Chapter no 7

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Though it is bitterly cold and the compound is a mess of snow and mud, Lale is upbeat. It is a Sunday. Lale and Gita will be among the brave souls walking in the compound, in the hope of a fleeting meeting, a word, a touch of the hand.

He is pacing, on the lookout for Gita as he attempts to keep the cold from his bones. He walks in front of the women’s camp as often as he can without raising suspicion. Several girls come from Block 29, but no Gita. Just as he is about to give up, Dana appears, scanning the compound. Spotting Lale, she hurries over.

‘Gita’s sick,’ she says as soon as she’s in earshot. ‘She’s sick, Lale. I don’t know what to do.’

His heart lurches to his throat in panic as he remembers the death cart, the close call, the men who nursed him back to health. ‘I have to see her.’



‘You can’t go in – our kapo is in a terrible mood. She wants to call the SS and have them take Gita away.’

‘You can’t let them. You mustn’t let them take her. Please, Dana,’ says Lale. ‘What’s wrong with her? Do you know?’

‘We think it’s typhus. We’ve lost several girls in our block this week.’ ‘Then she needs medicine, penicillin.’

‘And where are we gonna get medicine, Lale? If we go to the hospital and ask for penicillin, they’ll just take her away. I can’t lose her. I’ve lost all my family. Please can you help us, Lale?’ Dana pleads.

‘Don’t take her to the hospital. Whatever you do, don’t go there.’ Lale’s mind races. ‘Listen to me, Dana – it’s going to take me a couple of days but I’m going to try and get her some penicillin.’ A numbness sweeps over him. His vision blurs. His head pounds.

‘Here’s what you have to do. Tomorrow morning take her, however you can – carry, drag, whatever – but take her to the Canada. Hide her there among the clothes in the day, try and get as much water into her as you can, then bring her back to your block for rollcall. You might have to do this for a few days until I can get medicine, but you must do it. It’s the only way to stop her being taken to the hospital. Now go and look after her.’

‘All right, I can do that. Ivana will help. But she must have medicine.’ He grips Dana’s hand. ‘Tell her …’

Dana waits.

‘Tell her I will take care of her.’

Lale watches Dana run back into her block. He can’t move. Thoughts creep

into his head. The death cart he sees every day – Black Mary, it’s called – she cannot end up on there. That must not be her fate. He looks around at the brave souls who have ventured outside. He imagines them dropping into the snow, and lying there, smiling up at him, thankful that death has taken them from this place.

‘You cannot have her. I will not let you take her from me,’ he calls.

Prisoners move away from him. The SS have chosen to stay inside on this bleak, dark day and soon Lale finds himself alone, paralysed by cold and fear. Finally he begins to move his feet. His mind rejoins the rest of his body. And he stumbles back to his room and collapses on his bed.

Daylight creeps into his room the next morning. The room feels empty, even of him. Looking down from above, he does not see himself. An out-of-body experience. Where have I gone? I have to come backThere’s something important for me to do. The memory of yesterday’s meeting with Dana jolts him back to reality.

He grabs his bag, his boots, throws a blanket around his shoulders and runs from his room to the front gates. He doesn’t check who is around. He must get to Victor and Yuri immediately.

The two men arrive with others in their detail, sinking into the snow with each step they take towards work. They see Lale and move away from the others, meeting him halfway. He shows Victor the gems and the currency in his hand, a small fortune’s worth. Everything he has he drops into Victor’s bag.

‘Penicillin or something similar,’ Lale says. ‘Can you help me?’

Victor places his packages of food into Lale’s open bag and nods his head. ‘Yes.


Lale hurries over to Block 29 and watches from a distance. Where are they? Why haven’t they appeared? He paces up and down, oblivious to the eyes in the towers surrounding the camp. He must see Gita. She has to have made it through the night. Finally he sees Dana and Ivana, Gita hanging weakly from their shoulders. Two other girls help to block the scene from easy view. Lale drops to his knees at the thought this could be the last time he sees her.

‘What are you doing down there?’ Baretski appears behind him. He staggers to his feet. ‘I was feeling sick, but I’m OK now.’

‘Maybe you should see a doctor. You know we have several at Auschwitz.’ ‘No, thanks, I’d rather ask you to shoot me.’

Baretski withdraws his pistol from its holster. ‘If this is where you want to die, Tätowierer, I would be happy to oblige.’

‘I’m sure you would, but not today,’ Lale says. ‘I take it we’ve got work to do?’

Baretski holsters his gun. ‘Auschwitz,’ he says, as he begins walking. ‘And take that blanket back to where you found it. You look ridiculous.’

Lale and Leon spend the morning at Auschwitz, tattooing numbers on frightened newcomers and attempting to soften the shock of it. But Lale’s mind is on Gita and several times he presses too hard.

In the afternoon, when the job is finished, Lale half walks, half runs back to Birkenau. He meets Dana near the entrance to Block 29 and gives her all his rations from breakfast.

‘We made a bed for her out of clothing,’ Dana says as she folds the food into makeshift shirt cuffs, ‘and we fed her water from pieces of snow. We took her back to the block this afternoon, but she’s still in a really bad way.’

Lale squeezes Dana’s hand. ‘Thank you. Try and get some food into her.

I’ll have medicine tomorrow.’

He departs, his mind a whirlpool. I barely know Gita, yet how can I live if she does not?

That night, sleep evades him.

The next morning, Victor places medicine, along with food, into Lale’s bag.



That afternoon, he is able to get it to Dana.

In the evening, Dana and Ivana sit beside a now fully unconscious Gita. The pull of typhus is stronger than they are; the black stillness has completely overtaken her. They talk to her but she gives no sign that she hears them. From a small vial, Dana places several drops of liquid into Gita’s mouth as Ivana holds it open.

‘I don’t think I can keep carrying her to the Canada,’ an exhausted Ivana says.

‘She will get better,’ Dana insists. ‘Just a few more days.’ ‘Where did Lale get the medicine from?’

‘We don’t need to know. Just be grateful that he did.’ ‘Do you think it’s too late?’

‘I don’t know, Ivana. Let’s just hold her tight and get her through the night.’

The next morning, Lale watches from a distance as Gita is once again carried towards the Canada. He sees her attempt to raise her head on a couple of occasions, and is overjoyed at the sight. He now needs to seek out Baretski.

The main SS officers’ quarters are at Auschwitz. There is just a small building for them at Birkenau, and it is there that Lale goes in the hope of catching Baretski as he is coming or going. He appears after several hours, and seems surprised to see Lale waiting for him.

‘Not enough work for you, eh?’ Baretski asks. ‘I have a favour to ask,’ Lale blurts out.

Baretski narrows his eyes. ‘I won’t do any more favours.’ ‘Maybe one day I can do something for you.’

Baretski laughs. ‘What could you possibly do for me?’



‘You never know, but wouldn’t you like to bank a favour, just in case?’ Baretski sighs. ‘What do you want?’

‘It’s Gita …’ ‘Your girlfriend.’

‘Can you get her transferred from the Canada into the administration building?’

‘Why? I suppose you want her where there’s heating?’ ‘Yes.’

Baretski taps a foot. ‘It might take me a day or two, but I’ll see what I can do. No promises.’

‘Thank you.’

‘You owe me, Tätowierer.’ The smirk is back as he fondles his swagger stick. ‘You owe me.’

With more bravado than he feels, Lale says, ‘Not yet I don’t, but I hope to.’ He walks away, a small spring in his step. Perhaps he can make Gita’s life a little more bearable.

The following Sunday, Lale walks slowly alongside a recovering Gita. He wants to put his arm around her like he saw Dana and Ivana do, but he daren’t. It is good enough to be near her. It doesn’t take long for her to be exhausted, and it is too cold to sit. She wears a long woollen coat, no doubt something the girls have appropriated from the Canada with no objection from the SS. It has deep pockets and Lale fills them with food before he sends her back to her block to rest.

The following morning, a trembling Gita is escorted into the main

administration building by an SS officer. The young woman has been told nothing and she automatically fears the worst. She has been sick and now she is weak – clearly the authorities have decided she is no longer of use. As the officer speaks to a more senior colleague, Gita looks around the large room. It is filled with drab green desks and filing cabinets. Nothing is out of place. What strikes her most is the warmth. The SS work here too, so of course there is heating. A mixture of female prisoners and female civilians work quickly and quietly, writing, filing, heads down.

The escorting officer directs Gita towards her colleague, and Gita stumbles, still suffering the after-effects of the typhus. The colleague breaks her fall before roughly shoving her away. She then grabs Gita’s arm and inspects her tattoo before dragging her towards an empty desk and shoving her down on a hard wooden chair, next to another prisoner dressed just like her. The girl doesn’t look up, only tries to make herself smaller, unobtrusive, so as to be ignored by the officer.

‘Put her to work,’ the grumpy officer barks.

Once they’re alone, the girl shows Gita a long list of names and details. She hands her a pile of cards and indicates that she is to transcribe the details of each person first onto a card and then into a large leather-bound book between them. No words are spoken, and a quick glance around the room tells Gita to keep her mouth shut too.

Later that day, Gita hears a familiar voice and looks up. Lale has entered the room and is handing papers to one of the civilian girls working on the front desk. Finishing his conversation, he slowly scans all the faces. As his glance passes Gita, he winks. She can’t help herself – she gasps, and a few women turn to look at her. The girl beside her nudges her in the ribs as Lale hurries from the room.

With the day’s work ended, Gita sees Lale standing a distance away, watching the girls leave the administration building for their blocks. The heavy SS presence prevents him from approaching. As the girls walk together, they talk.

‘I’m Cilka,’ Gita’s new colleague says. ‘I’m in Block 25.’ ‘I’m Gita, Block 29.’



As the girls enter the women’s camp, Dana and Ivana rush to Gita. ‘Are you all right? Where did they take you? Why did they take you?’ Dana demands, fear and relief on her face.

‘I’m OK. They took me to work in the administration office.’ ‘How … ?’ Ivana asks.

‘Lale. I think he somehow arranged it.’ ‘But you’re all right. They didn’t hurt you?’

‘I’m fine. This is Cilka. I’m working with her.’

Dana and Ivana greet Cilka with a hug. Gita smiles, happy that her friends are so immediately accepting of another girl in their midst. All afternoon she had worried how they would react to her now working in relative comfort, without having to deal with the cold or any physical effort. She could hardly blame them if they were jealous of her new role and felt she was no longer one of them.

‘I’d better go to my block,’ says Cilka. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow, Gita.’

Cilka walks off and Ivana watches her go. ‘Gosh, she’s pretty. Even dressed in rags she’s beautiful.’

‘Yes, she is. She’s been throwing me little smiles all day, just enough to reassure me. Her beauty goes beyond the surface.’

Cilka turns back and smiles at the three of them. Then, with one hand, she removes the scarf from her head and waves it to them, revealing long dark hair cascading down her back. She moves with the grace of a swan, a young woman unaware of her own beauty and seemingly untouched by the horror around her.

‘You must ask her how she has kept her hair,’ Ivana says, scratching absently at her own headscarf.

Gita pulls her own scarf from her head and runs her hand over her short spiky stubble, knowing all too well that it will soon be removed again, shaved back to her scalp. Her smile disappears briefly. Then she replaces her scarf, links arms with Dana and Ivana and they walk towards the meal cart.

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