yes. You need to keep your arm with its number hidden, OK?’ ‘I get to answer to my name?’

‘Yes – don’t forget. Good luck.’

‘Before you go, I’d like to give you something.’ The guard looks perplexed.

 

 

From his mouth Lale takes a diamond, wipes it on his shirt and hands it to him. ‘Now you can’t say you never got anything from a Jew.’

Vienna. Who wouldn’t want to visit Vienna? It was a dream destination for Lale in his playboy days. The very word sounds romantic, full of style and possibility. But he knows it will now fail to live up to this perception.

The guards are indifferent to Lale and the others when they arrive. They find a block and are told where and when to get their meals. Lale’s thoughts are dominated by Gita and by how he can get to her. Being shunted from camp to camp to camp – he cannot bear it much longer.

For several days he observes his surroundings. He sees the camp commandant doddering about and wonders how he is still breathing. He chats to amenable guards and tries to understand the dynamic among the prisoners. Once he discovers that he is probably the only Slovakian prisoner here, he decides to keep to himself. Poles, Russians and a few Italians sit around all day talking with their countrymen, leaving Lale largely isolated.

One day, two young men sidle up to him. ‘They say you were the Tätowierer at Auschwitz.’

‘Who are “they”?’

‘Someone said they thought they knew you there and that you tattooed the prisoners.’

Lale grabs the young man’s hand and pulls up his sleeve. No number. He turns to the second man.

‘What about you, were you there?’ ‘No, but is it true what they say?’

‘I was the Tätowierer, but so what?’ ‘Nothing. Just asking.’

The boys walk away. Lale goes back to his daydreaming. He doesn’t see the approaching SS officers until they yank him to his feet and frogmarch him to a nearby building. Lale finds himself standing in front of the ageing commandant, who nods to one of the SS officers. The officer pulls up Lale’s sleeve, revealing his number.

‘You were in Auschwitz?’ the commandant asks. ‘Yes, sir.’

‘Were you the Tätowierer there?’ ‘Yes, sir.’

‘So you are a Jew?’

‘No, sir, I am a Catholic.’

The commandant raises a brow. ‘Oh? I didn’t know they had Catholics in Auschwitz.’

‘They had all religions there, sir, along with criminals and politicals.’ ‘Are you a criminal?’

‘No, sir.’

‘And you’re not a Jew?’ ‘No, sir. I’m Catholic.’

‘You have answered “no” twice. I will ask you only once more. Are you a Jew?’

‘No, I am not. Here – let me prove it to you.’ With that, Lale undoes the string holding up his trousers and they fall to the floor. He hooks his fingers into the back of his underpants and starts to pull them down.

‘Stop. I don’t need to see. OK, you can go.’

 

 

Pulling his trousers back up, trying to control his breathing, which threatens to give him away, Lale hurries from the office. In an outer office he stops and slumps in a chair. The officer behind a nearby desk looks at him.

‘Are you all right?’

‘Yes, I’m good, just a bit dizzy. Do you know what the date is?’ ‘It’s the 22nd, no, wait, the 23rd of April. Why?’

‘Nothing. Thanks. Goodbye.’

Outside, Lale looks at the prisoners sitting lazily around the compound and at the guards who look even lazier. Three years. You’ve taken three years of

my life. You will not have one more day. At the back of the blocks, Lale walks along the fence, shaking it, looking for a weak point. It doesn’t take him long to find one. The fence comes away at ground level and he is able to pull it towards him. Not even bothering to see if anyone is watching, he crawls under and walks calmly away.

Forest provides him with cover from any patrolling Germans. As he walks deeper in he hears the sound of cannons and rifle fire. He doesn’t know whether to walk towards it or run the other way. During a brief ceasefire he hears the running of a stream. To reach it, he must get closer to the shooting, but he’s always had a good internal compass and that direction feels right. If it is the Russians, or even the Americans, on the other side of the stream, he will gladly surrender to them. As the daylight fades into evening he can see the flash of gunfire and cannons in the distance. Still, it is the water he wants to get to, and hopefully a bridge and a route away. When he gets there, a river confronts him rather than a stream. He looks across and listens to the cannon fire. It must be the RussiansI’m coming your way. Lowering himself into the water, Lale is shocked at the freezing cold. He swims slowly out into the river, careful not to disturb the water too much with his strokes in case he’s seen. Pausing, he raises his head and listens. The gunfire is closer. ‘Shit,’ he mutters. He stops swimming and lets the current carry him directly under the crossfire, just another log or dead body to be ignored. When he thinks he has safely cleared the warring armies, he swims frantically to the far bank. He hauls himself out and drags his drenched body into the trees, before collapsing in shivers and passing out.

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