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The secret love story behind one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust.

This is an edited extract from The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris – a historical fiction novel that explores the real-life love story between Lale Sokolov and Gisela Fuhrmannova.

Lale tries not to look up. He reaches out to take the piece of paper being handed to him. He must transfer the five digits onto 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. Tattooing the arms of men is one thing; defiling the bodies of young girls is horrifying. Glancing up, Lale sees a man in a white coat slowly walking up the row of girls. Every now and then he stops to inspect the face and body of a terrified young woman. Eventually he reaches Lale. While Lale holds the girl’s arm 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. Lale 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 – 4 9 0 2. 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, almost 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.

Lale had been transported like an animal from his home in Slovakia to Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration Camp in April 1942. A well dressed charmer, he finds himself dressed in prisoner pyjamas, his head shaven, the number 32407 stabbed into his left arm. Contracting typhoid within weeks of arrival, Lale is saved by a fellow prisoner and Pepan, the tattooist at the camp. When he recovers he is offered the job as Pepan’s assistant, tattooing prisoners arriving from all over Europe, prisoners whose only crime was to be born a Jew.

In July 1942 girls are transferred from Auschwitz to Birkenau and many require their numbers to be rebranded having faded from an inferior method of tattooing. While marking the arm of eighteen year old Gita, dressed in rags, her head shaven, trembling with fear, he looks up into her eyes, into her soul and knew at that moment he could love no other. The briefest of smiles passes between them. Now he must find a way to speak to her, to get to know her, to get Gita to know him. When Pepan disappears Lale is made the head tattooist, the Tätowierer, and given an SS minder, Baretski, an uneducated oaf, who Lale manipulates into thinking they could be friends.

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***

Alone in his single room, Lale wakes to the sight of Baretski standing over him. He didn’t knock before entering – he never has – but there is something different about this visit.

‘She’s in Block 29.’ He hands Lale a pencil and some paper. ‘Here, write to her and I will make sure she gets it.’

‘Do you know her name?’

Baretski’s look gives Lale his answer. What do you think?

‘I’ll come back in an hour and take it to her.’

‘Make it two.’

Lale agonises over the first words he will write to prisoner 34902. How to even begin? How to address her? Eventually he decides to keep it simple, ‘Hello, my name is Lale.’ When Baretski returns, he hands him the page with only a few sentences on it. He has told her he is from Krompachy in Slovakia, his age, and the make-up of his family, who he trusts are safe. He asks her to be near the administration building next Sunday morning. He explains that he will try to be there too, and that if he isn’t it will be because of his work, which isn’t regulated like everyone else’s.

Baretski takes the letter and reads it in front of Lale.

‘Is this all you have to say?’

‘Anything more I’ll say in person.’

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Baretski sits down on Lale’s bed, and leans in to boast to Lale about what he would say, what he would like to do if he was in Lale’s situation, that is, not knowing if he will still be alive at the end of the week. Lale thanks him for the input but says he prefers to take his chances.

‘Fine. I’ll deliver this so-called letter to her and give her pen and paper to reply. I’ll tell her I will come for her reply tomorrow morning – give her all night to think on whether or not she likes you.’

He smirks at Lale as he leaves the room.

What have I done? He has placed prisoner 34902 in danger. He is protected. She is not. And still he wants, needs, to take the risk.

***

The next day Lale and Leon work well into the evening. Baretski patrols not far from them at all times, often exercising his authority with the lines of men, using his rifle as a baton when he doesn’t like the look of someone. His insidious smirk is never off his face. He takes clear delight in swaggering up and down the rows of men. It is only when Lale and Leon are packing up that he takes a piece of paper from his jacket pocket and hands it to Lale.

‘Oh, Tätowierer,’ he says, ‘she doesn’t say much. I think you should choose yourself another girlfriend.’

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As Lale reaches out to take the note, Baretski playfully pulls it away. OK, if that’s the way you want to play it. He turns and walks away. Baretski chases after him and gives him the note. A curt nod of the head is the only thanks Lale is prepared to give him. Putting the note in his bag, he walks towards his evening meal, watching Leon head back to his block, knowing he will probably have missed his own.

There is a small amount of food left by the time Lale arrives. After eating, he shoves several pieces of bread up his sleeve, cursing the fact that his Russian uniform has now been replaced by a pyjama-like outfit with no pockets. On entering Block 7 he receives the usual quiet chorus of greeting. He explains that he only has enough extra food for Leon and maybe two others, promising he will try to get more tomorrow. He cuts short his stay and hurries back to his room. He needs to read the words buried among his tools.

He drops onto his bed and holds the note to his chest, picturing prisoner 34902 writing the words he is so eager to read. Finally, he opens it.

‘Dear Lale,’ it begins. Like him, the woman has written only a few careful lines. She is also from Slovakia. She has been in Auschwitz longer than Lale, since March. She works in one of the ‘Canada’ warehouses, where prisoners sort through the confiscated belongings of fellow victims. She will be in the compound on Sunday. And will look for him.

Lale re-reads the note and turns the paper over several times. Grabbing a pencil from his bag he scribbled in bold on the back of her letter. Your name, what is your name?

This is an edited extract from The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris (Bonnier Publishing Australia), available now.

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