Lale Sokolov rattles across the countryside, keeping his head up and himself to himself. The 24-year-old sees no point in getting to know the man beside him, who occasionally nods off against his shoulder; Lale doesn't push him away. He's just one among countless young men stuffed into railway wagons designed to transport livestock.
With no idea where they're headed, Lale is dressed in his usual attire: a pressed suit, clean white shirt and tie. He tries to assess the dimensions of his confinement. The wagon is about two-and-a-half metres wide. But he can't see the end to gauge its length.
He attempts to count the men on this journey with him. But with so many heads bobbing up and down, he eventually gives up. He doesn't know how many wagons there are. His back and legs ache. His face itches. The stubble reminds him that he hasn't bathed or shaved since he boarded two days ago. He is feeling less and less himself.
There are many stops on the journey, some lasting minutes, some hours, always outside a town or village. Occasionally Lale catches a glimpse of the station names as they speed through: Ostrava, a town he knows is close to the border of Czechoslovakia and Poland; Pszczyna, confirming they are then indeed in Poland. The unknown question: where will they stop? Lale spends most of the time on the journey lost in thoughts about his life in Slovakia's capital, Bratislava: his job as a manager in a large department store, his apartment, his friends.
After two days the cattle train stops again. This time there is a great commotion outside. Dogs are barking, orders are yelled in German, bolts are released, wagon doors clang open. "Get down from the train, leave your possessions!" shout the soldiers. "Rush, rush, hurry up! Leave your things on the ground!" Being on the far side of the wagon, Lale is one of the last to leave. Landing on bended knees, he puts his hands on the gravel and stays crouching for several moments. Gasping. Exhausted. Painfully thirsty. Slowly rising, he looks around at the hundreds of startled men who are trying to comprehend the scene in front of them. Dogs snap and bite at those who are slow to move.
Suitcases, bundles of books, meagre possessions are snatched from those unwilling to surrender them or who simply don't understand the orders. They are then hit by a rifle or fist. Lale studies the men in uniform. Black and threatening. The twin lightning bolts on the collar of their jackets tell Lale who he is dealing with. The Nazi SS. Under different circumstances he might appreciate the tailoring, the fineness of the cloth, the sharpness of the cut. He places his suitcase on the ground. How will they know this one is mine? With a shiver, he realises that it's unlikely he will see the case or its contents again.
A gunshot rings out and Lale jumps. Before him stands an SS officer, weapon pointed skywards. "Move!" Lale glances back at the emptied train. Several trucks arrive and small boys clamber out. They snatch up the abandoned belongings and throw them into the trucks. A heaviness settles between Lale's shoulder blades. "Welcome to Auschwitz."
Lale hears the words in disbelief. Having been forced from his home and transported like an animal, now surrounded by heavily armed SS, he is being welcomed — welcomed!
"I am Commandant Rudolf Hoss. I am in charge here at Auschwitz. The gates you just walked through say, 'Work will make you free'. This is your first lesson, your only lesson. Work hard. Do as you are told and you will go free. Disobey and there will be consequences. You will be processed here, and then you will be taken to your new home: Auschwitz Two — Birkenau."
The processing begins. Lale watches as the first prisoners are shoved forward to the tables. He can only watch as the seated men in pyjamas write down details and hand each prisoner a small receipt. Finally it is Lale's turn. He has to provide his name, address, occupation and parents' names. The weathered man at the table writes Lale's answers and passes him a piece of paper with a number on it. Lale looks at the number: 32407.
Thirsty and exhausted, he is surprised when the piece of paper is yanked from his hand. An SS officer pulls off Lale's jacket, rips his shirtsleeve and pushes his left forearm flat on the table. He stares in disbelief as the numbers 32407 are stabbed into his skin, one after the other by an inmate with a beaten face. The length of wood with a needle embedded in it moves quickly and painfully. Then the man takes a rag dipped in green ink and rubs it roughly over Lale's wound.
The tattooing has taken only seconds, but Lale's shock makes time stand still. He grasps his arm, staring at the number. How can someone do this to another human being?
Lale opens his eyes to see a stranger, an older man, peering gently into his face. He pushes himself up on to his elbows and the stranger supports him to sit. He looks around, confused. What day is it? Where is he?
"The fresh air might do you good," says the man, taking Lale's elbow. He is escorted outside into a cloudless day, one that seems made for joy. His world spins and he staggers. The stranger supports him, leading him to a nearby pile of timber. Pulling up Lale's sleeve, he points to the tattooed number. "My name is Pepan. I am the Tatowierer. What do you think of my handiwork?"
"Tatowierer?" says Lale, "You mean, you did this to me?"
Pepan shrugs, looking Lale directly in the eye. "I wasn't given a choice."
Lale shakes his head. "This number wouldn't have been my first choice of tattoo."
"What would you have preferred?" asks Pepan.
Lale smiles slyly. "What's her name?"
"My sweetheart? I don't know. We haven't met yet." Pepan chuckles. The two men sit in companionable silence.
"What happened to me?" Lale asks.
"Typhus," Pepan answers. "You were destined for an early grave."
Lale shudders. "Then why am I sitting here with you?"
"I was walking past your block just as your body was being thrown on to a cart for the dead and dying. A young man was pleading with the SS to leave you, saying that he would take care of you. When they went into the next block he pushed you off the cart and started dragging you back inside. I went and helped him."
"How long ago was this?" says Lale.
"Seven, eight days," says Pepan. "Since then the men in your block have looked after you during the night. I've spent as much time as I can during the day caring for you. How do you feel?"
"I feel okay. I don't know what to say, how to thank you."
"Thank the man who pushed you from the cart."
Pepan leans forward and asks, "Are you as strong in character as you are physically?"
Lale returns Pepan's gaze. "I'm a survivor."
"Your strength can be a weakness, given the circumstances we find ourselves in. Charm and an easy smile will get you in trouble."
"I am a survivor."
"Well, then maybe I can help you survive in here."
"You have friends in high places?"
Pepan laughs and slaps Lale on the back. "No. No friends in high places. Like I told you, I am the Tatowierer. And I have been told the number of people coming here will be increasing very soon.
"You intrigue me, Lale. I was drawn to you. You had a strength that even your sick body couldn't hide. It brought you to this point, sitting in front of me today."
Lale hears the words but struggles with what Pepan is saying. They sit in a place where people are dying every day, every hour, every minute.
"Would you like a job working with me?" Pepan brings Lale back from the bleakness. "Or are you happy doing whatever they have you doing?"
"I do what I can to survive."
"'Then take my job offer."
"You want me to tattoo other men?"
"Someone has to do it."
The next morning Lale is in the queue for breakfast when Pepan appears by his side, takes his arm quietly and steers him away towards the main compound. A group of SS, mostly young, walk towards Pepan and Lale, guarding an older SS officer. Mid-to-late 40s, straight-backed in his immaculate uniform, his cap sitting precisely on his head — a perfect mannequin, thinks Lale, like those he occasionally helped dress when he worked in the department store in Bratislava.
The SS stop in front of them. Pepan steps forward, acknowledging the officer with a bowed head as Lale watches. "Oberscharfuhrer Houstek, I have enlisted this prisoner to help." Pepan indicates Lale standing behind him. "I believe he will learn fast."
It has been raining for days, but this morning the sun threatens to shine a little light on the bleak compound as Lale and Pepan prepare their work area. They have two tables, bottles of ink, plenty of needles.
"Get ready, Lale, here they come."
Lale looks up and is stunned at the sight of dozens of young women being escorted their way. He knew there were girls in Auschwitz but not here, not in Birkenau, this hell of hells.
"Something a bit different today, Lale — they've moved some girls from Auschwitz to here and some of them need their numbers redone."
Lale starts "the job". He tries not to look up. He reaches out to take the piece of paper being handed to him. He must transfer the numbers on to the girl who holds it. There is already a number there, but it has faded. He pushes the needle into her left arm, making a three, trying to be gentle. Blood oozes. But the needle hasn't gone deep enough and he has to trace the number again. She doesn't flinch at the pain Lale knows he's inflicting. They've been warned: say nothing, do nothing. He wipes away the blood and rubs green ink into the wound.
"Hurry up!" Pepan whispers.
Lale is taking too long. Glancing up, Lale sees a man in a white coat slowly walking up the row of girls. Every now and then the man stops to inspect the face and body of a terrified young woman. Eventually he reaches Lale. While Lale holds the arm of the girl in front of him as gently as he can, the man takes her face in his hand and turns it roughly this way and that. Lale looks up into the frightened eyes. Her lips move in readiness to speak. He squeezes her arm tightly to stop her. She looks at him and he mouths, "Shh." The man in the white coat releases her face and walks away.
"Well done," he whispers as he sets about tattooing the remaining four digits: 4902. When he has finished, he holds on to her arm for a moment longer than necessary, looking again into her eyes. He forces a small smile. She returns a smaller one. Her eyes, however, dance before him. Looking into them, his heart seems simultaneously to stop and begin beating for the first time, pounding, threatening to burst out of his chest. He looks down at the ground and it sways beneath him. Another piece of paper is thrust at him.
"Hurry up, Lale!" Pepan whispers urgently. When he looks up again, she is gone.
Several weeks later Lale reports for work as usual. He is startled by the approach of Oberscharfuhrer Houstek, accompanied by a young SS officer. Lale bows his head and remembers Pepan's words: "Do not underestimate him."
"You will be working alone today," Houstek mumbles.
As Houstek turns to walk away, Lale asks quietly, "Where is Pepan?"
Houstek stops, turns and glares back at him. Lale's heart skips a beat.
"You are the Tatowierer now." Houstek turns to the SS officer. "And you are responsible for him."
As Houstek walks away, the SS officer puts his rifle to his shoulder and points it at Lale. Lale returns his stare, looking into the black eyes of a scrawny kid wearing a cruel smirk.
Eventually Lale drops his gaze. Pepan, you said this job might help save my life. But what has happened to you?
"It seems my fate is in your hands," snarls the officer. "What do you think about that?"
"I'll try not to let you down."
"Try? You'll do better than try. You will not let me down."
"When you're finished here, I'll show you to your room in one of the new blocks. You'll stay there from now on."
"I'm happy in my block, sir."
"Don't be stupid. You'll need protection now that you're the Tatowierer. You now work for the political wing of the SS; shit, maybe I should be scared of you." There is the smirk again.
The sun has set by the time the last prisoner has been tattooed. Lale's guard, whose name, he found out, is Baretski, didn't wander more than a few metres from him.
An advantage of being Tatowierer is that Lale knows the date. It is written on the paperwork he is given each morning and that he returns each evening. It is not just the paperwork that tells him that. Sunday is the only day of the week the other prisoners are not forced to work and can spend the day milling around in the compound or staying near their blocks, huddled together in small groups.
It is a Sunday when he sees her. He recognises her at once. They walk towards each other, Lale on his own, she with a group of girls, all with shaven heads, all wearing the same plain clothing. There is nothing to distinguish her except for those eyes. Black — no, brown. The darkest brown he's ever seen. For the second time they peer into each other's souls. Lale's heart skips a beat. The gaze lingers.
"Tatowierer!" Baretski breaks the spell.
The prisoners move away, not wanting to be near an SS officer or the prisoner to whom he is talking. The group of girls scatters, leaving her looking at Lale, looking at her. Baretski's eyes move from one to the other as they stand in a perfect triangle, each waiting for the other to shift. Baretski has a knowing smile.
"Very nice," Baretski says as he and Lale walk away. Lale fights to control the hatred he feels.
"Tatowierer, where have you been? I have been looking for you."
Lale hurries after Baretski. They are heading towards one of the crematoria. He catches up with him.
"Where are we going?"
"Are you worried?" Baretski laughs.
"Wouldn't you be?"
Lale's chest tightens; his breath comes too short. Should he run? If he does, Baretski will surely turn his weapon on him. But then, what would it matter? A bullet is surely preferable to the ovens. They are very close to Crematorium Three before Baretski decides to put Lale out of his misery. He slows his long strides.
"Don't worry. Now come on before we both get into trouble and end up in the ovens."
"You're not getting rid of me?"
"Not just yet. There are two prisoners in here who appear to have the same number. We need you to look at them. It must have been you or that eunuch who made the marks. You have to tell us which one is which."
The red-brick building looms in front of them; large windows disguise the purpose, but the size of the chimneys confirms its horrifying true nature. They are met at the entrance by two SS, who joke with Baretski and ignore Lale.
Lale looks around at this final stretch of the road to death at Birkenau. He sees a group of fellow prisoners, the Sonderkommandos, standing by, defeated, ready to do a job no one on earth would volunteer for: removing corpses from the gas chambers and putting them into the ovens.
He tries to make eye contact with them, to let them know he, too, works for the enemy. He, too, has chosen to stay alive for as long as he can, by performing an act of defilement on people of his own faith. None of them meets his eye. He has heard what other prisoners say about these men and the privileged position they occupy: housed separately, receiving extra rations, having warm clothing and blankets to sleep under. Their lives parallel his and he feels a sinking in his gut at the thought that he, too, is despised for the role he plays at the camp.
They are led to a large steel door. In front of it stands a guard. "It's all right, all the gas has gone. We need to send them to the ovens, but can't until you identify the correct numbers."
The SS officer opens the doors wide and they step into a cavernous room. Bodies, hundreds of naked bodies, fill the room. They are piled up on each other, their limbs distorted. Dead eyes stare. Men, young and old; children at the bottom. Blood, vomit, urine and faeces. The smell of death pervades the entire space. Lale tries to hold his breath. His lungs burn. His legs threaten to give way beneath him. Behind him Baretski says, "Shit".
That one word from a sadist only deepens the well of inhumanity that Lale is drowning in.
"Over here," an officer indicates where two male bodies are laid out together. The officer starts talking to Baretski, who indicates that Lale can understand German. "They both have the same number. How could that be?" he asks.
Lale can only shake his head and shrug his shoulders. "How the hell should I know?"
"Look at them. Which one is correct?" the officer snaps.
Lale leans down and takes hold of one of the arms. He is grateful for a reason to kneel and hopes it will stabilise him. He looks closely at the numbers tattooed on the arm he holds.
"The other?" he asks. Roughly, the other man's arm is thrust at him.
He looks closely at both numbers. "See here. This is not a three, it's an eight. Part of it is faded, but it's an eight."
The guard scribbles on each cold arm the correct numbers. Without asking for permission, Lale gets up and leaves the building. Baretski catches up with him outside, where he is doubled over and breathing deeply. Baretski waits a moment or two. "Are you all right?"
"No, I'm not f***ing all right. You bastards. How many more of us must you kill?"
"You're upset. I can see that."
Baretski is just a kid, an uneducated kid. But Lale can't help wondering how he can feel nothing for the people they have just seen, the agony of death inscribed on their faces and twisted bodies.
"Come on, let's go," says Baretski.
Lale pulls himself up to walk beside him, though he cannot look at him.
"You know something, Tatowierer? I bet you're the only Jew who ever walked into an oven and then walked back out of it." He laughs loudly, slaps Lale on the back and strides off ahead.
Lale was transported out of Auschwitz the day the Russians liberated the camp, January 27, 1945. He returned to his homeland of Slovakia where he found the girl with the deep brown eyes, Gita, who was also Slovakian. They married in October 1945 and moved to Melbourne in 1949, where their son, Gary, was born in 1961. Gita died in 2003, aged 78; Lale lived until age 90, dying in 2006. He never found out what happened to Pepan.
Lale was transported out of Auschwitz the day the Russians liberated the camp, January 27, 1945. He returned to his homeland of Slovakia where he found the girl with the deep brown eyes, Gita, who was also Slovakian. They married in October 1945. Gita died in 2003, aged 78; Lale lived until age 90, dying in 2006. He never found out what happened to Pepan.
Edited extract from The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris (Bonnier Publishing Australia, $32).