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.