Chapter no 8

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Lale and Leon have been working round the clock as the Germans storm every city, town and village and empty them of Jews; those from France, Belgium, Yugoslavia, Italy, Moravia, Greece and Norway join prisoners already taken from Germany, Austria, Poland and Slovakia. At Auschwitz they tattoo those unfortunate enough to be selected by the ‘medical team’ there. Those designated to work are brought in trains to Birkenau, which saves Lale and Leon a round-trip walk of eight kilometres. But with this many new arrivals Lale is unable to collect the loot from the girls in the Canada, and Victor’s treats go back home with him each day. Once in a while, when the numbers are dwindling and the time of day is right, Lale begs off for a toilet break and makes it to the Canada. The hoard of gems, jewellery and currency under his mattress increases.

Day has become night and still men line up to be numbered for life, be it short or long. Lale works robotically, reaching for the paper, taking the offered arm, numbering. ‘Move on.’ ‘Next please.’ He knew he was tired, but the next arm is so heavy that he drops it. A giant of a man stands before him, all chest and thick neck and massive limbs.

‘I’m very hungry,’ whispers the man.

Lale then does something he has never done. ‘What’s your name?’ he asks. ‘Jakub.’

Lale sets about tattooing Jakub’s number. When finished, he looks around and observes that the SS guarding them are tired and paying little attention to what is going on. Lale ushers Jakub behind him, into the shadows where the floodlights do not reach.

‘Wait there until I’m finished.’

The last prisoner having been numbered, Lale and Leon gather up their tools and table. Lale waves goodbye to Leon, and apologises that he has again missed his evening meal, promising to bring him something from his stash tomorrow morning. Or is it this morning? With Jakub still hidden, Lale stalls, making sure all the SS have moved on. Finally there is no one around. A quick glance at the tower posts reveals no one looking their way. He instructs Jakub to follow him and they hurry to Lale’s room. Lale closes the door behind them and Jakub sits down on Lale’s bed. Lale lifts one corner of the sunken mattress to produce some bread and sausage. He offers it to the man, and Jakub makes short work of it.

When he has finished eating, Lale asks, ‘Where are you from?’ ‘America.’



‘How did you end up here?’

‘I was visiting my family in Poland and got trapped here – I couldn’t leave – and then we got rounded up, and here I am. I don’t know where my family are. We got separated.’

‘But you live in America?’ ‘Yes.’

‘Shit, that’s tough.’

‘What’s your name?’ Jakub asks.

‘I’m Lale. They call me the Tätowierer and, like me, you will do well here.’

‘I don’t understand. What do you mean?’

‘Your size. The Germans are the cruellest bastards ever to live, but they are not entirely stupid. They have a knack for finding the right person for the right job and I’m sure they will find work for you.’

‘What kind of work?’

‘I don’t know. You’ll have to wait and see. Do you know what block you are assigned to?’

‘Block 7.’

‘Ah, I know it well. Come on, let’s sneak you in. You’d better be there to answer when your number is called out in a couple of hours.’

Two days later it is Sunday. Having worked the past five Sundays, Lale has missed Gita terribly. Today the sun is shining down on him as he walks the compound, looking for her. As he rounds the corner of one block, he is startled by cheering and applause. Such noises are unheard of in the camp. Lale pushes his way through a crowd to reach its focus. There, centre stage, surrounded by both prisoners and SS, Jakub is performing.

Three men carry a large piece of timber to him. He takes it and tosses it away. Prisoners have to scramble to get out of the way. Another prisoner produces a large metal rod, which Jakub sets about bending in half. The show goes on for some time as heavier and heavier items are brought to Jakub for him to display his strength.

A hush falls over the crowd. Houstek is approaching, guarded by SS. Jakub continues his performance, unaware of his new audience. Houstek watches him raise a piece of steel above his head and twist it. He’s seen enough. He gives a nod to the nearby SS, who advance on Jakub. They make no attempt to touch him but point their rifles in the direction they expect him to go.

As the crowd thins, Lale sees Gita. He rushes towards her and her friends. One or two giggle when they see him. The sound is so out of place in this camp of death, and Lale delights in it. Gita beams. Taking her by the arm, he



steers her to their spot behind the administration building. The ground is still too cold to sit on so Gita leans against the building, tilts her face to the sun.

‘Close your eyes,’ Lale says. ‘Why?’

‘Just do as you’re told. Trust me.’ Gita closes her eyes.

‘Open your mouth.’ She opens her eyes.

‘Close your eyes and open your mouth.’

Gita does so. From his bag Lale produces a small piece of chocolate. He places in on her lips, letting her feel the texture of it, before slowly pushing it a little further into her mouth. She presses her tongue against it. Lale pulls it back to her lips. Now moistened, he rubs the chocolate gently across her lips, and she licks it off with delight. When he pushes it into her mouth she bites down, taking a chunk off, opening her eyes wide. Savouring the taste, she says, ‘Why does chocolate taste so much better when it’s fed to you?’

‘I don’t know. No one has ever fed it to me.’

Gita takes the small amount of chocolate Lale still holds in his hand. ‘Close your eyes and open your mouth.’

The same teasing takes place. After Gita has smeared the last bit of chocolate on Lale’s lips, she gently kisses him, licking the chocolate away. He opens his eyes to find hers shut. He pulls her into his arms and they kiss passionately. When Gita finally opens her eyes, she wipes the tears that run down Lale’s face.

‘What else have you got in that bag of yours?’ she asks playfully.

Lale sniffs, and laughs. ‘A diamond ring. Or would you prefer an emerald?’

‘Oh, I’ll have the diamond, thank you,’ she says, playing along.

Lale rummages around in his bag and produces an exquisite silver ring with a single diamond set in it. Handing it to her, he says, ‘It’s yours.’

Gita can’t take her eyes off the ring, the sun bouncing off the stone. ‘Where did you get this?’

‘Girls working in one of the Canada buildings find jewels and money for me. That’s what I use to buy the food and medicine I’ve been giving you and the others. Here, take it.’

Gita puts her hand out as though to try on the ring, but then pulls back. ‘No, you keep it. Put it to good use.’

‘OK.’ Lale goes to put it back in his bag. ‘Stop. Let me look at it one more time.’

He holds it between two fingers, turning it this way and that. ‘It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Now put it away.’

‘It’s the second most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,’ says Lale, looking at

Gita. She blushes and turns her face away.

‘I’ll have some more of that chocolate, if you have any left.’



Lale hands her a small block. She snaps off a piece and places it in her mouth, closing her eyes for a moment. She wraps the rest within her sleeve and tucks it up.

‘Come on,’ he says. ‘Let’s get you back to the girls so you can share it.’ Gita reaches up to his face, caresses his cheek. ‘Thank you.’

Lale sways, unbalanced by her proximity.

Gita takes his hand and begins to walk. Lale is led. As they enter the main compound, Lale sees Baretski. He and Gita release hands. He exchanges a glance with her that tells her all she needs to know. It aches to part from her without a word, and with no certainty about when they will next meet. He walks towards Baretski, who is glaring at him.

‘I’ve been looking for you,’ says Baretski. ‘We’ve got work to do at Auschwitz.’

Along the road to Auschwitz, Lale and Baretski pass work details, of a few men each, who must be being punished with this Sunday work. Several SS guarding them call out a greeting to Baretski, who ignores them. Something is very wrong with him today. Normally he’s quite the talker but today his whole body seems tense. Ahead, Lale sees three prisoners sitting on the ground, back to back, supporting each other, clearly exhausted. The prisoners look up at Lale and Baretski but make no attempt to move. Without breaking step, Baretski pulls his rifle from his back and fires at them repeatedly.

Lale freezes, his eyes locked on the dead men. Finally, looking back up at the retreating Baretski, Lale recalls the first time he saw such an unprovoked attack on defenceless men – sitting on a board in the dark. That first night he arrived at Birkenau flashes before him. Baretski is getting further away from him and Lale fears he will take his anger out on him next. He hurries to catch up to him, but remains a slight distance away. He knows Baretski knows he is there. Once more, they arrive at the gates into Auschwitz and Lale looks up at the words emblazoned above: ARBEIT MACHT FREI. He silently curses whatever god may be listening.

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