One of the most remarkable books I have read recently is Lucy Adlington’s The Dressmakers of Auschwitz: the true story of the women who sewed to survive. It covers a relatively unknown aspect of the Second World War that needs to be told.
For most informed people, the name Auschwitz is synonymous with the horrors of what we have learned about the Holocaust and, over time, we have become familiar with the narration of the mass deportation of Jews to camps, such as Auschwitz, where they were exterminated in their tens of thousands – largely through the use of gas chambers, although many were shot or literally worked to death – barely living anyway on the inadequate food they were provided with.
Some of you may recall watching the film Schindler’s List, which portrayed so well the prevailing callous attitude of camp guards who quickly learned to regard the inmates as ‘subhuman’, thus rendering it easier to subject them to widespread humiliation and blatant cruelty. According to Adlington, so horrendous were the conditions in the camps that of those who were not deliberately killed, relatively few survived. Of those who did, not many were initially willing to share their experiences after the war. Even those who were, experienced their circumstances being regarded as so incredulous that their listeners found them difficult to believe or to absorb as being real – that is until Adolf Eichmann, one of the most prominent architects of Holocaust logistics, was forcibly brought to trial in the 1960s.
Lucy Adlington’s book is a meticulously researched and very well expressed history of a group of mainly Jewish women who, having suffered all the deprivations of Auschwitz, initially survived their ordeal through the use of their sewing skills. These women became dress designers, cutters and seamstresses who produced sought-after garments in a fashion salon known as the Upper Tailoring Studio in Auschwitz. In the book she makes the point that “the Nazis understood the power of clothes” and observes that “uniforms are a classic example of using clothing to reinforce pride and identity”. The shapeless and ill-fitting striped camp uniforms synonymous with Nazi concentration camps were, however, designed to achieve the opposite by stripping the inmates of their dignity and individuality, and to reinforce their perceived ‘lack of humanity’ as far as their captors were concerned.
Adlington’s research shows that Nazi economic and racial policies were aimed to profit from the clothing industry by using the proceeds of plunder to help fund their military hostilities. And plunder they did! In Auschwitz alone there were large warehouses known as Kanada filled with artworks, jewellery, shoes, fabrics, furniture and other household goods taken from Jewish homes and businesses, as well as from the luggage brought in by each batch of new arrivals in the camps. She notes, for example, that Goering’s residences were crammed with Jewish acquisitions such as art and luxury goods.
According to the author, “Elite Nazi women also valued clothing” and revelled in being able to wear bespoke high-end fashion garments throughout the war. She mentions that Magda Goebbels, a devotee of good style, had few qualms about wearing Jewish-made high fashion clothing. She is reputed to have lamented the closure of a Jewish salon after Kristallnacht, noting that “What a nuisance that Kohnen is closing … we all know that when the Jews go, so will the elegance from Berlin.” Emmy Goering was also apparently happy to wear plundered luxury clothing, claiming no knowledge of their origin.
Against this background, Hedwig Höss, wife of the camp commandant of Auschwitz, was not going to let the war get in the way of her determination to indulge in her love of luxury and so it was she who established the dressmaking workshop, the Upper Tailoring Studio, which was conveniently situated as she and other SS families lived in luxurious conditions just outside Auschwitz – the studio was thus on their doorstep as it were.
The book focuses on the twenty-five seamstresses who worked there for up to twelve hours a shift, both day and night. While the majority of them were Jewish, their number also included some non-Jewish communists from Occupied France, who had been incarcerated because of their resistance to the Nazis. The youngest seamstress was only fourteen. The rest were in their late teens and early twenties, who regarded the women in their mid-thirties as being ‘ancient’!
The women of the Upper Tailoring Studio worked in a basement room where, Adlington writes, “This group of resilient, enslaved women designed, cut, stitched and embellished for Frau Höss and other SS wives, creating beautiful garments for the very people who despised them as subversives and subhuman; the wives of men actively committed to destroying all Jews and all political enemies of the Nazi regime. For the dressmakers in the Auschwitz salon, sewing was a defence against gas chambers and ovens.” When one of the workers was called away never to return, their kapo [a prisoner placed in charge of other prisoners], Marta Fuchs, who had once run her own successful salon in Bratislava, would arrange a replacement from among other female prisoners whom she knew could sew. In this way someone else was provided with an opportunity to sew for her life.
The Upper Tailoring Studio was so successful, and the garments produced there so desirable, that commissions were received from as far away as Berlin. Orders from the Auschwitz SS women received priority, however, and any order from Hedwig Höss naturally took precedence. Far-flung orders might have to wait for up to six months to be filled.
As there were not enough beds in the basement dormitory, the women slept in shifts according to whether they were working during the day or night. The beds consisted of straw-filled mattresses covered by a single sheet and a blanket. Their food consisted of ersatz tea or coffee, turnip soup, as well as bread with margarine and sausage. Along with all other prisoners, they suffered from symptoms of long-term malnutrition.
It is through Lucy Adlington’s meticulous research that we get to know a handful of these women whose backgrounds she was able to flesh out from diaries, letters, photographs and interviews. Readers get a glimpse of them as ordinary human beings with families and ambitions before they had been reduced to numbers. All of them had been seamstresses of one kind or another before the war.
By the summer of 1942, Jews were being transported directly to Auschwitz for extermination. Before being drafted into the Upper Tailoring Studio, some of the seamstresses had been among those tasked with expanding the Birkenau sub-camp, which Himmler had decreed would hold 200 000 prisoners. Others had worked in the Kanada warehouses which were situated in the main camp of Auschwitz and are where clothes, suitcases, bags and bundles removed from the new camp arrivals were sorted into various categories by prisoners working day and night shifts “because the transports kept coming and the luggage kept piling up.” Such was the abundance of goods available in Kanada that Marta Fuchs could choose from a selection of textiles, clothing and sewing notions in order to satisfy the needs of the ‘clients’ of the Upper Tailoring Studio. There was neither need for stock control nor payment. In any case, Adlington notes, the SS “helped themselves to anything and everything in the plunder warehouses of Auschwitz.”
Garment fittings were supervised by an SS guard and at noon on Saturdays the men would collect their wives’ orders. As the author emphasises, “These were men whose names were synonymous with violence, tyranny and mass murder.”
On Wednesday 17th January 1945, the dressmakers were informed it was their last day of work. Through their connections with prisoners working in Kanada, they were able to organise underwear, shoes and coats in addition to the striped prison jackets issued by the SS. They were mustered along with 30 000 others the following day to leave on foot towards an unknown destination. The group kept together as best they could, with some managing to escape from the marching columns while the rest continued to Löslau. Not all survived. Others from the group escaped by train while the rest, “to the accompaniment of shrieks, beatings and shootings” were loaded onto open coal wagons, 180 women to a wagon, headed for Ravensbrück.
There, camp police with rubber truncheons “hit out at the wild surge of starving women” desperate to reach the inadequate vats of soup when they arrived at 3 a.m. Some of the remaining dressmakers were later sent by passenger train to Malchow, one of Ravenbrück’s satellites, where before long they and other inmates were reduced to eating grass as they laboured with the timber commandos in the forest. Red Cross trucks arrived bearing food parcels for the prisoners in April 1945 – “the SS stole the lot.”
By then the Russians, British and Americans were converging on the area. When Berlin surrendered on 2nd May 1945, the prisoners were simply abandoned by their SS guards. Although the surviving seamstresses endured harrowing journeys towards freedom and eventually settled in different parts of the world, they mostly remained in touch. As the author says, “Each dressmaker found her own way to resist both SS suppressors and the general grinding down of their humanity. They ultimately became part of a hub of international friendships that defied racism, antisemitism and political affiliations.”
Lucy Adlington visited the last surviving dressmaker of this group, Berta Kohút, who was 98 at the time and living in California. She wanted to hear her story and describes her as a “small resilient woman [who] has faced deprivation, deportation, starvation, humiliation, brutality and bereavement.” She died of Covid-related complications shortly before her hundredth birthday.