- Hi I wrote this a few years ago but I think it is relevant for today’s 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auswitch. My great grand father was one of the first soldiers at Belsen. This story was published by From Saturn To Glasgow, Glasgow university’s Literary Magazine in 2012. Let me know what you think
by Sandra Webster
Gunter Hollinger had many regrets in his life. He had never married nor had children, he had seen little of the world apart from his corner of it.
Now nearing the end of his life he also regretted the time in the camp. Every night when he closed his eyes his dreams were full of the faces of those he had encountered on their arrival at the camp. These were the lucky few who lived to die another day still in shock, half hoping that their mothers, wives and children had been taken to the Kinder camp. That first day, after they had been shaved and deloused and stripped of their humanity, they would offer him their arm and he would record the number by which they would now be known. Gunter was proud he was one of the lowest numbers – 000047. The last one he tattooed was 865879. Between these numbers only 200 survived to tell of the atrocities. Gunter, as one of the survivors, had been a witness at many trials where the guards and Kapos had been brought to justice for their crimes. There was never any doubt that Gunter was a victim too but he always felt responsible. He could have been more gentle, been kinder, not cooperated.
It only seemed fitting that after the war he would continue to tattoo. He opened a parlour in a local town. Some of his first client were the ex camp inhabitants. They fell into two groups. Some, like Gunter, did not flinch from letting others seeing their tattoo as it served as an external mark of the collective guilt of a society. Others wanted to forget the past and Gunter gently covered the numbers with faces of loved ones, or flowers. He looked at each person and gently reflected their soul into the tattoo, trying his best to cover over his own guilt and that of the other tattooists.
Some people who did what he did called themselves ‘tattoo artists’ but to his clients and himself he was always ‘the tattooist’.
Although Gunter never regarded himself as an artist, his reputation grew. Now in his fifties he was the owner of a very successful business. People came from all round the country for one of his special designs. He had a gift for looking into their minds and removing from it the perfect image that would suit only them. No matter how successful he became though, he could never forget the little room in Treblinka where he had first honed his work.
One day a man came into his shop. A decade older than himself perhaps. He looked at the drawing books while Gunter finished the tattoo of his last customer. Gunter thought he didn’t look like one of the clients from the camps but he had the look of a survivor about him. He didn’t seem to be comfortable in his own skin, as if like them he carried an invisible load on his shoulders. When Gunter was finished he asked the man to sit down.
‘Please Sir, take a seat, can I get you a coffee?’
The man looked at Gunter and shook his head.
‘No thank you, I have had so many cups of coffee today. I have been so nervous you know?’
Gunter smiled. ‘Don’t worry Sir. I have tattooed so many people.’ He pointed to his head. ‘And each of them is stored right in here. I have not had one complaint yet.’
‘I like your work,’ the man replied. ‘But I have a special project for you.’
‘All my work is special Sir. Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back, and in thirty years I have never had to make a refund.’
The man shuffled uncomfortably in the chair.
‘I have a secret,’ he said. ‘Something I regret in my youth. It was youthful high spirits – you know how the young are – but I want it covered over before I go to meet my Maker, which will be very soon.’
He rolled up his shirt sleeve and showed Gunter a very old Waffen SS blood group tattoo in Gothic script just above his right elbow. B to show his blood group, in case he required a transfusion. Gunter sucked in his breath and tried not to react. Such Gothic blood tattoos were very rare and among the oldest of the Nazi tattoos he knew of. This meant the man was not just a recruit but a volunteer to the Waffen SS as early as 1937. Well before the rest of the country had jumped onto the Hitler bandwagon.
Gunter was aware of his less rare tattoo and was glad it was cold and he wore a long shirt and coat today.
‘I have never seen one before Sir, how unusual. What would you like me to do?’
‘I want it covered over,’ the man replied. ‘I do not want to go to my grave with this. Can you help me?’
Gunter worried if this was some sort of trap. Did others know about him, was he being threatened? He refused to be frightened of such an old man and took control of the situation.
‘Of course Sir, but it will hurt, being where it is, and will take some time. Do you have a design in mind?’
‘I’ll leave that to you. Just do it quickly so I can leave it behind. I know you are the best so please do this for me.’
Gunter prepared the needles, trying not to tremble. He had waited years for this opportunity to put right the past. This old man was his ticket to karma.
‘My gift is to cover up Sir, never fear. That mark will be obliterated and covered with my art.’
The man was flustered. ‘Yes, yes, I am in a hurry, just get on with it.’
In that instant Gunter knew exactly what he was going to do.
He sprayed the alcohol onto the man’s arm. Felt him shiver with its cool touch. Then he poised with the needles above him. This was going to be his masterpiece.
Being directly on the bone, the needles caused the man severe pain. He held it in, as Gunter knew he would. Gunter enjoyed feeling his pain, causing it. He had not been gentle with his first tattooed ones and now he could inflict a little on the man. Usually he talked and chatted while he worked, but an almost supernatural force took over him and he had no desire to make small talk with a man such as this. Nothing in common but a brand on their skin they had both had to accept.
At last he was finished. He looked at his work and was proud of it. The man looked nervously down.
‘You have finished at last, may I have a look?’
‘Of course Sir, let me get a mirror.’
The man looked in the mirror at the image Gunter had created of his soul. A man in a Nazi uniform, wearing a pair of jackboots, stood on top of a pyramid of small crushed bleeding bodies.
‘I have covered over your brand to your satisfaction?’
The man looked at Gunter and smiled.
‘I have at most a week to live. I hope when I go to meet my Maker he will be satisfied with your work. How much do I owe you?’
‘For this there is no charge Sir, for now we are equals.’ Gunter smiled. ‘Good Day to you Sir.’
He turned his back and when he looked round the man had left the shop.