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27 Oct 2021 6:05
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  •   Home > News > International

    A secret dressmaking salon saved a group of Jewish women from certain death in Auschwitz

    Historian Lucy Adlington was inspired to write a novel about the women forced to make clothes at Auschwitz. Then she discovered the truth was more riveting than the fiction.


    When Lucy Adlington learnt about a tailoring studio in Auschwitz where Jewish women were forced to make clothes for the wives of Nazi officials, she had no idea the journey that discovery would take her on.    

    "I thought, who are these women?" Ms Adlington, a dress historian, tells ABC RN’s Late Night Live.

    She couldn't find out much beyond a few names, but she was inspired to make up a story, imagining what life might have been like for a group of friends working in a sewing shop in a concentration camp.

    The story became the young adult novel The Red Ribbon, which was published in 2017 and attracted a worldwide audience. 

    Later that year, the novel was featured in the Jewish Chronicle.

    It was then the emails started to arrive.

    'I know who these names are'

    Relatives of survivors who'd worked in the Upper Tailoring Studio in Auschwitz saw the article in the Chronicle, and they began contacting Ms Adlington.

    One of the emails she received was from the grandchild of a Jewish woman named Marta Fuchs, an Auschwitz prisoner who had been appointed to run the tailoring studio. 

    "Marta was exceptionally skilled and had her own salon before the war," Ms Adlington says. 

    Ms Fuchs found excuses to hire others, even if they couldn't sew, like her 14-year-old niece Rozsika, who was hired to pick up pins.

    While the women's skills were required, they were relatively safe.

    By 1944, 25 women worked in the studio and they were all spared the fate of many of their fellow prisoners.

    But Ms Adlington says the studio saved more than just those who worked there.

    "Each of these women who'd been plucked out of hard labour, out of the hell of [Auschwitz] Birkenau and saved from the gas, they then used their influence to help others," she says.

    Ms Fuchs used her position to connect to the underground resistance movement within Auschwitz. 

    "Because they had people coming and going from the plunder warehouses [buildings in Auschwitz used to store the belongings, including clothes, that were taken from prisoners], getting fabrics and from the SS admin block where the tailoring studio was set, she had this amazing communication network," Ms Adlington says.

    The tailors smuggled messages out of the camp and spread news within the camp of Allied victories, such as D-Day.

    Ms Fuchs was a Kapo, a prisoner with authority over their fellow captives, but she did not abuse that position. Rather, she was "compassionate and she was clever", Ms Adlington says.

    "She set an example of how you could behave and other people rose to meet that."

    Ms Adlington says the emergence of a high-end tailoring studio within the bounds of Auschwitz was part of a broader pattern of profiteering from Jewish labour. 

    There were prisoners whose job was to find anything of value among the possessions of those who'd been killed in the camp.

     

    "They sorted through the clothing that spilled out of baskets and bags and suitcases. And these were bundled up and sent back to Germany for civilians to use," Ms Adlington says.

    The tailoring was one example of Nazis "recycling the goods of murdered people and using them to make money," she says. 

    "It was an extraordinary escalation of greed and privilege."

    'They didn't think of themselves as evil'

    The woman who set up the Upper Tailoring Studio was Hedwig Hoess, the wife of the Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Hoess, who lived in a villa just outside the walls of the concentration camp. 

    Mrs Hoess originally hired Ms Fuchs as an au pair and to repair some clothes. 

    "And from there, her ambitions grow," Ms Adlington says.

    She says there's no doubt Mrs Hoess knew what was happening within the walls of Auschwitz, as did many of the other tailoring studio clients. 

    "We do have some evidence of what their responses were to the mass killings and to the degradation of prisoners at Auschwitz," Ms Adlington says.

    "On the whole, they were very comfortable profiteering and taking advantage of it all.

    "They didn't think of themselves as evil. They just thought, 'I need a new dress for the casino, for the theatre, for this music soiree.' To them it was a transaction."

    But it was a transaction of "extraordinary intimacy", Ms Adlington says.

    "To be standing there in your lingerie being measured ... meanwhile your husband is doing everything he can to facilitate the extermination of all of these people."

    Mrs Hoess's grandchildren have reportedly said that she "never repented of anything that she did or that her husband did", Ms Adlington says.

    Despite this, she's tried to make some sense of Mrs Hoess's actions. 

    "Rather than dismissing her as evil, as if she's some other creature from another world, I think it's really interesting to look at her and say, 'How did she have that disconnect?'," she says.

    She believes it comes down to Mrs Hoess making a "horrible" distinction between German Aryans like herself, and "everybody else on the other side of the wall".

    The power of clothes

    Nazis used clothing to "other" Jewish prisoners. 

    Deportees who arrived in Auschwitz and other camps were stripped of their own clothes, which "give you dignity, they give you your sense of humanity and identity", Ms Adlington says.

    "And they were deliberately taken away."

    However, the women of the Upper Tailoring Studio covertly used clothes to dignify themselves. 

    "They had all sorts of tricks to add something to their uniform just to make them feel either more feminine or more human or even warmer," Ms Adlington says. 

    "They used clothes to defy what the Nazis were doing to them, to defy that dehumanisation."

    The Jewish women's jobs as dressmakers saved their lives, but the clothes themselves would end up being crucial to their survival as well.

    In January 1945, as the Soviets and Allied forces began liberating Poland, the Nazis ordered the evacuation of Auschwitz and the start of what became known as the death marches.

    "When the order came, the dressmakers were still creating fashions. They literally stopped mid-stitch and were told 'You're leaving the camp tomorrow', and so they were able to muster up warm clothes to march through occupied Poland," Ms Adlington says. 

    Of those who did survive Auschwitz, many continued to sew for a living once they were free. 

    Others rejected sewing. "One of the survivors advised her niece, 'Don't become a seamstress. True, it saved my life, but you just sit there and sew','" Ms Adlington says.

    The last dressmaker of Auschwitz

    Ms Adlington's journey not only led her to relatives who shared their families' stories, but also to a woman who saw it all herself, Berta 'Bracha' Berkovich Kohut.

    In 2019, Ms Adlington sat down with Mrs Kohut, who was 98 at the time and who died earlier this year.

    The three-day interview forms part of Ms Adlington's latest book, The Dressmakers of Auschwitz.

    She knew she was lucky to have survived her thousand days in the camp. 

    "She told me there were thousands of dressmakers in Birkenau much more qualified than she was," Ms Adlington says. 

    "But if you didn't have luck [or] you didn't have connections, you wouldn't make it through."

    Ms Adlington says it's these connections that stand out most from the story she's pieced together.

    "Their friendships defied anything that Rudolf Hoess, Hedwig Hoess, any of the SS, any of the fascists, anything that was done to them.

    "The women who did survive, they had long and challenging lives, but they lived." 

    © 2021 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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