Surviving Auschwitz by a thread

Now the great challenge is to ensure that the Holocaust remains fixed in human consciousness in the fervent hope that it will never be repeated.

 The entrance of Auschwitz-Birkenau (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
The entrance of Auschwitz-Birkenau
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)

The title of the book The Dressmakers of Auschwitz with the type set against a background of three bobbins of thread is enough to instantly grab anyone’s attention – especially someone who may have lost one or more relatives in Auschwitz as did this reviewer.

It’s a rare title by a rare author. Lucy Adlington did not write a personal memoir, nor did she write a specific biography, though she did manage to interview the last survivor from among the dressmakers, shortly before her death at 98, and to assemble much biographical information about others.

Adlington is a British fashion and textile historian, and it shows. To her, every detail in a garment or accessory is important – the fabric, the cut, the stitching, the design – and she simply can’t help but describe the fashions of pre-war Germany and Slovakia, and how they were worn.

She even describes the coat that Hitler wore when he went to Prague in March 1939.

In fact, it takes more than a hundred pages before she actually gets to introduce the reader to the reality that inspired the title of her finished work, but to her credit, she does supply a lot of background data leading up to the Auschwitz fashion salon known as The Upper Tailoring Studio, that was established by Hedwig Hoss, wife of Rudolf Hoss, the commander of Auschwitz.

 The dressmakers of Auschwitz sewed to survive (credit: Courtesy Lucy Adlington) The dressmakers of Auschwitz sewed to survive (credit: Courtesy Lucy Adlington)

Hedwig Hoss was by no means the first of the wives of high-ranking Nazi officers who took advantage of the tailoring skills of Jews in ghettos and forced labor camps – but Auschwitz was a death camp in which such skills literally kept women alive by a thread.

Vanity was a significant part of why Hoss conceived the Auschwitz fashion salon, but Adlington also leads the reader to suspect that she was not as negatively disposed to Jews as most Nazis. Even when it was forbidden to do business with Jews, she continued to surreptitiously frequent the few Jewish dress stores that continued to operate in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

At Auschwitz, she could have chosen one or two women to be her personal dressmakers, but instead she had 25, most of them Jewish, who had better conditions than other camp inmates and who sewed not only for Hoss, but for the wives of other officers, and Berlin socialites who came for fittings in chauffeured cars.

Adlington speculates that not all of the German fashionistas who patronized the studio may have known that Auschwitz was a death camp, or whether those who did know cared.

Long before writing the book, Adlington had learned a little about the dressmakers of Auschwitz, and because of her own calling in life, was sufficiently inspired to write a fictitious novel, The Red Ribbon, based on what she’d read and some basic information plus an incomplete list of names. And then the e-mails started coming from different parts of the world with information that the sender’s mother, aunt, or sister had been one of those dressmakers.

Now that she had a few authentic leads, Adlington decided to write the true story of the dressmakers of Auschwitz, little realizing at the time how much research it would require, and how many thousands of miles she would have to travel in the process.

Suffice to say that acknowledgments, bibliography notes on her sources, and an index listing people, places, institutes and incidents take up 65 pages.

The fashion references are far from frivolous. They set the tone for something more than thumbnail biographies about women who were trained to be expert seamstresses and to have a keen eye for fashion.

They also provide for briefer biographies of the fashion-conscious wives of high-ranking Nazi officers, whose antisemitism was in most cases on par with that of their husbands, and who believed that Europe should be cleared of Jews, but at the same time, they went to Jewish dressmakers because they were known to be the best.

It must be remembered that during centuries of discrimination in which they were denied higher education and certain professions, Jews had to develop skills such as tailoring, embroidery, shoemaking and carpentry in order to provide or contribute to incomes for their families.

The upshot, according to data provided by Adlington, is that in Berlin alone, there were 2,400 textile-related businesses owned by Jews, including major department stores, while out of 10,000 Jewish businesses that were liquidated in Slovakia, a thousand were involved with textiles in one way or another.

The dressmakers of Auschwitz came from different countries, different backgrounds, spoke different languages, and ranged in age from early teens to mid-thirties, but they bonded together, cared for each other, and protected each other, as for example when one of them who was ironing a dress for one of the “clients” scorched the bodice. The whole group banded together to redesign the garment and to insert a different panel to where the scorched area had been. The woman who came to try on the dress remembered that this was not exactly what she had chosen, but was assured that it had been upgraded.

Many of the beautifully crafted creations were based on those featured in French and German fashion magazines that were brought into the camp. The fabrics were often recycled from clothing that had been taken from well-dressed inmates. Seams had been carefully taken apart. The material had been washed and ironed and expertly re-cut and re-styled.

Though technically furs should be handled only by a trained furrier, fur coats were also brought to the studio, and it was heartbreaking for the dressmakers who picked them apart to find jewels and money that had been sewn into linings in the naïve belief that these valuables would serve to buy food, lodgings and transportation to safety. The valuables were transferred to Germany, and unless pilfered along the way, helped to finance the Nazi war machine.

It is interesting that Adlington mentions Poles who collaborated with the Nazis, a subject that is so sensitive to the Polish government that to make such statements is officially a criminal offense that could affect sales of the book in Poland.

It would be a pity if that turns out to be the case because this is a fascinating, panoramic view of what it meant to simply exist in Auschwitz, and reveals a factor that is not generally known – and Poles should learn about it too. Lucy Adlington is to be commended for bringing this aspect to light, before it is too late.

Survivors are gradually fading from our midst, and it is doubtful that there will be more personal memoirs or interviews with survivors old enough to remember. It is after all 77 years since the liberation of Auschwitz and of the end of the Second World War four months later.

Now the great challenge is to ensure that the Holocaust remains fixed in human consciousness in the fervent hope that it will never be repeated.