Chapter no 4

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

As they walk to Auschwitz, Baretski seems in a jovial mood and peppers Lale with questions. ‘How old are you?’ ‘What did you do before, you know, before you were brought here?’

For the most part Lale answers with a question, and discovers Baretski likes talking about himself. He learns he is only a year younger than Lale, but that is where the similarities end. He talks about women like a teenager. Lale decides he can make this difference work for him and begins telling Baretski of his winning ways with girls, how it’s all about respecting them and what they care about.

‘Have you ever given a girl flowers?’ asks Lale. ‘No, why would I do that?’

‘Because they like a man who gives them flowers. Better still if you pick them yourself.’

‘Well, I’m not gonna do that. I’d get laughed at.’ ‘By who?’



‘My friends.’

‘You mean other men?’

‘Well, yeah – they’d think I was a sissy.’

‘And what do you think the girl getting the flowers would think?’

‘What does it matter what she thinks?’ He begins smirking and yanking at his groin. ‘That’s all I want from them, and that’s what they want from me. I know these things.’

Lale walks ahead. Baretski catches up. ‘What? Did I say something wrong?’ ‘Do you really want me to answer that?’ ‘Yeah.’

Lale rounds on him. ‘Do you have a sister?’ ‘Yeah,’ says Baretski, ‘two.’

‘Is how you treat a girl the way you want other men to treat your sisters?’ ‘Anyone does that to my kid sister and I’ll kill them.’ Baretski pulls his

pistol from its holster and fires several shots into the air. ‘I’ll kill them.’

Lale jumps back. The gunshots reverberate around them. Baretski is panting, his face red and his eyes dark.

Lale raises his hands. ‘Got it. Just something to think about.’ ‘I don’t want to talk about this anymore.’

Lale finds out that Baretski isn’t German but was born in Romania, in a small town near the border of Slovakia, only a few hundred kilometres from Lale’s hometown of Krompachy. He ran away from home to Berlin, joined the Hitler Youth and then the SS. He hates his father, who used to beat him and his brothers and sisters viciously. He is still worried about his sisters, one younger, one older, who live at home.



Later that night as they walk back to Birkenau, Lale says quietly, ‘I’ll take your offer of pen and pencil if you don’t mind. Her number is 34902.’

After dinner, Lale slips quietly over to Block 7. The kapo glares at him but says nothing.

Lale shares his extra evening rations, only a few crusts of bread, with his friends from the block. The men talk and exchange news. As usual, the religious among them invite Lale to partake in evening prayer. He politely declines and his refusal is politely accepted. This is the standard routine.

Alone in his single room, Lale wakes to the sight of Baretski standing over him. He didn’t knock before entering – he never has – but there is something different about this visit.

‘She’s in Block 29.’ He hands Lale a pencil and some paper. ‘Here, write to her and I will make sure she gets it.’

‘Do you know her name?’

Baretski’s look gives Lale his answer. What do you think?

‘I’ll come back in an hour and take it to her.’ ‘Make it two.’

Lale agonises over the first words he will write to prisoner 34902. How to even begin? How to address her? Eventually he decides to keep it simple, ‘Hello, my name is Lale.’ When Baretski returns, he hands him the page with only a few sentences on it. He has told her he is from Krompachy in Slovakia, his age, and the make-up of his family, who he trusts are safe. He asks her to be near the administration building next Sunday morning. He explains that he will try to be there too, and that if he isn’t it will be because of his work, which isn’t regulated like everyone else’s.

Baretski takes the letter and reads it in front of Lale. ‘Is this all you have to say?’

‘Anything more I’ll say in person.’

Baretski sits down on Lale’s bed and leans in to boast about what he would say, what he would like to do, if he was in Lale’s situation, that is, not knowing if he will still be alive at the end of the week. Lale thanks him for the input but says he prefers to take his chances.

‘Fine. I’ll deliver this so-called letter to her and give her pen and paper to

reply. I’ll tell her I will come for her reply tomorrow morning – give her all night to think on whether or not she likes you.’

He smirks at Lale as he leaves the room.

What have I done? He has placed prisoner 34902 in danger. He is protected. She is not. And still he wants, needs, to take the risk.

The next day Lale and Leon work well into the evening. Baretski patrols not far from them at all times, often exercising his authority with the lines of men, using his rifle as a baton when he doesn’t like the look of someone. His insidious smirk is never off his face. He takes clear delight in swaggering up and down the rows of men. It is only when Lale and Leon are packing up that he takes a piece of paper from his jacket pocket and hands it to Lale.

‘Oh, Tätowierer,’ he says, ‘she doesn’t say much. I think you should choose yourself another girlfriend.’

As Lale reaches out to take the note, Baretski playfully pulls it away. OKif that’s the way you want to play it. He turns and walks away. Baretski chases after him and gives him the note. A curt nod of the head is the only thanks Lale is prepared to give him. Putting the note in his bag, he walks towards his evening meal, watching Leon head back to his block, knowing he will probably have missed his own.



There is a small amount of food left by the time Lale arrives. After eating, he shoves several pieces of bread up his sleeve, cursing the fact that his Russian uniform has now been replaced by a pyjama-like outfit with no pockets. On entering Block 7 he receives the usual quiet chorus of greeting. He explains that he only has enough extra food for Leon and maybe two others, promising he will try to get more tomorrow. He cuts short his stay and hurries back to his room. He needs to read the words buried among his tools.

He drops onto his bed and holds the note to his chest, picturing prisoner 34902 writing the words he is so eager to read. Finally, he opens it.

‘Dear Lale,’ it begins. Like him, the woman has written only a few careful lines. She is also from Slovakia. She has been in Auschwitz longer than Lale, since March. She works in one of the ‘Canada’ warehouses, where prisoners sort through the confiscated belongings of fellow victims. She will be in the compound on Sunday. And will look for him. Lale rereads the note and turns the paper over several times. Grabbing a pencil from his bag he scribbles in bold on the back of her letter: Your name, what is your name?

The next morning, Baretski escorts Lale to Auschwitz alone. The new

transport is a small one, giving Leon a day’s rest. Baretski begins to tease Lale about the note and how he must have lost his touch with the ladies. Lale ignores his teasing, asks him if he’s read any good books lately.

‘Books? I don’t read books,’ Baretski mutters. ‘You should.’

‘Why? What good are books?’

‘You can learn a lot from them, and girls like it if you can quote lines or recite poetry.’

‘I don’t need to quote books. I’ve got this uniform; that’s all I need to get girls. They love the uniform. I have a girlfriend, you know,’ Baretski boasts.

This is news to Lale.

‘That’s nice. And she likes your uniform?’

‘Sure does. She even puts it on and marches around saluting – thinks she’s bloody Hitler.’ With a chilling laugh he mimics her, strutting away, arm raised, ‘Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler!’

‘Just because she likes your uniform doesn’t mean to say she likes you,’ blurts out Lale.

Baretski stops in his tracks.

Lale curses himself for the careless comment. He slows his steps, pondering whether to go back and apologise. No, he’ll walk on and see what happens. Closing his eyes, he places one foot in front of the other, one step at a time, waiting, expecting to hear the shot. He hears the sound of running behind him. Then the tug of an arm on his sleeve. ‘Is that what you think, Tätowierer? That she just likes me because of my uniform?’

A relieved Lale turns to face him. ‘How do I know what she likes? Why don’t you tell me something else about her?’

He doesn’t want any part of this conversation, but having dodged a bullet he feels he has no choice. It turns out that Baretski knows very little about his ‘girlfriend’, mostly because he’s never asked her about herself. This is too much for Lale to ignore, and before he knows it he is giving Baretski further advice on how to treat women. Inside his head, Lale is telling himself to shut up. What should he care about the monster beside him and whether or not he will ever be capable of treating a girl with respect? In truth, he hopes Baretski will not survive this place to be with any woman ever again.

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