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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Who was Josef Mengele? What role did he play in the book The Tattooist of Auschwitz?
Josef Mengele was a doctor at the Auschwitz concentration camp who tortured the prisoners and performed many gruesome experiments. In The Tattooist of Auschwitz, he often tantalized Lale and tortured those around him as an intimidation tactic. So, who was Josef Mengele? He was a devil in a white coat.
Continue on for the answer to the question: Who was Josef Mengele?
Who Was Josef Mengele?
In The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Lale encounters a new member of the SS staff one day while tattooing arrivals. It starts with a whistle, an eerie sound within the confines of Auschwitz. He recognizes the tune but can’t place it. The whistling gets louder. Lale finally glances up and sees a new doctor walking toward him.
There is something more sinister about this doctor than the others he’s seen. Lale tries to focus on his work, but his concentration is disrupted when the doctor leans over and inspects the tattoo he’s giving. Lale holds his breath until the doctor walks away. Who was Josef Mengele? Baretski tells Lale the doctor is is so scary, even he is afraid of him.
Later, the whistling returns behind Lale. He becomes so nervous, he accidentally stabs a woman with his tattoo needle. Blood oozes from the wound. Mengele comes closer and asks Lale if anything is the matter. Lale finally looks into the man’s face and sees eyes as black as coal. The doctor smiles a wicked smile and moves on.
Back in his room, Lale tries to wash the blood out of his shirt but then stops. He stares at the stain and decides to leave it. It will be a good reminder to stay alert when the doctor is around. Who is Josef Mengele? Lale doesn’t know but what he does know is that Josef Mengele was dangerous and heartless, and he doesn’t want to draw his attention again.
This reminder fails to work the next day. Mengele walks up and down the line of arrivals, studying the young women. He separates the women into groups, and Lale can’t discern what his criteria might be. The women all look healthy. Lale can’t stop staring, and Mengele catches him and whispers in the ear of an SS officer. The officer approaches Lale’s table, but instead of addressing Lale, he orders Leon to follow him. Lale tries to intervene, but he stops when the nose of a rifle is pointed at his face. Leon is taken away, and Lale sinks with guilt.
The next day, Leon returns to work. He is pale, thinner, and more defeated than before. He struggles when he walks, and Lale can feel his ribs when he hugs him. Leon tells Lale that Mengele held him captive. He was starved, tortured, and castrated. Lale rails, cursing Mengele and promising to exact his revenge. But he sees that rage is not what his friend needs, and at the moment, there is nothing he can do anyway. He tells Leon to go to his room and help himself to the food hidden under the mattress.
Devil in a white coat
One 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. 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.
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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