Chapter no 3

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

June 1942

Lale is slowly waking, holding onto a dream that has put a smile on his face.

Stay, stay, let me stay here just a moment longer, please 

While Lale likes meeting all kinds of people, he particularly likes meeting women. He thinks them all beautiful, regardless of their age, their appearance, how they are dressed. The highlight of his daily routine is walking through the women’s department where he works. That’s when he flirts with the young and not so young women who work behind the counter.

Lale hears the main doors to the department store open. He looks up and a woman hurries inside. Behind her, two Slovakian soldiers stand in the doorway and don’t follow her in. He hurries over to her with a reassuring smile. ‘You’re OK,’ he says. ‘You’re safe here with me.’ She accepts his hand and he leads her towards a counter full of extravagant bottles of perfume. Looking at several, he settles on one and holds it towards her. She turns her neck in a playful manner. Lale softly sprays first one side of her neck and then the other. Their eyes meet as her head turns. Both wrists are held out, and each receives their reward. She brings one wrist to her nose, closes her eyes and sniffs lightly. The same wrist is offered to Lale. Gently holding her hand, he brings it close to his face as he bends and inhales the intoxicating mix of perfume and youth.



‘Yes. That’s the one for you,’ Lale says. ‘I’ll take it.’

Lale hands the bottle over to the waiting shop assistant, who begins to wrap it.

‘Is there anything else I can help you with?’ he says.

Faces flash before him, smiling young women dance around him, happy, living life to the fullest. Lale holds the arm of the young lady he met in the women’s department. His dream seems to rush ahead. Lale and the lady walk into an exquisite restaurant, dimly lit by minimal wall sconces. A flickering candle on each table holds down heavy Jacquard tablecloths. Expensive jewellery projects colours onto the walls. The noise of silver cutlery on fine china is softened by the dulcet sounds of the string quartet silhouetted in one corner. The concierge greets him warmly as he takes the coat from Lale’s companion and steers them towards a table. As they sit, the maître d’ shows Lale a bottle of wine. Without taking his eyes from his companion, he nods and the bottle is uncorked and poured. Both Lale and the lady feel for their glass. Their eyes still locked, they raise their hands and sip. Lale’s dream jumps forward again. He is close to waking up. No. Now he is rifling through

his wardrobe, selecting a suit, a shirt, considering and rejecting ties until he finds the right one and attaches it perfectly. He slides polished shoes onto his feet. From the bedside table he pockets his keys and wallet before bending down and pushing a wayward strand of hair from the face of his sleeping companion, and lightly kissing her on the forehead. She stirs and smiles. In a husky voice she says, ‘Tonight …’

Gunshots outside catapult Lale into wakefulness. He is jostled by his bunkmates as they look for the threat. With the memory of her warm body still lingering, Lale rises slowly and is the last to line up for rollcall. He is nudged by the prisoner beside him when he fails to respond to his number being called.

‘What’s wrong?’

‘Nothing … Everything. This place.’

‘It’s the same as it was yesterday. And it will be the same tomorrow. You taught me that. What’s changed for you?’

‘You’re right – same, same. It’s just that, well, I had a dream about a girl I once knew, in another lifetime.’

‘What was her name?’

‘I can’t remember. It doesn’t matter.’ ‘You weren’t in love with her then?’

‘I loved them all, but somehow none of them ever captured my heart. Does that make sense?’

‘Not really. I’d settle for one girl to love and spend the rest of my life with.’

It has been raining for days, but this morning the sun threatens to shine a little light on the bleak Birkenau compound as Lale and Pepan prepare their work area. They have two tables, bottles of ink, plenty of needles.

‘Get ready, Lale, here they come.’

Lale looks up and is stunned at the sight of dozens of young women being escorted their way. He knew there were girls in Auschwitz but not here, not in Birkenau, this hell of hells.

‘Something a bit different today, Lale – they’ve moved some girls from Auschwitz to here and some of them need their numbers redone.’




‘Their numbers, they were made with a stamp that was inefficient. We need to do them properly. No time to admire them, Lale – just do your job.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Do your job, Lale. Don’t say a word to any of them. Don’t do anything stupid.’

The row of young girls snakes back beyond his vision. ‘I can’t do this. Please, Pepan, we can’t do this.’

‘Yes, you can, Lale. You must. If you don’t, someone else will, and my saving you will have been for nothing. Just do the job, Lale.’ Pepan holds Lale’s stare. Dread settles deep in Lale’s bones. Pepan is right. He either follows the rules or risks death.

Lale starts ‘the job’. He tries not to look up. He reaches out to take the piece of paper being handed to him. He must transfer the numbers onto the girl who holds it. There is already a number there, but it has faded. He pushes the needle into her left arm, making a 3, trying to be gentle. Blood oozes. But the needle hasn’t gone deep enough and he has to trace the number again. She doesn’t flinch at the pain Lale knows he’s inflicting. They’ve been warned –say nothing, do nothing. He wipes away the blood and rubs green ink into the wound.

‘Hurry up!’ Pepan whispers.

Lale is taking too long. Tattooing the arms of men is one thing. Defiling the bodies of young girls is horrifying. Glancing up, Lale sees a man in a white coat slowly walking up the row of girls. Every now and then the man stops to inspect the face and body of a terrified young woman. Eventually he reaches Lale. While Lale holds the arm of the girl in front of him as gently as he can, the man takes her face in his hand and turns it roughly this way and that. Lale looks up into the frightened eyes. Her lips move in readiness to speak. He squeezes her arm tightly to stop her. She looks at him and he mouths, ‘Shh.’ The man in the white coat releases her face and walks away.

‘Well done,’ he whispers as he sets about tattooing the remaining four digits – 4 9 0 2. When he has finished, he holds on to her arm for a moment longer than necessary, looking again into her eyes. He forces a small smile. She returns a smaller one. Her eyes, however, dance before him. Looking into them, his heart seems simultaneously to stop and begin beating for the first time, pounding, threatening to burst out of his chest. He looks down at the ground and it sways beneath him. Another piece of paper is thrust at him.

‘Hurry up, Lale!’ Pepan whispers urgently. When he looks up again she is gone.

Several weeks later Lale reports for work as usual. His table and equipment are already laid out and he looks around anxiously for Pepan. Lots of men are heading his way. He is startled by the approach of Oberscharführer Houstek,

accompanied by a young SS officer. Lale bows his head and remembers Pepan’s words: ‘Do not underestimate him.’

‘You will be working alone today,’ Houstek mumbles.

As Houstek turns to walk away, Lale asks quietly, ‘Where is Pepan?’ Houstek stops, turns and glares back at him. Lale’s heart skips a beat.

‘You are the Tätowierer now.’ Houstek turns to the SS officer. ‘And you are responsible for him.’

As Houstek walks away, the SS officer puts his rifle to his shoulder and points it at Lale. Lale returns his stare, looking into the black eyes of a scrawny kid wearing a cruel smirk. Eventually Lale drops his gaze. Pepan, you said this job might help save my life. But what has happened to you?

‘It seems my fate is in your hands,’ snarls the officer. ‘What do you think about that?’

‘I’ll try not to let you down.’

‘Try? You’ll do better than try. You will not let me down.’ ‘Yes, sir.’

‘What block are you in?’ ‘Number seven.’

‘When you’re finished here, I’ll show you to your room in one of the new blocks. You’ll stay there from now on.’

‘I’m happy in my block, sir.’

‘Don’t be stupid. You’ll need protection now that you’re the Tätowierer. You now work for the Political Wing of the SS – shit, maybe should be scared of you.’ There is the smirk again.

Having survived this round of questioning, Lale pushes his luck. ‘The process will go much faster, you know, if I have an assistant.’

The SS officer takes a step closer to Lale, looking him up and down with contempt.


‘If you get someone to help me, the process will go faster and your boss will be happy.’

As if instructed by Houstek, the officer turns away and walks down the line of young men waiting to be numbered, all of whom, bar one, have their heads bowed. Lale fears for the one staring back at the officer and is surprised when he is dragged by the arm and marched up to Lale.

‘Your assistant. Do his number first.’



Lale takes the piece of paper from the young man and quickly tattoos his arm.

‘What’s your name?’ he asks. ‘Leon.’

‘Leon, I am Lale, the Tätowierer,’ he says, his voice firm like Pepan’s. ‘Now, stand beside me and watch what I’m doing. Starting tomorrow, you

will work for me as my assistant. It might just save your life.’

The sun has set by the time the last prisoner has been tattooed and shoved towards his new home. Lale’s guard, whose name, he found out, is Baretski, didn’t wander more than a few metres from him. He approaches Lale and his new assistant.

‘Take him to your block, then come back here.’ Lale hurries Leon to Block 7.

‘Wait outside the block in the morning and I’ll come and get you. If your kapo wants to know why you aren’t going with the others to build, tell him you now work for the Tätowierer.’

When Lale returns to his workstation, his tools have been packed into an attaché bag and his table has been folded. Baretski stands waiting for him.

‘Bring these to your new room. Each morning, report to the administration building for supplies and to get instructions on where you will be working that day.’

‘Can I get an extra table and supplies for Leon?’ ‘Who?’

‘My assistant.’

‘Just ask at administration for whatever you need.’

He leads Lale to an area of the camp that is still under construction. Many of the buildings are unfinished and the eerie quiet makes Lale shiver. One of these new blocks is complete, and Baretski shows Lale to a single room located immediately inside the door.

‘You will sleep here,’ Baretski says. Lale puts his bag of tools on the hard floor and takes in the small, isolated room. He misses his friends in Block 7 already.

Next, following Baretski, Lale learns that he will now take his meals in an area near the administration building. In his role as Tätowierer, he will receive extra rations. They head to dinner, while Baretski explains, ‘We want our workers to have their strength.’ He motions for Lale to take a spot in the dinner queue. ‘Make the most of it.’

As Baretski walks away, a ladle of weak soup and a chunk of bread are handed to Lale. He gulps them both down and is about to walk away.

‘You may have more if you wish,’ says a plaintive voice.

Lale takes a second helping of bread, looking at the prisoners around him who eat in silence, sharing no pleasantries, only surreptitious glances. The

feelings of mistrust and fear are obvious. Walking away, the bread shoved up his sleeve, he heads to his old home, Block 7. He nods to the kapo as he enters, who seems to have got the message that Lale is no longer his to command. Going inside, Lale acknowledges the greetings of many of the men he has shared a block with, shared his fears and dreams of another life with. When he arrives at his old bunk, Leon sits there with his feet dangling over the side. Lale looks at the young man’s face. His wide blue eyes have a gentleness and honesty that Lale finds endearing.

‘Come outside with me for a moment.’

Leon jumps from the bunk and follows him. All eyes are on the two of them. Walking around the side of the block, Lale pulls the chunk of stale bread from his sleeve and offers it to Leon, who devours it. Only when it’s finished does he thank him.

‘I knew you would have missed supper. I get extra rations now. I will try and share them with you and the others when I can. Now go back inside. Tell them I dragged you out here to tick you off. And keep your head down. I’ll see you in the morning.’

‘Don’t you want them to know you can get extra rations?’

‘No. Let me see how things play out. I can’t help them all at once and they don’t need an extra reason to fight among themselves.’

Lale watches Leon enter his old block with a mixture of feelings he finds hard to articulate. Should I be fearful now that I am privileged? Why do I feel sad about leaving my old position in the camp, even though it offered me no protection? He wanders into the shadows of the half-finished buildings. He is alone.

That night, Lale sleeps stretched out for the first time in months. No one to kick, no one to push him. He feels like a king in the luxury of his own bed. And just like a king, he must now be wary of people’s motives for befriending him or taking him into their confidence. Are they jealous? Do they want my job? Do I run the risk of being wrongly accused of something? He has seen the consequences of greed and mistrust here. Most people believe that if there are fewer men, there will be more food to go around. Food is currency. With it, you stay alive. You have the strength to do what is asked of you. You get to live another day. Without it, you weaken to the point you don’t care anymore. His new position adds to the complexity of surviving. He is sure that as he left his block and walked past the bunks of beaten men, he heard someone mutter the word ‘collaborator’.



The next morning Lale is waiting with Leon outside the administration building when Baretski arrives and compliments him on being early. Lale

holds his attaché bag and his table rests on the ground beside him. Baretski tells Leon to stay where he is and Lale to follow him inside. Lale looks around the large reception area. He can see corridors running off in different directions with what look like offices adjoining. Behind the large reception desk are several rows of small desks with young girls all working diligently –filing, transcribing. Baretski introduces him to an SS officer – ‘Meet the Tätowierer’ – and tells him again to get his supplies and instructions here each day. Lale asks for an extra table and tools, as he has an assistant waiting outside. The request is granted without comment. Lale breathes a sigh of relief. He has saved one man from hard labour, at least. He thinks of Pepan and silently thanks him. He takes the table and stuffs the extra supplies into his bag. As Lale turns away, the administration clerk calls out to him.

‘Carry that bag with you at all times, identify yourself with the words “Politische Abteilung” and no one will bother you. Return the numbered paper to us every night, but keep hold of the bag.’

Baretski snorts beside Lale. ‘It’s true, with that bag and those words you are safe, except from me of course. Screw up and get me into trouble and no bag or words will save you.’ His hand goes to his pistol, rests on the holster, flicks the catch open. Closed. Open. Closed. His breathing grows deeper.

Lale does the smart thing, lowers his eyes and turns away.

Transports come into Auschwitz-Birkenau at all times of the day and night. It isn’t unusual for Lale and Leon to work around the clock. On such days Baretski shows his most unpleasant side. He screams abuse or beats Leon, blaming him for keeping him from his bed with his slowness. Lale quickly learns that the bad treatment gets worse if he tries to prevent it.

Finishing up in the early hours of one morning at Auschwitz, Baretski turns to walk away before Lale and Leon have packed up. Then he turns back, a look of indecision on his face.

‘Oh fuck it, you two can walk back to Birkenau on your own. I’m sleeping here tonight. Just be back here at eight in the morning.’

‘How are we meant to know what the time is?’ Lale asks.

‘I don’t give a fuck how you do it, just be here. And don’t even think about running away. I’ll hunt you down myself, kill you and enjoy it.’ He staggers off.

‘What do we do?’ Leon asks.

‘What the arsehole told us to. Come on – I’ll get you up in time to make it back here.’

‘I’m so tired. Can’t we stay here?’

‘No. If you’re not seen in your block in the morning they’ll be out looking



for you. Come on, let’s get going.’

Lale rises with the sun, and he and Leon make the four-kilometre trek back to Auschwitz. They wait for what seems like an hour until Baretski shows up. It is obvious he didn’t go straight to bed but has been up drinking. When his breath is foul, his temper is worse.

‘Get moving,’ he bellows.

With no sign of new prisoners, Lale has to reluctantly ask the question, ‘To where?’

‘Back to Birkenau. The transports have dropped the latest lot there.’

As the trio walk the four kilometres back to Birkenau, Leon stumbles and falls – fatigue and lack of nourishment overcoming him. He picks himself back up. Baretski slows his walk, seemingly waiting for Leon to catch up. As Leon does, Baretski sticks his leg out, causing him to fall again. Several times more on the journey, Baretski plays his little game. The walk and the pleasure he derives from tripping Leon seem to sober him up. Each time he watches Lale for his reaction. He gets nothing.

On arriving back at Birkenau, Lale is surprised to see Houstek overseeing the selection of who will be sent to Lale and Leon to live another day. They begin their work while Baretski marches up and down the line of young men, trying to look competent in front of his superior. The sound of a young man squealing as Leon tries to mark his arm startles the exhausted boy. He drops his tattooing stick. As he bends down to pick it up, Baretski hits him on the back with his rifle, splaying him face down in the dirt. He puts a foot on his back and presses him down.

‘We can get the job done faster if you let him pick himself up and get on with it,’ Lale says, watching Leon’s breath become short and sharp beneath Baretski’s boot.

Houstek bears down on the three men and mumbles something to Baretski. When Houstek disappears, Baretski, with a sour smile, pushes his foot down hard on Leon’s body before releasing it.

‘I am just a humble servant of the SS. You, Tätowierer, have been placed under the auspices of the Political Wing, who answer to Berlin only. It was your lucky day when the Frenchman introduced you to Houstek and told him how clever you are, speaking all those languages.’

There is no correct answer to this question so Lale busies himself with his work. A muddied Leon rises, coughing.

‘So, Tätowierer,’ Baretski says, his sick smile returning, ‘how about we be friends?’

An advantage of being Tätowierer is that Lale knows the date. It is written on the paperwork he is given each morning and which he returns each evening. It is not just the paperwork which tells him that. Sunday is the only day of the week the other prisoners are not forced to work and can spend the day milling around in the compound or staying near their blocks, huddled together in small groups – friendships brought into the camp, friendships made in the camp.

It is a Sunday when he sees her. He recognises her at once. They walk towards each other, Lale on his own, she with a group of girls, all with shaven heads, all wearing the same plain clothing. There is nothing to distinguish her except for those eyes. Black – no, brown. The darkest brown he’s ever seen. For the second time they peer into each other’s souls. Lale’s heart skips a beat. The gaze lingers.

‘Tätowierer!’ Baretski places a hand on Lale’s shoulder, breaking the spell. The prisoners move away, not wanting to be near an SS officer or the prisoner to whom he is talking. The group of girls scatters, leaving her looking at Lale, looking at her. Baretski’s eyes move from one to the other as they stand in a perfect triangle, each waiting for the other to shift. Baretski has a knowing smile. Bravely, one of her friends advances and pulls her back

into the group.

‘Very nice,’ Baretski says as he and Lale walk away. Lale ignores him and fights to control the hatred he feels.

‘Would you like to meet her?’ Again Lale refuses to respond. ‘Write to her, tell her you like her.’

How stupid does he think I am?

‘I’ll get you paper and a pencil and bring her your letter. What do you say?

Do you know her name?’ 34902.

Lale walks on. He knows the penalty for any prisoner caught with pen or paper is death.

‘Where are we going?’ Lale changes the subject. ‘To Auschwitz. Herr Doktor needs more patients.’

A chill runs through Lale. He remembers the man in the white coat, his hairy hands on that beautiful girl’s face. Lale has never felt so uneasy about a doctor as he did on that day.

‘But it’s Sunday.’

Baretski laughs. ‘Oh, you think just because the others don’t work on

Sunday, you should get it off too? Would you like to discuss this with Herr Doktor?’ Baretski’s laughter grows shrill, sending more shivers down Lale’s spine. ‘Please do that for me, Tätowierer. Tell Herr Doktor it is your day off. I would so enjoy it.’

Lale knows when to shut up. He strides off, putting some distance between himself and Baretski.

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