Kill Your Darlings’ First Book Club pick for February is The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris (Echo Publishing). Based on the true story and extensive interviews with Auschwitz-Birkenau tattooist Ludwig Sokolov, The Tattoist of Auschwitz tells the story of a young Jewish man placed in a position of privilege within Auschwitz: marking its prisoners for life. When he falls in love with a young woman, fellow prisoner Gita, he resolves to find a way to use his position to lessen the suffering of those around him. The following extract is from chapter 1.
Lale 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 is just one among countless young men stuffed into wagons designed to transport livestock. Having been given no idea where they were headed, Lale dressed in his usual attire: a pressed suit, clean white shirt and tie. Always dress to impress.
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 number of 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.
When the men try to engage him in conversation, he responds with words of encouragement, trying to turn their fear into hope. We stand in shit but let us not drown in it. Abusive remarks are muttered at him for his appearance and manner. Accusations of hailing from an upper class. ‘Now look where it’s got you.’ He tries to shrug the words off and meet the glares with smiles. Who am I trying to kid? I’m as scared as everyone else.
Who am I trying to kid? I’m as scared as everyone else.
A young man locks eyes with Lale and pushes through the scrum of bodies towards him. Some men shove him on his way through. It’s only your own space if you make it yours.
‘How can you be so calm?’ the young man says. ‘They had rifles. The bastards pointed rifles at us and forced us into this…this cattle train.’
Lale smiles at him. ‘Not what I was expecting either.’
‘Where do you think we’re going?’
‘It doesn’t matter. Just remember, we are here to keep our families safe at home.’
‘But what if…?’
‘Don’t “what if”. I don’t know, you don’t know, none of us knows. Let’s just do as we’re told.’
‘Should we try and take them when we stop, since we outnumber them?’ The young man’s pale face is pinched with confused aggression. His balled-up hands box pathetically in front of him.
‘We have fists, they have rifles – who do you think is going to win that fight?’
The young man returns to silence. His shoulder is wedged into Lale’s chest and Lale can smell oil and sweat in his hair. His hands drop and hang limply by his side. ‘I’m Aron,’ he says.
Others around them tune in to their conversation, raising their heads towards the two men before lapsing back into silent reveries, sinking deep into their own thoughts. What they all share is fear. And youth. And their religion. Lale tries to keep his mind off theorising about what might lie ahead. He has been told he is being taken to work for the Germans, and that is what he is planning to do. He thinks of his family back home. Safe. He has made the sacrifice, has no regrets. He would make it again and again to keep his beloved family at home, together.
What they all share is fear. And youth. And their religion.
Every hour or so, it seems, people ask him similar questions. Wearying, Lale begins to answer, ‘Wait and see.’ He is perplexed as to why the questions are directed to him. He has no special knowledge. Yes, he wears a suit and tie, but that’s the only visible difference between him and the next man. We’re all in the same filthy boat.
In the crowded wagon they can’t sit, let alone lie down. Two buckets substitute for toilets. As they fill, a fight breaks out as men try to get away from the stench. The buckets are knocked over, spilling their contents. Lale clings to his suitcase, hoping that with the money and clothes he has, he might be able to buy himself out from wherever they are headed, or at the very least buy himself into a safe job. Maybe there’ll be work where I can use my languages.
He feels lucky to have found his way to the side of the wagon. Small gaps in the slats provide him with glimpses of the passing countryside. Snatched breaths of fresh air keep the rising tide of nausea at bay. It might be springtime, but the days are filled with rain and heavy cloud. Occasionally they pass fields ablaze with spring flowers and Lale smiles to himself. Flowers. He learned from a young age, from his mother, that women love them. When would be the next time he could give a girl flowers? He takes them in, their brilliant colours flashing before his eyes, whole fields of poppies dancing in the breeze, a scarlet mass. He vows that the next flowers he gives to someone he will pick himself. It has never occurred to him that they grow wild in such large numbers. His mother had a few in her garden but she never picked them and brought them inside. He starts a list in his head of things to do ‘When I get home . . .’
Another fight breaks out. Scuffling. Yells. Lale can’t see what is going on, but he feels the squirming and pushing of bodies. Then there is silence. And from the gloom: the words, ‘You’ve killed him.’
‘Lucky bastard,’ someone mutters.
My life is too good to end in this stinkhole.
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 Bratislava: his job, his apartment, his friends – his female friends in particular.
The train stops again. It is pitch-black; clouds block out the moon and stars completely. Does the dark portend their future? Things are as they are. What I can see, feel, hear and smell right now. He sees only men like himself, young and on a journey into the unknown. He hears the grumbling of empty stomachs and the rasping of dry windpipes. He smells piss and shit and the odour of bodies too long unwashed. The men take advantage of not being thrown around to rest without the need to push and shove for a piece of turf. More than one head now rests on Lale.
He sees only men like himself, young and on a journey into the unknown.
Loud noises come from a few wagons back, gradually creeping closer. The men there have had enough, and are going to attempt an escape. The sounds of men throwing themselves against the wooden sides of the wagon, and the banging of what must be one of the shit buckets, rouses everyone. Before long every wagon erupts, attacked from within.
‘Help us or get out of the way,’ a large man screams at Lale as he throws himself against the side.
‘Don’t waste your energy,’ Lale replies. ‘If these walls were going to be breached, don’t you think a cow would have done it by now?’
Several men stop their efforts, turning angrily towards him.
They process his comment. The train lurches forward. Maybe those in charge have decided movement will stop the unrest. The wagons settle down. Lale closes his eyes.
Lale had returned to his parents’ home, in Krompachy, Slovakia, following the news that Jews in small towns were being rounded up and transported to work for the Germans. He knew Jews were no longer allowed to work and that their businesses had been confiscated. For nearly four weeks he helped around the house, fixing things with his father and brother, building new beds for his young nephews who had outgrown their cribs. His sister was the only family member earning an income, as a seamstress. She had to travel to and from work in secret, before dawn and after dark. Her boss was prepared to take the risk for her best employee.
One evening she returned home with a poster her boss had been asked to put in the shop window. It demanded that each Jewish family hand over a child aged eighteen or older to work for the German government. The whispers, the rumours about what had been happening in other towns, finally came to Krompachy. It seemed that the Slovakian government was acquiescing further to Hitler, giving him whatever he wanted. The poster warned in bold type that if any family had such a child and did not surrender them, the whole family would be taken to a concentration camp. Max, Lale’s older brother, immediately said he would go, but Lale would not hear of it. Max had a wife and two young children. He was needed at home.
The officials he dealt with had been his friends – they’d gone to school together and knew each other’s families.
Lale reported to the local government department in Krompachy, offering himself for transportation. The officials he dealt with had been his friends – they’d gone to school together and knew each other’s families. Lale was told to make his way to Prague, report to the appropriate authorities and await further instructions.
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. Approaching the door, he sees the body of the man killed in the skirmish. Briefly closing his eyes, he acknowledges the man’s death with a quick prayer. Then he leaves the wagon, but brings with him the stench – covering his clothes, his skin, every fibre of his being. 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. Many stumble, the muscles in their legs refusing to work after days without use. 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 SS. Under different circumstances he might appreciate the tailoring, the fineness of the cloth, the sharpness of the cut.
Then he leaves the wagon, but brings with him the stench – covering his clothes, his skin, every fibre of his being.
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. He touches his hand to his heart, to the money hidden in his jacket pocket. He looks to the heavens, breathes in the fresh, cool air, and reminds himself that at least he is outdoors.
A gunshot rings out and Lale jumps. Before him stands an SS officer, weapon pointed skywards. ‘Move!’ Lale glances back at the emptied train. Clothing blows away and books flap open. 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. Sorry, Mumma, they have your books.
The men trudge towards the looming dirty pink brick buildings, with picture windows. Trees line the entrance, flush with new spring growth. As Lale walks through open iron gates he looks up at the German words wrought from the metal.
ARBEIT MACHT FREI
Work will make you free.
He doesn’t know where he is, or what work he is expected to do, but the idea that it will set him free has the feeling of a sick joke.
SS, rifles, dogs, his belongings taken – this he’d been unable to imagine.
‘Where are we?’
Lale turns to see Aron at his side.
‘The end of the line, I’d say.’
Aron’s face falls.
‘Just do as you’re told, you’ll be fine.’ Lale knows he doesn’t sound terribly convincing. He gives Aron a quick smile, which is returned. Silently, Lale tells himself to take his own advice: Do as you’re told. And always observe.
Once inside the compound, the men are corralled into straight lines. At the head of Lale’s row is an inmate with a beaten face sitting at a small table. He wears a jacket and trousers of blue and white vertical stripes, with a green triangle on his chest. Behind him stands an SS officer, rifle at the ready.