Last Updated on June 10, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1239
It is March of 1943. Today, Lale is told that all of his tattoos must begin with the letter ‘Z.’ He is not told why. As they prepare their tools, Lale and Leon see children disembarking the transport trucks. Baretski tells Lale and Leon that the new arrivals are Romany Gypsies, “the worst of the worst” in Baretski estimation.
In the admin building, Gita’s beautiful friend Cilka—who has been allowed to keep her hair, unlike most of the prisoners—is dragged away by SS officers. The officers take her to a bedroom, where they leave her with Schwartzhuber, the head of Birkenau. He rapes her. Cilka knows that if she protests, she will be killed.
Lale has realized that the buildings around him are becoming the crematoria for an entire people. He becomes friendly with some of the Romany who have moved into the camp near Lale’s solitary block, and he engages in a cultural stereotype by wondering if they might try and steal his Canada treasure.
Lale becomes popular with the Romany camp, growing close to many of the women and children. They tell stories and play games. Lale makes friends with an older Romany woman named Nadya, who reminds Lale of his mother. Desperately homesick, Lale thinks about his family. He is disturbed by the hopelessness in Nadya’s voice.
It is May of 1943. Transports of new prisoners continue arriving from all across Europe, keeping Lale and Leon busy in their tattooing work. Today, they are working with many new female prisoners, who are being inspected by a doctor in a white coat named Josef Mengele as they arrive. Lale is frightened of Dr. Mengele, who is frequently at the daily tattooings to select girls. They have a tense interaction, and Mengele and an SS officer take Leon away.
Later, Lale finds a red flower growing. He thinks about Gita and his mother. He remembers how he learned to flirt by flirting with his mother: learning how to flatter her, how she taught him what women like in a man. Because of his mother, he knows how to win Gita’s love.
Baretski finds Lale and asks him a strange favor: he wants Lale to assemble a soccer team of prisoners for a “friendly” game against the SS. Lale thinks about it. He has a day off, and he sorts all the treasure he has accumulated from the women working at the Canada.
Lale goes back to his old block, block seven, to tell the men about the soccer game. Eventually, one man volunteers, and then another, and they begin assembling a team. Apparently, they tell Lale, there are prisoners in the camp who were at one point professional soccer players.
On game day, the prisoner team is excited about the prospect of defeating the SS in a game. Lale tells them no—they cannot give the SS a reason to be angry or frustrated, especially at the prisoners’ expense. Reluctantly, the prisoners agree to throw the game.
The prisoner team scores a couple of goals, but they promise to ease up in the second half. As they play, ash from the crematorium begins to rain down on the soccer field and the players. Eventually, the prisoner team doesn’t need to pretend in order to lose. Being as malnourished as they are, they grow weak over the course of the game, and the SS team wins.
After the game, Lale and Gita have a chance to spend some time together. Gita searches the grass for four leaf clovers. She tells Lale that they...
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are like currency to the superstitious SS officers. Prisoners can trade the clovers for better rations or other special treatment.
Lale and Gita kiss for a while before being interrupted. They head back towards the women’s compound. When they arrive, Lale notices that Cilka looks unwell and asks about her. Gita tells him that he’s better off not knowing what’s going on. As she says goodbye to him, Gita calls Lale “my love.”
That night in their separate bunks, Lale and Gita think longingly of each other. Each remembers kissing and fantasizes about what they would do if they could be together. At the same time, Schwartzhuber rapes Cilka again in his bed. Commandant Hoess has a luxurious dinner to himself in his private room in Auschwitz. Baretski comes home drunk and passes out in his bed.
The next day at the administration building, Lale sees Cilka looking miserable, and he resolves to find out what is happening to her. Lale and Baretski go to Auschwitz to work there for the day, and they see many naked women fenced in together. Lale goes inside to where Dr. Mengele is examining girls as they enter. He wants Lale to tattoo the girls he decides to keep; Lale is deeply disturbed by this situation.
There are new arrivals to Gita’s block in the women’s compound, and one of them is Mrs. Goldstein, a neighbor from Gita’s hometown. Mrs. Goldstein tells Gita that her parents and sisters are gone—presumably dead—and that her brothers have joined the resistance. Their town, Mrs. Goldstein tells Gita, has since been destroyed by Nazis. Gita strikes a deal with her block’s kapo to secure easier work for Mrs. Goldstein, anticipating that she can bribe the kapo using Lale’s treasure.
At Auschwitz, Lale is constantly busy with work, even though all the crematoria are working at full speed. Many people are entering the camps, and many are being murdered. Baretski tells Lale that the Red Cross is visiting the camp for an inspection, which means they will all receive better rations and supplies for a while. Lale is unsure whether this inspection actually occurs—the quality of the food improves a bit, but nothing else changes.
Finally, after being kept busy for many days with work, Lale is able to see Gita again. He tells her he loves her, and he promises her that they will have a future together. Back in the women’s block, Dana and Ivana are thankful for Gita’s happiness; they have few causes for celebration in the camp. They promise that they will not keep secrets from one another.
One morning, Lale goes to the administration building to get supplies for the day. Baretski has brought Leon back. Leon looks unwell, and when Lale asks after him, Leon reveals that he has been experimented on by Dr. Mengele, who cut off Leon’s testicles. Lale does what he can to provide for Leon in block seven.
Baretski fetches Lale for a mysterious “job” in Auschwitz. He brings Lale to the crematoria. Lale watches the Sonderkommando, the prisoners whose job it is to burn the bodies, at work. Lale feels a solidarity with these men, knowing that no Jew would willingly perform such work.
Lale has been brought to a gas chamber where he needs to identify the tattoo on a body. Though the gas is off, the chamber is still filled with naked bodies. Lale is brought to his knees; he has never encountered anything as hideous as this. He quickly identifies the tattoo, and he and Baretski leave the chamber. Baretski says to Lale, “You know something, Tatowierer? I bet you’re the only Jew who ever walked into an oven and then back out of it.”