Chapter no 5

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Sunday morning has arrived. Lale leaps from his bed and hurries outside. The sun is up. Where is everybody? Where are the birds? Why aren’t they singing? ‘It’s Sunday!’ he calls to no one in particular. Spinning around, he notices

rifles trained on him in the nearby guard towers.

‘Oh shit.’ He races back into his block as gunshots pierce the quiet dawn. The guard seems to have decided to scare him. Lale knows this is the one day that prisoners ‘sleep in’, or at least don’t leave their blocks until their hunger pains force them towards the black coffee and single piece of stale bread. The guard sends another round into the building, for the fun of it.

Back in his small room, Lale paces to and fro, rehearsing the first words he will say to her.

You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen, is given a run, and discarded. He feels pretty sure that, with her bald head and clothes once worn by someone much bigger, she doesn’t feel beautiful. Still, he won’t completely rule it out. But perhaps the best thing would be to keep it simple – What is your name? – and see where that leads.

Lale forces himself to stay inside until he begins to hear the sounds, so familiar


to him now, of the camp waking up. First the siren pierces the prisoners’ sleep. Then hungover SS, short on sleep and temper, bark instructions. The breakfast urns clang as they are moved to each block; the prisoners carrying them groan as they get weaker by the day and the urns get heavier by the minute.

He wanders over to his breakfast station and joins the other men who qualify for extra rations. There is the usual nodding of heads, raising of eyes, occasional brief smiles. No words are exchanged. He eats half of his bread, stuffing the remainder up his sleeve, creating a cuff to keep it from falling out. If he can, he will offer it to her. If not, it will be Leon’s.

He watches as those not working mingle with friends from other blocks and disperse in small groups to sit and enjoy the summer sun while it lasts. Autumn is just around the corner. He starts towards the compound to begin his search, and then realises that his bag is missing. My lifeline. He never leaves his room without it, yet this morning he has. Where is my head? He runs back to his block and reappears, face set, bag in hand – a man on a mission.

For what seems like a long time Lale walks among his fellow prisoners, chatting to those he knows from Block 7. All the while his eyes search the groups of girls. He is talking to Leon when the tiny hairs rise on the back of his neck, the tickling sensation of being watched. He turns. There she is.

She is chatting with three other girls. Noticing that he has seen her, she stops. Lale walks towards the girls and her friends step back, putting a little distance between them and the stranger; they have heard about Lale. She is left standing alone.

He comes close to the girl, drawn again to her eyes. Her friends giggle quietly in the background. She smiles. A small, tentative smile. Lale is almost rendered speechless. But he summons the courage. He hands her the bread and letter. In it, unable to stop himself, he has told her how he can’t stop thinking about her.

‘What’s your name?’ he asks. ‘I need to know your name.’ Behind him someone says, ‘Gita.’

Before he is able to do or say anything more, Gita’s friends rush to her and drag her away, whispering questions as they go.

That night, Lale lies on his bed saying her name over and over. ‘Gita. Gita.

What a beautiful name.’

In Block 29 in the women’s camp Gita curls up with her friends Dana and Ivana. A beam from a floodlight seeps through a small crack in the timber wall, and Gita strains to read Lale’s letter.

‘How many times are you going to read it?’ Dana asks.

‘Oh, I don’t know, until I know every word off by heart.’ Gita replies. ‘When will that be?’

‘About two hours ago,’ Gita giggles. Dana hugs her friend tightly.

The next morning Gita and Dana are the last to leave their block. They exit with their arms linked, talking, oblivious to their surroundings. Without warning the SS officer outside their block hits Gita in the back with his rifle. Both girls crash to the ground. Gita cries out in pain. He indicates with his rifle for them to get up. They stand, their eyes downcast.

He looks at them with disgust and snarls, ‘Wipe the smile from your face.’ He takes his pistol from its holster and pushes it hard against Gita’s temple. He gives the instruction to another officer: ‘No food for them today.’

As he walks away, their kapo advances and slaps them both quickly across the face. ‘Don’t forget where you are.’ She walks away and Gita rests her



head on Dana’s shoulder.

‘I told you Lale’s going to talk to me next Sunday, didn’t I?’

Sunday. Prisoners meander around the compound singly and in small groups. Some sit up against the buildings, too tired and weak to move. A handful of SS roam about chatting and smoking, ignoring the prisoners. Gita and her friends walk around, keeping their faces blank. All but Gita talk quietly. She is looking about her.

Lale watches Gita and her friends, smiling at Gita’s worried look. Whenever her eyes almost land on him, he ducks behind other prisoners. He moves slowly towards her. Dana sees him first and is about to say something when Lale holds a finger to his lips. Without breaking step, he reaches out, takes Gita by the hand and continues walking. Her friends giggle and grasp each other as Lale silently steers Gita around the back of the administration building, checking to make sure the guard in the nearby tower is relaxed and not looking in their direction.

He slides his back down the wall of the building, pulling Gita with him. From there they can see the forest beyond the perimeter fence. Gita peers down at the ground while Lale looks intently at her.

‘Hello . . .’ he says tentatively. ‘Hello,’ she replies.

‘I hope I haven’t frightened you.’

‘Are we safe?’ She darts a look at the nearby guard tower.

‘Probably not, but I can’t go on just seeing you. I need to be with you and talk to you like people should.’

‘But we’re not safe –’

‘It’s never going to be safe. Talk to me. I want to hear your voice. I want to know all about you. All I know is your name. Gita. It’s beautiful.’

‘What do you want me to say?’

Lale struggles for the right question. He goes for something ordinary. ‘How about … How’s your day been?’

Now she lifts her head and looks him straight in the eyes. ‘Oh, you know how it is. Got up, had a big breakfast, kissed Mumma and Papa goodbye before catching the bus to work. Work was –’

‘OK, OK, I’m sorry, dumb question.’

They sit side by side but looking away from each other. Lale listens to Gita’s breathing. She taps a thumb against her thigh. Finally, she says, ‘So how is your day going?’

‘Oh, you know. Got up, had a big breakfast …’

They look at each other and laugh quietly. Gita gently nudges against Lale.

Their hands accidentally touch for an instant.

‘Well, if we can’t talk about our day, tell me something about yourself,’ Lale says.

‘There’s nothing to tell.’

Lale is taken aback. ‘Of course there is. What’s your surname?’



She stares at Lale, shaking her head. ‘I’m just a number. You should know that. You gave it to me.’

‘Yes, but that’s just in here. Who are you outside of here?’ ‘Outside doesn’t exist anymore. There’s only here.’

Lale stands up and stares at her. ‘My name is Ludwig Eisenberg but people call me Lale. I come from Krompachy, Slovakia. I have a mother, a father, a brother and a sister.’ He pauses. ‘Now it’s your turn.’

Gita meets his stare defiantly. ‘I am prisoner 34902 in Birkenau, Poland.’ Conversation fades into uneasy silence. He watches her, her downcast eyes.

She is struggling with her thoughts: what to say, what not to say.

Lale sits back down, in front of her this time. He reaches out as if to take her hand, before withdrawing it. ‘I don’t want to upset you, but will you promise me one thing?’


‘Before we leave here, you will tell me who you are and where you come from.’

She looks him in the eyes, ‘Yes, I promise.’

‘I’m happy with that for now. So, they’ve got you working in the Canada?’ Gita nods.

‘Is it OK there?’

‘It’s OK. But the Germans just throw all the prisoners’ possessions in together. Rotten food mixed with clothing. And the mould – I hate touching it and it stinks.’

‘I’m glad you’re not outside. I’ve spoken to some men who know girls from their village who also work in the Canada. They tell me they often find jewels and money.’

‘I’ve heard that. I just seem to find mouldy bread.’

‘You will be careful, won’t you? Don’t do anything silly, and always keep your eye on the SS.’

‘I’ve learned that lesson well, trust me.’ A siren sounds.

‘You’d better get back to your block,’ says Lale. ‘Next time I’ll bring some food for you.’

‘You have food?’

‘I can get extra. I’ll get it to you, and I’ll see you next Sunday.’

Lale stands and holds his hand out to Gita. She takes it. He pulls her to her feet, holds her hand a moment longer than he should. He can’t take his eyes

off her.

‘We should go.’ She breaks eye contact, but maintains her spell over him with a smile that makes his knees go weak.

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