This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Tattooist of Auschwitz" by Heather Morris. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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What does Lale do when he’s tasked with putting together a soccer team to face the Auschwitz guards? What horrific job is he given the next day? What news does Gita get from home?
In The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Lale is instructed to put together a soccer team to play against the Auschwitz guards. The team knows that if they embarrass the guards, they won’t survive. They must put on a good show.
Continue reading about the soccer match with the Auschwitz guards.
Games With the Auschwitz Guards
One morning, one of the Auschwitz guards, Baretski, comes to Lale’s room and says that he and the other Auschwitz guards thought it would be fun to organize a game of soccer versus the prisoners. He wants Lale to put a team together and have them ready for a match on Sunday. He gives Lale the day off to figure it out.
After Baretski leaves, Lale organizes his stash of valuables and food into little bundles. He puts aside food for the Romany, the men in Block 7, and Gita and her friends. He takes the jewels to Victor and Yuri for the day’s trade. When his business is finished, he sets to work convincing the other men to play in the soccer match.
At first, the other men are stupefied. Why would they want to play soccer with the Auschwitz guards? Many refuse, but one young man agrees. He says he knows of men who used to play professionally and will do his best to recruit them. Lale shows his gratitude by handing out the bundles of food. He’s heartened by the way the men share equally with each other.
The Match Against the Auschwitz Guards
When Sunday comes, Lale is surprised to find six semi-pro players on his team. He’s grateful for them for agreeing to play, but he knows they’re not allowed to win. It’s too dangerous. If they embarrass the Auschwitz guards, who knows what sort of revenge they’ll take on the team and the many prisoners crowding the field as spectators. Among them is Gita and her crew. Lale wishes he could forget the game and take her to their spot, but all he can do is wave.
The prisoner team scores two goals quickly, jumping out to a 2-0 lead. Lale gets into the winning spirit, but his gut tells him it’s time for the team to pull back. He convinces the players to allow the officers to catch up. They’ll put on a good show so the prisoners watching can feel proud, but they need to make sure they lose the game. The reality of where they are and the stakes involved hits home as ashes from the crematorium rain down on the field.
Midway through the second half, Lale realizes he has no need to worry. The prisoners are so weak from starvation, they can barely make it up and down the field. The Auschwitz guards win by two goals, and Lale earns an “atta boy” from one of the senior officers.
After the game, Lale and Gita sneak away to their spot. Gita is engrossed in searching through patches of grass. She tells Lale she’s looking for four-leaf clovers. They’re everywhere in the camp, and the women use them to curry favor with the guards. The Auschwitz guards are notoriously superstitious, and if they offer a four-leaf clover, they can avoid beatings and sometimes get extra food. Lale is incensed that he can’t protect the woman he loves.
Gita playfully throws a handful of grass at Lale, and they begin to play-wrestle. Lale pins her down and asks if he can kiss her. Gita raises her face to his. Their kiss is passionate, ignited by the long yearning each has felt since that first chocolatey kiss. The passion consumes them, and they lose themselves in it until the sound of a barking dog brings them back to reality.
Lale returns Gita to her friends in the yard and notices that something is off about Gita’s co-worker Cilka. He asks Gita what’s wrong with her, but she won’t say. She tells him there is nothing he can do to help and adds “my love” at the end. Lale forgets all about his concern for Cilka. He swims with delight in the bliss of those two words. However, when he sees Cilka looking distraught next to Gita the next day at the administration office, he makes a note to force the truth from Gita.
That afternoon, Baretski takes Lale to Auschwitz, but instead of setting up his table for work, he is told to report to Block 10. Lale quickly notices that Block 10 is not set up for residents like the others. He’s instructed to enter from the back, and when he turns the corner, he freezes. In front of him stands a fenced-in compound filled with dozens of naked women, their faces gaunt and lifeless.
Inside, Lale passes several prisoners lying on the ground like abandoned puppets. He is taken to a room full of at least 50 women matching the description of those outside. Doctor Mengele examines each one, touching them inappropriately as they silently cry. Some are sent away, but others are sent to Lale to tattoo. When the work is over, Mengele tells Lale that he will come for him one day. Lale shakes as he collects his tools. He exits the way he came. The compound is now empty of women.
News for Gita
That night, Gita enters her block after work to find a group of new arrivals. New arrivals are always met with hostility. The current prisoners know they will be peppered with questions they don’t want to answer. But one woman steps forward and calls Gita’s name. She is Gita’s old neighbor from home, Hilda Goldstein. Hilda tells Gita that everyone from home was rounded up and taken away, all but her brothers, who joined the resistance. Hilda also says that Gita’s parents and sister did not make it. Gita crumbles to the ground, the other women watching silently, knowing the grief she feels.
Gita knows that Hilda will surely die if she is assigned to hard labor. She asks her kapo to spare Hilda and suggests Hilda clean the latrine, a job usually performed by whichever woman angers the kapo. The kapo agrees for a price. Rumors of Lale’s enterprises have abounded, and she wants a diamond ring. Gita promises to make it happen.
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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Heather Morris's "The Tattooist of Auschwitz" at Shortform.
Here's what you'll find in our full The Tattooist of Auschwitz summary:
- How a man used tattooing skills to stay alive at Auschwitz-Birkenau
- How Lale Sokolov fell in love in these unusual circumstances
- How Lale goes from concentration camp to Russian prisoner before finding freedom