Chapter no 6

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Weeks have gone by; the trees surrounding the camp have dropped their leaves, the days have become shorter as winter advances.

Who are these people? Lale has been asking himself this question ever since he arrived in the camp. These groups of men who work on the construction sites who appear every day dressed in civilian clothing, never to be seen after tools down. With a spring in his step from his time with Gita, Lale feels sure he can talk to a couple of the men without the SS getting worked up and taking a shot at him. And he has his bag-shaped shield.

Lale strolls casually towards one of the new brick buildings under construction. These don’t seem to be blocks to house prisoners, but their use is of no concern to Lale today. He approaches two men, one older than the other, busily engaged in bricklaying, and squats down beside a pile of bricks awaiting placement. The two men watch him with interest, slowing their work rate. Lale picks up a brick and pretends to study it.



‘I don’t get it,’ he speaks quietly.

‘What don’t you get?’ the older man asks.

‘I’m a Jew. They’ve branded me with a yellow star. Around me I see political prisoners, murderers and lazy men who won’t work. And then you –you wear no brand.’

‘That’s none of your business, Jew boy,’ says the younger man, himself no more than a boy.

‘Just being friendly. You know how it is – checking out my surrounds and I became curious about you and your friends. My name is Lale.’

‘Get lost!’ the young one says.

‘Settle down, boy. Don’t mind him,’ the older man says to Lale, his voice rough from too many cigarettes. ‘My name’s Victor. The mouth here is my son Yuri.’ Victor extends his hand, which Lale shakes. Lale then offers his hand to Yuri, but he doesn’t take it.

‘We live nearby,’ Victor explains, ‘so we come here to work each day.’

‘I just want to get this straight. You come here each day voluntarily? I mean, you’re paid to be here?’

Yuri pipes up. ‘That’s right Jew boy, we get paid and go home every night.

You lot –’

‘I said shut it, Yuri. Can’t you see the man’s just being friendly?’

‘Thanks, Victor. I’m not here to cause trouble. Like I said, just checking things out.’

‘What’s the bag for?’ snaps Yuri, smarting at having been reprimanded in

front of Lale.

‘My tools. My tools for tattooing the numbers on the prisoners. I’m the Tätowierer.’

‘Busy job,’ quips Victor.



‘Some days. I never know when transports are coming or how big.’ ‘I hear there’s worse to come.’

‘Are you prepared to tell me?’

‘This building. I’ve seen the plans. You’re not going to like what it is.’ ‘Surely it can’t be any worse than what goes on here already.’ Lale now

stands, bracing himself on the pile of bricks.

‘It’s called Crematorium One,’ Victor says quietly, and looks away. ‘Crematorium. One. With the possibility of a number two?’

‘Sorry. I said you wouldn’t like it.’

Lale punches the last brick laid, sending it flying, and shakes his hand in pain.

Victor reaches into a nearby bag and produces a piece of dried sausage wrapped in wax-paper.

‘Here, take this, I know they’re starving you people, and I’ve got plenty where this came from.’

‘That’s our lunch!’ Yuri cries, rushing to take the sausage from his father’s outstretched hand.

Victor pushes Yuri away. ‘It won’t hurt you to go without for a day. This man needs it more.’

‘I’m gonna tell Mum when we get home.’

‘You’d better hope I don’t tell her about your attitude. You’ve got a lot to learn about being civilised, young man. Let this be your first lesson.’

Lale still hasn’t taken the sausage. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to cause trouble.’

‘Well, you have,’ wails a petulant Yuri.

‘No, he hasn’t.’ says Victor. ‘Lale, take the sausage, and come and see us again tomorrow. I’ll have more for you. Hell, if we can help just one of you, we’ll do it. Right, Yuri?’

Yuri reluctantly extends his hand to Lale, who takes it.

‘Save the one, save the world,’ Lale says quietly, more to himself than the others.

‘I can’t help you all.’

Lale takes the food. ‘I don’t have anything to pay you with.’ ‘It’s not a problem.’

‘Thank you. There might be a way I can pay you though. If I find a way, can you get me anything else, like chocolate?’ He wanted chocolate. That’s what you give a girl if you can get it.

‘I’m sure we can work something out. You’d better move on; there’s an

officer paying us a bit of attention.’



‘See you,’ Lale says as he shoves the sausage in his bag. Stray snowflakes drift around him as he walks back to his block. The flakes catch in the last rays of the sun, bouncing strobes of light that remind him of a kaleidoscope he played with as a boy. What’s wrong with this picture? Lale is overcome with emotion as he hurries back to his block. On his face the melted snow is indistinguishable from the tears. The winter of 1942 has arrived.

Back in his room, Lale takes the chunk of sausage and breaks it carefully into even parts. He tears strips from the wax-paper and wraps each piece tightly before placing them back in his bag. As he comes to the last piece, Lale stops and considers the small, fulfilling parcel of food, sitting there next to his rough, dirty fingers. These fingers that used to be smooth and clean and plump, that handled rich food, that he used to hold up to tell hosts, ‘No, thank you, I couldn’t possibly have any more.’ With a shake of his head he places it too into the bag.

He heads towards one of the Canada buildings. He once asked a man in Block 7 if he knew why they called these sorting rooms by that name.

‘The girls who work there dream of a place far away where there is plenty of everything and life can be what they want it to be. They have decided Canada is such a place.’

Lale has spoken to a couple of girls working in this Canada. He has checked everyone exiting many times and knows Gita doesn’t work here. There are other buildings he cannot easily access. She must work in one of those. He spies two girls he has spoken to before, walking together. He reaches into his bag, withdraws two parcels and approaches them, smiling. He turns and walks alongside them.

‘I want you to put out one of your hands, but do it slowly. I’m going to give you a parcel of sausage. Do not open it until you’re alone.’

The two girls do as he says, not breaking step, their eyes darting about for SS who might be watching them. Once the sausage is in their hands, they wrap their arms across their chests as much to keep themselves warm as to protect their gift.

‘Girls, I’ve heard you sometimes find jewels and money – is that correct?’ The women exchange a glance.

‘Now, I don’t want to put you at risk, but do you think there’s any way you could smuggle a little of it out to me?’

One of them says nervously, ‘Shouldn’t be too hard. Our minders don’t pay much attention to us anymore. They think we are harmless.’

‘Great. Just get what you can without causing suspicion, and with it I will

buy you and others food like this sausage.’



‘Do you think you could get some chocolate?’ one of them says, her eyes bright.

‘Can’t promise, but I’ll try. Remember, only take small quantities at a time. I’ll try and be here tomorrow afternoon. If I’m not, is there somewhere safe you can hide things until I can get to you?’

‘Not in our block. We can’t do that. We get searched all the time,’ one replies.

‘I know,’ says the other. ‘The snow is piling up at the back of our block.

We can wrap it in a rag and hide it there when we go to the toilet.’ ‘Yeah, that will work,’ the first one says.

‘You can’t tell anyone what you’re doing, or where you’re getting the food from, OK? It’s really important. Your lives depend upon you saying nothing. Got that?’

One of the girls draws her finger across her closed mouth. As they near the women’s compound, Lale splits off from them and loiters outside Block 29 for a short while. There is no sign of Gita. So it must be. But it will be Sunday again in three days’ time.

The next day Lale completes his work at Birkenau within a few hours. Leon asks him to spend the afternoon with him, wanting the opportunity to talk about their situation without a block full of men straining to hear every word. Lale begs off, saying he isn’t feeling well and needs to get some rest. They go their separate ways.

He is conflicted. He desperately wants whatever food Victor has brought, but he needs something to pay him with. The girls finish work around the same time Victor and the other visiting workers leave. Will he have enough time to see if they have managed to lift anything? In the end he decides to visit Victor and reassure him that he is working on obtaining a source of payment.

Bag in hand, Lale makes his way over to the block under construction. He looks around for Victor and Yuri. Victor sees him and nudges Yuri to follow as they separate from the other workers. Slowly they approach Lale, who has stopped and is pretending to be looking for something in his bag. With an outstretched hand, Yuri greets Lale.

‘His mother had a word with him last night,’ offers Victor.

‘I’m sorry, I haven’t been able to get anything to pay you with, but I hope to have something very soon. Please don’t bring anything else until I’ve paid you for what you’ve given me already.’

‘It’s OK, we have plenty to spare,’ Victor says.

‘No, you’re taking a risk. At the very least you should get something in return. Just give me a day or two.’

Victor takes from his bag two packages, which he drops into Lale’s open bag. ‘We’ll be here at the same time tomorrow.’

‘Thank you,’ says Lale.

‘See you,’ says Yuri, which makes Lale smile. ‘See you, Yuri.’

Back in his room, Lale opens the packages. Sausage and chocolate. He holds the chocolate to his nose and inhales.

Once again, he breaks the food into small pieces to make it easy for the girls to hide and pass around. Oh, how he hopes they will be discreet. The consequences if they aren’t don’t bear thinking about. He saves a small amount of the sausage for Block 7. The ‘tools down’ siren interrupts his obsessive efforts to ensure each piece of food is exactly the same size. He throws everything into his bag and hurries towards the Canada.

Not far from the women’s compound, Lale catches up with his two friends. They see him coming and slow their pace, dropping back into the mob of girls trudging ‘home’. He holds the food bundles in one hand, the open bag in the other, and nudges his way through the girls. Without looking at him, each girl drops something into his bag and he in turn presses the food into their hands, which they shove up their sleeves. Lale and the girls split away from each other at the entrance into the women’s compound.



Lale doesn’t know what he will find in the four pieces of rag that he places on his bed. He opens them gently. They contain coins and notes of Polish zloty, loose diamonds, rubies and sapphires, gold and silver rings emblazoned with precious stones. Lale steps back, knocking into the door behind him. He is recoiling from the sad provenance of these objects, each one attached to a momentous event in the life of its previous owner. He is also scared for his own safety. If he is discovered with this bounty, he will surely be put to death. A noise outside makes him throw the jewels and currency back in his bag and himself on his bed. No one comes in. Eventually he rises and takes his bag with him towards his evening meal. In the canteen he doesn’t place his bag at his feet as usual, but clings to it with one hand, trying not to look too strange. He suspects he fails.

Later that night he separates the precious stones from the money, the loose gems from the jewellery, wrapping them separately in the rags they came in. The majority of the loot he pushes under his mattress. He keeps a loose ruby and a diamond ring in his bag.

At seven the next morning, Lale hangs around the main compound gates as the local workers enter. He sidles up to Victor and opens his hand to reveal the ruby and the ring. Victor closes his hand over Lale’s in a handshake, palming the jewels. Lale’s bag is already open and Victor quickly transfers some packages into it. Their alliance is now sealed.

Victor whispers, ‘Happy New Year.’

Lale trudges away, the snow now falling heavily and covering the camp.

1943 has begun.

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