Chapter no 9

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

March 1943

Lale reports to the administration office to get his instructions. The weather is improving slowly. There has been no snow for a week. On entering, he sweeps his eyes around the office to make sure Gita is where she should be. There she is, still seated beside Cilka. The two have become very close and Dana and Ivana seem to have welcomed Cilka fully into their little circle. His customary wink to the two of them is acknowledged with suppressed smiles. He approaches the Polish girl behind the counter.

‘Good morning, Bella. It’s a lovely day outside.’



‘Good morning, Lale,’ Bella responds. ‘I have your work here. I’ve been told to tell you that all the numbers today are to have the letter Z in front of them.’

Lale looks down at the list of numbers and sure enough each one is prefixed with the letter Z.

‘Do you know what this signifies?’

‘No, Lale, I’m not told anything. You know more than I do. I just follow instructions.’

‘As do I, Bella. Thanks, I’ll see you later.’ Holding the instructions, Lale heads out the door. ‘Lale,’ Bella calls out.

He turns back to her. With her head turned towards Gita, she asks, ‘Haven’t you forgotten something?’

Smiling at her, he turns to Gita and raises his eyebrows at her. Several girls hold a hand over their mouth, eyes on the lookout for the SS who oversee their work.

Leon is waiting for Lale outside. Lale fills him in as they walk to their workstation. Trucks are unloading their cargo nearby and the men do a double-take as they register there are children among those being helped down, along with older men and women. Children have never been seen before at Birkenau.

‘Surely we’re not marking kids. I’ll not do that,’ Leon pronounces. ‘Here comes Baretski. He’ll tell us what to do. Don’t say a word.’

Baretski strides up. ‘I see you’ve noticed something’s different today, Tätowierer. These are your new companions. You’re going to be sharing from now on, so you better be nice to them. They’ll outnumber you by quite a lot –

a hell of a lot actually.’ Lale says nothing.

‘They’re the filth of Europe, even worse than you. They’re Gypsies, and for reasons I’ll never know, the Führer has decided they are to live here, with you. What do you say about that, Tätowierer?’

‘Are we to number the children?’

‘You’ll number anyone who hands you a number. I’ll leave you to your work. I’m going to be busy at the selection, so don’t make me have to come over here.’

As Baretski marches off, Leon stammers, ‘I won’t.’ ‘Let’s just wait and see what comes our way.’



It doesn’t take long for males and females, from babes in arms to hunched-over elderly, to make their way to Lale and Leon, who are grateful to learn that the children are not to be numbered, though some presenting numbers seem too young to Lale. He does his job, offering smiles to children standing by as he numbers their parents, and telling the occasional mum holding an infant what a lovely baby she has. Baretski is well out of earshot. He struggles most in numbering the elderly women, who seem to be the walking dead: vacant eyes, perhaps aware of their imminent fate. To them he offers a ‘Sorry’. He knows they probably don’t understand.

In the administration building, Gita and Cilka are working at their desks. Two SS officers approach them with no warning. Cilka gasps as one of them grabs her by the arm, jerking her to her feet. Gita watches as Cilka is marched from the room, looking back with confused and pleading eyes. Gita doesn’t see the administrative SS officer approach until she is struck across the head by a hand, a clear message to get back to work.

Cilka tries to resist as she is dragged down a long corridor to an unknown part of the building. She is no match for the two men who, on stopping at a closed door, open it and literally throw her inside. Cilka picks herself up and looks around. A large four-poster bed dominates the room. There is also a dresser, and a bedside table with a lamp and a chair. Someone sits in the chair. Cilka recognises him: Lagerführer Schwarzhuber, the Senior Commandant of Birkenau. He is an imposing man, rarely seen in the camp. He sits tapping his tall leather boot with his swagger stick. From an expressionless face he stares at a space above Cilka’s head. Cilka backs up against the door. Her hand goes to the door handle. In a flash, the swagger stick hurtles through the air and strikes Cilka’s hand. She cries out in pain and slides down to the floor.

Schwarzhuber walks over to her and picks up his stick. He stands over her. His nostrils distend. He breathes heavily and glares at her. He takes off his hat

and throws it across the room. With his other hand he continues to hit his leg firmly with his swagger stick. With every whack Cilka flinches, expecting to be struck. He uses the stick to push up her shirt. Realising what is expected, with shaking hands Cilka undoes the top two buttons. Schwarzhuber then places his stick under her chin and forces her to rise to her feet. She is dwarfed by the man. His eyes seem to see nothing; this is a man whose soul has died and whose body is waiting to catch up with it.

He holds out both his arms and she interprets this gesture as ‘undress me’. She takes a step closer, still at arm’s length, and begins undoing the many buttons on his jacket. A whack across her back with the stick hurries her up. Schwarzhuber is forced to drop the stick so she can slide his jacket off. Taking it from her, he throws it after his hat. He removes his own singlet. Cilka begins undoing his belt and zipper. Kneeling down, she pulls his trousers down to his ankles but can’t get them over his boots.



Unbalanced, Cilka falls heavily when he pushes her over. Dropping onto his knees, he straddles her. Terrified, Cilka attempts to cover herself as he rips her shirt open. She feels the back of his hand across her face as she closes her eyes and gives in to the inevitable.

That evening, Gita runs from the office to her block, tears streaming down her face. Dana and Ivana find her sobbing on their bunk when they arrive a short while later. She is inconsolable and can only tell them that Cilka has been taken away.

It was only going to be a matter of time. Since becoming the Tätowierer, Lale has had an entire block to himself. Each day upon returning there he has observed the progress made on the buildings going up around him. He is in a clearly defined camp, sleeping in the single room usually reserved in each block for the kapo, even though he is kapo to no one. He has always assumed that sooner or later the empty bunk beds behind him would be filled.

Today, Lale returns to his block and watches the children running around outside playing tag. Life is not going to be the same. Several of the older children run up to him and ask questions he fails to understand. They discover that they can communicate in a bastardised form of Hungarian, albeit not always accurately. He shows his room to those now sharing his block, telling them in his sternest voice that they are never, ever to enter. He knows they understand this, but will they respect it? Only time will tell. He considers his limited understanding of Gypsy culture and wonders if he needs to make

alternative storage arrangements for what is under his mattress.

He walks into the block, shakes hands with many of the men, acknowledges the women, the older women in particular. They know what he does here and he tries to explain it further. They want to know what is going to happen to them. A reasonable question to which he has no answer. He promises he will tell them of anything he hears which might affect them. They seem grateful. Many tell him they have never spoken to a Jew before. He doesn’t think he’s ever spoken to a Gypsy either.

That night he has trouble sleeping as he adjusts to the sounds of babies crying and children begging their parents for food.

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