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 happened to Pepan in The Tattooist of Auschwitz? How did Pepan change the course of Lale’s life?
Pepan is the Frenchman who saved Lale’s life and offered him the job as his assistant tattooist. What happened to Pepan, the tattooist of Auschwitz before Lale, is not made clear, but we can only assume he was murdered by the Germans.
Keep reading to find out what happened to Pepan in The Tattooist of Auschwitz.
What Happened to Pepan in The Tattooist of Auschwitz?
In The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Pepan takes Lale to the main compound the next morning, where new prisoners are unloaded. Lale freezes when he sees the hundreds of men, all young and frightened, surrounded by the SS and dogs, both chomping at the bit to tear these men apart. Pepan guides him to the table where the tattooing equipment is laid out.
An older immaculately dressed officer, Officer Houstek, approaches with an entourage of younger officers. Houstek’s attire and demeanor remind Lale of the rich men he used to dress at a department store in Bratislava. Pepan introduces Lale as his new helper. Houstek looks at Lale with a steely gaze and asks how many languages he speaks. Lale rattles off Slovak, German, Russian, French, Hungarian, and Polish, all while holding the officer’s eyes.
The officer grunts and walks away, but Pepan is livid. He tells Lale never to look that man in the eye and never underestimate the power he holds in the camp. Lale understands and again admonishes himself for his brazenness.
Weeks go by, with Lale working diligently next to Pepan. He has tattooed hundreds of prisoners, both men and women, including the woman from the Prologue, who stole his heart. One day, Lale shows up to work and finds the table and equipment set up, but Pepan is not there. The new arrivals start to line up, and Lale grows anxious. Houstek is suddenly in front of him with an SS officer, Officer Baretski. Lale keeps his eyes low as Houstek says he’ll be tattooing alone that day. There is no mention of what happened to Pepan, the tattooist of Auschwitz, and Lale receives no answer when he asks.
Lale is now the new tattooist, and Baretski is his new direct supervisor. Their fates are now entwined, Baretski tells Lale, and he knows Lale will not do anything to embarrass or endanger him. As a perk of the job, Lale will be moved to a new room. He is now part of the political branch of the SS and needs to be isolated for protection.
Lale isn’t sure what to say, but he doesn’t want to do the job alone. He convinces Baretski to give him an assistant to make the work go faster and keep Houstek happy. Baretski pulls a random man from the line and tells him he’s now Lale’s assistant. Lale looks at the young man, Leon, and delivers the same speech Pepan gave him. If he worked hard, it could save his life.
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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