Chapter no 27

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Lale wakes to the feeling of the sun on his face. His clothes have dried out a bit and he can hear the sound of the river running below him. He crawls on his belly through the trees that have hidden him overnight and reaches the crest of a road. Russian soldiers are walking along it. He watches for a few moments, fearing gunfire. But the soldiers are relaxed. He decides to accelerate his plan to get home.

Lale raises his hands and steps out onto the road, startling a group of soldiers. They raise their rifles immediately.

‘I am Slovakian. I have been in a concentration camp for three years.’ The soldiers exchange glances.

‘Fuck off,’ one of them says, and they resume their march, one of them shoving Lale as he goes by. He stands for several minutes as many more soldiers walk past, ignoring him. Accepting their indifference, he carries on, receiving only an occasional glance. He decides to walk in the opposite direction to them, reasoning that the Russians are probably heading to engage with the Germans, so getting as far away as possible makes sense.

Eventually a jeep pulls up alongside him and stops. An officer in the back eyeballs him. ‘Who the hell are you?’



‘I’m Slovakian. I have been a prisoner in Auschwitz for three years.’ He pulls up his left sleeve to reveal his tattooed number.

‘Never heard of it.’

Lale swallows. It is unimaginable to him that a place of such horror should not be known.

‘It’s in Poland. That’s all I can tell you.’

‘You speak perfect Russian,’ the soldier says. ‘Any other languages?’ ‘Czech, German, French, Hungarian and Polish.’

The officer eyes him more carefully. ‘And where do you think you’re going?’

‘Home, back to Slovakia.’

‘No, you’re not. I have just the job for you. Get in.’

Lale wants to run, but he would have no chance, so he climbs into the passenger seat.

‘Turn around, back to headquarters,’ the officer instructs the driver.

The jeep bumps over potholes and ditches, heading back the way it has come. A few kilometres further on they pass through a small village and then turn up a dirt road towards a large chalet that sits on the top of a hill overlooking a beautiful valley. They enter a large circular driveway where

several expensive-looking cars are parked. Two guards stand either side of an imposing main doorway. The jeep skids to a stop, the driver scrambles out and opens the door for the officer in the back.

‘Come with me,’ the officer says.

Lale scurries after him into the foyer of the chalet. He pauses, shocked by the opulence before him. A grand staircase, works of art – paintings and tapestries on every wall – and furniture of a quality he has never seen before. Lale has stepped into a world beyond his comprehension. After what he has known, it is almost painful.

The officer heads towards a room off the main foyer, indicating that Lale should follow. They enter a large, exquisitely furnished room. A mahogany desk dominates, as does the person sitting behind it. Judging by his uniform and accompanying insignia, Lale is in the presence of a very senior Russian official. The man looks up as they enter.

‘Who have we here?’

‘He claims he was a prisoner of the Nazis for three years. I suspect he’s a Jew, but I don’t think that matters. What does matter is that he speaks both Russian and German,’ the officer says.


‘I thought he could be useful to us. You know, in talking to the locals.’

The senior officer leans back, seems to consider this. ‘Put him to work then. Find someone to guard him and shoot him if he tries to escape.’ As Lale is escorted from the room the senior officer adds, ‘And get him cleaned up and into some better clothes.’

‘Yes, sir. I think he will do well for us.’

Lale follows the officer. I don’t know what they want from me, but if it means a bath and clean clothes … They walk across the foyer and head upstairs to the first-floor landing; Lale notes that there are two further floors. They enter a bedroom and the Russian goes to the closet and opens it. Women’s clothing. Without a word he leaves and enters the next bedroom. This time, men’s clothes.

‘Find something that fits you and looks good. There should be a bathroom through there.’ He points. ‘Clean yourself up and I’ll be back in a short while.’

He closes the door behind him. Lale looks around the room. There is a large four-poster bed draped in heavy covers and with mountains of pillows of all shapes and sizes; a chest of drawers he thinks might be solid ebony; a small table complete with Tiffany lamp; and a lounge chair covered in exquisite embroidery. How he wishes Gita were here. He stifles the thought. He cannot afford to think of her. Not yet.

Lale runs his hands over the suits and shirts in the closet, both casual and formal, and all the accessories needed to resurrect the Lale of old. He selects a

suit and holds it up to the mirror, admiring the look: it will be close to a perfect fit. He throws it onto the bed. A white shirt soon joins it. From a drawer he selects soft underpants, crisp socks and a smooth brown leather belt. He finds a polished pair of shoes in another cupboard, a match for the suit. He slips his bare feet into them. Perfect.



A door leads to the bathroom. Gold fittings glisten against the white tiles that cover the walls and floor; a large stained-glass window casts pale yellow and dark green light around the room from the late-afternoon sun. He enters the room and stands still for a long time, enjoying the anticipation. Then he runs a deep bath and lowers himself into it, luxuriating in it until the water cools. He adds more steaming water, in no hurry for his first bath in three years to end. Eventually he climbs out and dries himself with a soft towel that he finds hanging with several others on the rail. He walks back into the bedroom and dresses slowly, savouring the feel of smooth cotton and linen, and woollen socks. Nothing scratches, irritates or hangs baggily off his shrunken frame. Clearly the owner of these clothes was slim.

He sits for a while on the bed, waiting for his minder to return. Then he decides to explore the room some more. He pulls back large drapes to reveal French windows that lead out onto a balcony. He opens the doors with a flourish and steps outside. Wow. Where am I? An immaculate garden stretches out before him, lawn disappearing into a forest. He has a perfect view down onto the circular drive and he watches as several cars pull up and deposit more Russian officials. He hears the door to his room opening and turns around to see his minder alongside another, lower-ranked soldier. He stays on the balcony. The two men join him and look out over the grounds.

‘Very nice, don’t you think?’ Lale’s minder says. ‘You’ve done well for yourselves. Quite a find.’

His minder laughs. ‘Yes, we have. This headquarters is a bit more comfortable than the one we had at the front.’

‘Are you going to tell me where I fit in?’

‘This is Fredrich. He is going to be your guard. He will shoot you if you try to escape.’

Lale looks at the man. His arm muscles bulge against his shirtsleeves and his chest threatens to pop the buttons that hold it in. His thin lips neither smile nor grimace. Lale’s nod of greeting isn’t returned.

‘He will not only guard you here but will take you to the village each day to make our purchases. Do you understand?’

‘What am I buying?’

‘Well, it’s not wine; we have a cellar full of that. Food, the chefs will buy.

They know what they want …’ ‘So that leaves …’ ‘Entertainment.’

Lale keeps his face neutral.

‘You will go into the village each morning to find lovely young ladies interested in spending some time here with us in the evening. Understand?’

‘I’m to be your pimp?’ ‘You understand perfectly.’

‘How am I to persuade them? Tell them you are all good-looking fellows who will treat them well?’

‘We will give you things to entice them.’ ‘What sort of things?’

‘Come with me.’

The three men walk back downstairs to another sumptuous room, where an officer opens a large vault set into a wall. The minder enters the vault and brings out two metal tins, which he places on the desk. In one there is currency, in the other, jewellery. Lale can see many other similar tins shelved in the vault.

‘Fredrich will bring you here each morning and you will take both money and jewellery for the girls. We need eight to ten each night. Just show them the payment and if need be, give them a small amount of money in advance. Tell them they will be paid in full when they arrive at the chalet, and when the evening is over they will be returned to their homes safe and well.’

Lale attempts to reach into the jewellery tin, which is promptly slammed shut.

‘Have you struck a rate with them already?’ he asks.

‘I’ll leave that to you to figure out. Just get the best deal you can.




‘Sure, you’d like prime beef for the price of sausage.’ Lale knows the right thing to say.

The officer laughs. ‘Go with Fredrich; he’ll show you around. You can take your meals in the kitchen or your room – let the chefs know.’

Fredrich takes Lale downstairs and introduces him to two of the chefs. He tells them he would prefer to eat in his room. Fredrich tells Lale that he must not go above the first floor and, even there, he is to enter no room but his own. He gets the message loud and clear.

A few hours later Lale is brought a meal of lamb in thick, creamy sauce. The carrots are cooked al dente and drip with butter. The whole dish is garnished with salt, pepper and fresh parsley. He had wondered if he might have lost the ability to appreciate rich flavours. He hasn’t. What he has lost, however, is the ability to enjoy the food before him. How can he, when Gita is not there to share it with him? When he has no idea whether she has anything to eat at all? When he has no idea … but he suppresses that thought. He is here now, and he must do what he has to do before he can find her. He only eats half of what’s on his plate. Always save some; that is how he has lived

these past years. Along with the food, Lale drinks most of a bottle of wine. It takes some effort to undress himself before he flops onto his bed and enters the sleep of the intoxicated.

He is woken the next morning by the clang of a breakfast tray being placed on the table. He can’t remember if he locked his room or not. Perhaps the chef has a key anyway. The evening’s empty tray and bottle are taken away. All without a word.

After breakfast he takes a quick shower. He is slipping on his shoes when Fredrich walks in. ‘Ready?’

Lale nods. ‘Let’s go.’

First stop, the study with the vault. Fredrich and another officer look on as Lale selects a quantity of cash, which is counted and noted in a ledger, then a combination of small items of jewellery and a few loose gems, also noted.

‘I’m taking more than I probably need because it’s my first time and I have no idea what the going rate is, OK?’ he says to both men.

They shrug.

‘Just make sure you return anything you don’t give away,’ the accountant officer says.

Putting the money in one pocket and the jewels in another, Lale follows Fredrich to a large garage block by the chalet. Fredrich commandeers a jeep, Lale gets in and they drive the few kilometres into the village Lale came through yesterday. Was it only yesterday? How can I feel so different already? During the journey Fredrich tells him they will drive a small truck in to pick up the girls in the evening. It isn’t comfortable, but it’s the only vehicle they have that can take twelve. As they enter the village, Lale asks, ‘So, where should I look for likely girls?’

‘I’ll drop you at the top of the street. Go into all the shops. Workers or customers, it doesn’t matter as long as they are young and preferably pretty. Find their price, show them the payment – if they want something upfront give them cash only. Tell them we will pick them up at six o’clock outside the bakery. Some have been before.’

‘How will I know if they’re already attached?’

‘They’ll say no, I’m thinking. They might also throw something at you, so be prepared to duck.’ As Lale gets out, he says, ‘I’ll be waiting and watching. Take your time. And don’t do anything stupid.’



Lale heads to a nearby boutique, hoping no husbands or boyfriends have gone shopping with their partners today. Everyone looks at him when he enters. He says hello in Russian, before remembering he is in Austria and switching to German.

‘Hello, ladies, how are you today?’

The women look at each other. A few giggle before a shop attendant asks, ‘Can I help you? Are you looking for something for your wife?’

‘Not exactly. I want to talk to all of you.’ ‘Are you Russian?’ a customer asks.

‘No, I’m Slovakian. However, I am here on behalf of the Russian army.’ ‘Are you staying in the chalet?’ asks another customer.


To Lale’s relief one of the shop attendants speaks up, ‘Are you here to see if we want to party tonight?’

‘Yes, yes, I am. Have you been before?’

‘I have. Don’t look so frightened. We all know what you want.’

Lale looks around. There are two shop assistants and four customers. ‘Well?’ he says cautiously.

‘Show us what you’ve got,’ a customer says.

Lale empties his pockets onto the counter as the girls gather around. ‘How much can we have?’

Lale looks at the girl who has been to the chalet before. ‘How much were you paid last time?’

She waves a diamond-and-pearl ring under his nose, ‘Plus ten marks.’ ‘OK, how about I give you five marks now, another five tonight and your

choice of a piece of jewellery?’

The girl rummages through and picks out a pearl bracelet. ‘I’ll have this one.’

Lale takes it gently from her hand. ‘Not yet,’ he says. ‘Be at the bakery at six tonight. Deal?’

‘Deal,’ she says.

Lale hands her five marks, which she stuffs down her bra.



The remaining girls peruse the jewellery and choose what they want. Lale gives them each five marks. There is no haggling.

‘Thank you, ladies. Before I leave, can you tell me where I might find some like-minded beauties?’

‘You could try the cafe a few doors down, or the library,’ one of them suggests.

‘Be careful of the grandmas in the cafe,’ one woman says with a giggle. ‘What do you mean, “grandmas”?’ Lale asks.

‘You know, old women – some of them are over thirty!’ Lale smiles.

‘Look,’ says the original volunteer, ‘you could stop any woman you meet in the street. We all know what you want, and there are plenty of us who need good food and drink even if we have to share it with those ugly Russian pigs. There are no men left here to help us. We do what we have to.’

‘As do I,’ Lale tells them. ‘Thank you all very much. I’ll look forward to seeing you tonight.’

Lale leaves the shop and leans against a wall, taking a breather. One shop,

half the girls required. He looks to the other side of the street. Fredrich is looking at him. He gives him a thumbs-up.

Now, where’s that cafe? On his walk there Lale stops three young women, two of whom agree to come to the party. In the cafe he finds three more. He thinks they are in their low to mid-thirties, but still beautiful women anyone would want to be seen with.

That evening Lale and Fredrich pick up the women, who are all waiting at the bakery as instructed. They are elegantly dressed and made up. The agreed transaction in jewellery and cash takes place with minimal scrutiny from Fredrich.

He watches as they enter the chalet. They are holding hands, wearing resolute expressions and occasionally laughing.

‘I’ll take what’s left over,’ Fredrich says, standing close to Lale.

Lale takes several notes and a couple of pieces of jewellery from his pockets and hands them to Fredrich, who seems satisfied the transactions have been carried out correctly. Fredrich pockets the goods, then sets about patting Lale down, digging his hands deep into his pockets.

‘Hey, careful,’ says Lale. ‘I don’t know you that well!’ ‘You’re not my type.’

The kitchen must have been told about his return as his supper arrives shortly after Lale has entered his room. He eats and then walks out onto the balcony. Leaning on the balustrade, he watches the comings and goings of vehicles. Occasionally the sound of the partying below filters up to him and he is pleased that he hears only laughter and conversation. Back in his room, he begins to undress for bed. Fiddling around in the cuff of his trousers, he finds the small diamond he has placed there. He takes a single sock out of the drawer and stuffs the diamond into it before retiring for the night.



He is woken a few hours later by laughter and chatter coming through his balcony doors. He steps outside and watches as the girls clamber aboard the truck for the trip home. Most seem intoxicated but none look distressed. He goes back to bed.

For the next several weeks Lale and Fredrich make their twice-daily trips into the village. He becomes well known there; even women who never come to the chalet know who he is and greet him in passing. The boutique and the cafe are his two favourite places and soon girls gather there at the time they know he will arrive. He is often greeted by his regulars with a kiss on the cheek and

a request for him to join the partying that night. They seem genuinely upset that he never does.

One day in the cafe, Serena, a waitress there, says loudly, ‘Lale, will you marry me when the war is over?’ The other girls there giggle, and the older women tut.

‘She’s fallen for you, Lale. She doesn’t want any of those Russian pigs no matter how much money they have,’ one of the customers adds.

‘You are a very beautiful girl, Serena, but I’m afraid my heart belongs to someone else.’

‘Who? What’s her name?’ asks Serena indignantly. ‘Her name is Gita and I am promised to her. I love her.’ ‘Is she waiting for you? Where is she?’

‘I don’t know where she is right now, but I’ll find her.’ ‘How do you even know if she’s alive?’

‘Oh, she’s alive. Have you ever just known something?’ ‘I’m not sure.’

‘Then you’ve never been in love. I’ll see you girls later. Six o’clock. Don’t be late.’

A chorus of goodbyes follows him out the door.

That night, as Lale adds a large ruby to his war chest, a terrible homesickness overtakes him. He sits on his bed for a long time. His memories of home have been tainted by his memories of the war. Everything and everyone he cared for is now only visible to him through glasses darkened by suffering and loss. When he manages to pull himself together, he empties the sock onto his bed and counts the gems he has managed to smuggle over the weeks. Then he wanders out onto the balcony. The nights are getting warmer and several of the partygoers are out on the lawn, some lounging about, others playing a kind of chase game. A knock on his bedroom door startles him. Since the first night, Lale has locked his door whether he is in the room or not. Rushing to open the door, Lale sees the gems on his bed and quickly pulls the covers over them. He doesn’t spot the latest ruby falling onto the floor.

‘Why was your door locked?’ Fredrich asks.

‘I do not want to find myself sharing my bed with one of your colleagues, several of whom I have observed have no interest in the girls we bring them.’

‘I see. You are a good-looking man. You know they would reward you handsomely if you were so inclined.’

‘I’m not.’

‘Would you like one of the girls? They’ve already been paid.’ ‘No, thanks.’

Fredrich’s eye is caught by a sparkling from the rug. He bends down and picks up the ruby. ‘And what is this?’

Lale looks at the gem, surprised.

‘Can you explain why you’ve got this, Lale?’

‘It must have got caught in the lining of my pocket.’ ‘Really?’

‘Do you think if I had taken it I would have left it there for you to find?’

Fredrich considers him. ‘I suppose not.’ He pockets it. ‘I’ll return it to the vault.’

‘What did you want to see me about?’ Lale asks, changing the topic.

‘I’m being transferred tomorrow, so you’ll be doing the morning run and pick-up on your own from now on.’

‘You mean with someone else?’ asks Lale.



‘No. You’ve proven you can be trusted; the general’s very impressed with you. Just keep doing what you’re doing, and when it’s time for everyone to leave here there might even be a little bonus for you.’

‘I’m sorry to see you go. I’ve enjoyed our conversations in the truck. Look after yourself; there’s still a war going on out there.’

They shake hands.

Once Lale is alone, securely locked in his room, he gathers up the gems on his bed and puts them back in the sock. From the closet he chooses the nicest-looking suit and puts it aside. He lays a shirt and several pairs of underpants and socks on the table, and slots a pair of shoes underneath it.

The next morning Lale showers and dresses in his chosen clothes, including four pairs of underpants and three pairs of socks. He puts the sock containing the gems into his inside jacket pocket. He takes one last look around his room and then makes his way to the vault. Lale helps himself to his normal amount of money and jewels and is about to leave when the accountant officer stops him.

‘Wait. Take extra today. We have two very senior officers from Moscow arriving this afternoon. Buy them the best.’

Lale takes the extra money and jewels. ‘I might be a little bit late back this morning. I’m going to the library as well to see if I can borrow a book.’

‘We’ve got a perfectly good library here.’

‘Thanks, but there are always officers in there, and … well, I still find them intimidating. You understand?’

‘Oh, OK. As you wish.’

Lale walks into the garage and nods to the attendant, who is busy washing a car. ‘Lovely day, Lale. Keys are in the jeep. I hear you’re going alone


‘Yes, Fredrich’s been transferred; sure hope it isn’t to the front.’ The attendant laughs. ‘Just be his rotten luck.’

‘Oh, I’ve got permission to be back later than usual today.’ ‘Want a bit of action for yourself, do you?’

‘Something like that. See you later.’ ‘OK, have a good day.’

Lale hops casually into the jeep and drives away from the chalet without looking back. In the village, he parks at the end of the main street, leaves the keys in the ignition and walks away. He spots a bicycle leaning outside a shop, which he casually wheels away. Then he hops on and cycles out of town.



A few kilometres away he is stopped by a Russian patrol. A young officer challenges him. ‘Where are you going?’

‘I have been a prisoner of the Germans for three years. I am from Slovakia and I am going home.’

The Russian grabs hold of the handlebars, forcing Lale to dismount. He turns away from him and receives a firm kick up the bum.

‘The walk will do you good. Now fuck off.’ Lale walks on. Not worth arguing.

Evening arrives and he does not stop walking. He can see the lights of a small town ahead and picks up his pace. The place is crawling with Russian soldiers, and even though they ignore him, he feels he must move on. On the outskirts of town he comes across a railway station and hurries over to it, thinking he might find a bench to lay his head for a few hours. Walking out onto a platform, he finds a train alongside, but no signs of life. The train fills him with foreboding, but he represses the fear, and walks up and down, peering inside. Carriages. Carriages designed for people. A light in the nearby station office catches his attention and he walks towards it. Inside, a stationmaster rocks on a chair, his head dropping forward as he fights the need to sleep. Lale steps back from the window and fakes a coughing fit before approaching with a confidence he doesn’t really feel. The stationmaster, now awake, comes to the window, opening it just enough for a conversation.

‘Can I help you?’

‘The train, where is it headed?’ ‘Bratislava.’

‘Can I travel on it?’ ‘Can you pay?’

Lale pulls the sock from his jacket, extracts two diamonds and hands them to him. As he does so, the sleeve on his left arm rides up, revealing his tattoo. The stationmaster takes the gems. ‘The end carriage, no one will bother you

there. It’s not leaving until six in the morning though.’

Lale glances at the clock inside the station. Eight hours away.

‘I can wait. How long is the journey?’ ‘About an hour and a half.’

‘Thank you. Thank you very much.’

As Lale is heading for the end carriage he is stopped by a call from the stationmaster, who catches up to him and hands him food and a thermos.

‘It’s just a sandwich the wife made, but the coffee’s hot and strong.’

Taking the food and coffee, Lale’s shoulders sag and he can’t hold back the tears. He looks up to see the stationmaster also has tears in his eyes as he turns away, heading back to his office.

‘Thank you.’ He can barely get the words out.

Day breaks as they reach the border with Slovakia. An official approaches Lale and asks for his papers. Lale rolls up his sleeve to show his only form of identification: 32407.

‘I am Slovakian,’ he says. ‘Welcome home.’

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