‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’ and the missing story of the Roma


Inadvertently, my son encouraged me to pick up a novel about the Holocaust. In the run up to the Holocaust Memorial Day he had come home from school with a project about Auschwitz, the Sonndo-commandos and other related topics. Like many parents, as often as possible we like to discuss the books and projects my son is working on.

In this one there was a particular aspect of his work which stood out. He was instructed to articulate, in a speech bubble what a photo of an SS Officers was thinking with his aggressive face, before shooting - presumable a Jewish man in the back of the head. There was another bubble - for the student to fill - for the Jewish man too.

My son said, ‘how can I know such horror’. I’m not doing it. I hope my teacher will understand.

That conversation led me to start reading ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Based on a true story of a Slovakian Jew who would miraculously survive Auschwitz, in part by being the camp’s tattooist. His job was to number the men and women who came to have their lives terminated.

Like many other Holocaust books this one is about as horrific as these stories can be. On a daily basis life hung from the slightest thread. A thread that could cut at the whim of a SS guard who was simply having a bad day from the hangover the night before. After all, everyone there was there to die, it was just a matter of when.

But within this extraordinary tale of one of man’s greatest inhumanities - the industrial slave trade of Africans was clearly another - lay two other stories, one of which is hardly ever told. The first was a true love story of Lale the ‘Tätowierer- German for tattooist- and Greta another Jewish prisoner who Lale falls in love with. How that pans out, we’ll you’ll just have to read the book. But the other, often untold story, weaved into Lale’s recollection was that of the Roma people, who like Jewish people were systemically rounded up by the SS and massacred in a genocidal fashion. It is estimated that the Nazis killed more than 500, 000 Roma in concentration camps during World war two.

In Auschwitz, Lale, as the Tätowierer was given minor privileges in the death camps, and was able to move around the camp where he made friends with Roma families. In a space that was fiercely territorial, the Roma families warmly accepted him, and he learnt much about them, their culture and their sensibilities. In one moving passage, he tells one of the men: ‘I’m ashamed to say, that if I saw Roma in the street back home, I would have crossed the road’, the friend replies to Lale, don’t worry, if I saw you I would cross the road too’, to which both men laugh.

After two or so years of knowing and loving this Roma community inside out, one day Lale woke up to find their barracks cleared empty. The belching smoke from the crematorium could only mean one thing. Lale sobbed inconsolably about what had occurred, wanting to die himself there and then.

Lale’s story is about love and survival in our recent dark history, but having come through the other side Lale would remember for the rest of life the Roma people he knew and loved. To the day he died he had a painting of a Roma family on his wall to remind him of a people and the friendship they offered him.

What struck me was just how much we don’t know about the Roma Holocaust that cost so many lives. Why is it particularly relevant today? Well, fast forward to the 21st Century and what we are witnessing in many parts of Europe - Italy, Hungary, France, Poland - is that the Roma are still amongst some of the most persecuted people on the planet. Just last year 7 Roma individuals were killed by gangs, with Molotov cocktails thrown at their homes.

The inhumanity of men is once again slowly but inexorably bubbling under the surface. History shockingly, tragically tells us, we ignore these acts of barbarity at our peril!

Simon Woolley