In the early 1940s, twenty-five young female inmates of Auschwitz—mostly Jewish—were chosen to design, cut and sew beautiful clothes in a dedicated salon for elite Nazi women. Their skills kept them alive and their stories are now told in The Dressmakers of Auschwitz (Harper, $17.99). Novelist and costume historian Lucy Adlington talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about this little known chapter in the larger saga of the Holocaust, and what it can tell us about both the depth and the scope of Nazi depravity.
YZM: How did you first uncover this story? And how did you go about finding the women who had been employed in this ghastly setting?
LA: There are so many voices, faces and memories lost to history. It is thanks to a remarkable Jewish scholar named Dr. Lore Shelley (née Weinberg) that it’s been possible to trace the history of the dressmaking salon in Auschwitz and the identity of many of the dressmakers. Young Lore was deported from Germany to Auschwitz where she eventually found work in the SS admin block, sharing a dormitory with the elite dressmakers as well as 300 other inmate secretaries and servants, all forced to work for the SS to survive. Many decades—and multiple academic degrees later—Lore Shelley reached out to survivors for their testimonies, realizing that it was a matter of urgency to record their stories. Among the stories are three accounts by women of the dressmaking salon, called the Upper Tailoring Studio. This was a start for my research, but it was almost a dead-end for a while. In most cases I only had maiden names, first names or nicknames to trace. Remarkably, it was fiction that helped on my journey towards fact. I wrote a YA novel called The Red Ribbon—an imaginative response to what little I knew of the sewing workshop. It reached a wide readership, and caught the attention of survivors’ families in Israel, Europe and the USA. They were swiftly in touch, generously sharing photographs and memoirs. Can you imagine how extraordinary this was? I was overwhelmed, particularly when I first made contact with the last surviving seamstress of the salon in 2019—a bright 98-year-old named Mrs. Kohut, who was more than willing to talk of her experiences and her friends from the camp.
YZM: Had these women told their stories before? What was it like both for them as witnesses and for you as the listener/researcher?
LA: “You listen!” commanded Mrs. Kohut as we sat together during my visit to her home in California. She’d kept silent about Auschwitz while her children were small, hoping to protect them from knowledge of the horrors and from antisemitism in their home country of Czechoslovakia. Eventually she agreed to record her testimony for the Shoah Foundation. Two other dressmakers from the salon did the same. Three women sent hand-written or typed testimonies to Dr. Lore Shelley.
Understandably there was some reluctance from survivors to revisit traumatic memories, yet they faced this, believing it was vital for the truth to be told. When they were first interviewed about their Holocaust experiences for the Shoah Foundation, there was no emphasis on the significance of sewing fashions for the camp commandant’s wife; of how much this revealed of Nazi policies and privilege. The dressmakers wanted to honor memories of pre-war family life; to remember those who were lost as well as how some survived. Now I sense that the second and third generations of survivor families are proud that their mothers, aunts and grandmothers are to be honored too. They may seem ‘ordinary’ in the vast scope of history, but their lives and fates will now be shared with a worldwide audience.
It has been both harrowing and humbling for me to be part of such an endeavor. Being immersed, daily, in such disturbing, such intimate, such devastating stories gave me a vital reminder that history isn’t only facts and analysis: it’s people.
My biggest regret as a historian is that I began this book too late to speak with the other seamstresses in person. ‘She should have come ten years ago,’ said Mrs. Kohut after my first visit. I suppose it’s a universal problem: by the time we’re old enough to know what to ask our grandparents and parents, it’s often too late. However, it’s never too late to rescue memories from oblivion, and to save and share the stories we can.
YZM: You’ve said that the removal of Jews from the fashion industry and clothing trade was not an accidental by-product of antisemitism but rather an intended goal. Can you elaborate?
LA: At first, a connection between fascism and fashion seems bizarre, almost unbelievable. But the Nazis not only understood the power of clothing imagery in politics—think of the iconic uniforms at mass rallies—they also appreciated the business side of clothing. In short, they knew the textile trade was a major part of the German economy, and they wanted all the profits for themselves. State-sanctioned antisemitism was the perfect tool for seizing Jewish assets in the fashion and clothing industries, from department stores and weaving factories, down to bolts of fabric and sewing machines. The acquisition process was known as ‘Aryanisation.” It was legal robbery. In my collection of vintage clothing I have a pretty apple-green dress with a floral pattern. The label stitched inside reads ‘ADEFA.’ ADEFA is an acronym for a German federation dedicated to eliminating Jewish talent from the clothing industry and to acquiring Jewish assets by whatever means necessary. The federation urged shoppers to shun Jewish-made goods from Jewish shops, and to buy only from German (Aryan) suppliers. The apple-green dress looks so lovely, and so innocent, but it is saturated with antisemitism. The dress has a story to tell, even if we don’t now know who made it, who sold it, who bought it, who wore it… and if they ever spared a thought for the victims of these aggressive Aryanisation policies.
YZM: Let’s talk about the ways in which the appropriation of Jewish businesses and goods was both a “glorified shopping spree” and an “orgy of consumerism”.
LA: “I intend to loot, and to loot thoroughly,” said Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, speaking of Nazi expansion across Europe and beyond. His wife Emmy seemed to have no objections. Like many SS wives she enjoyed the perks of ‘gifts’ from anyone looking to gain favor with Hitler’s cronies. It wasn’t only treasure-hoarding elite Nazis or greedy business operators who profited from appropriation. Jews were vulnerable to their neighbors and former colleagues, who eyed up Jewish goods and shops, and muscled into take what they wanted. Worse would follow. Deportations of Jewish people were specifically encouraged by Nazis and their allies, so that Jewish homes and belongings could be taken over or auctioned off.
Those deported took only what they could carry. On arrival at concentration camps and extermination centers this too was taken from them—suitcases, handbags, prams and purses…and the very clothes they were wearing. Thousands of camp inmates labored to sort the plunder and bundle it up. Valuables were boxed up and sent straight to Berlin (minus the gold, currency and jewelery pilfered by SS at the camps). Clothing and personal items were freighted back to Germany to be distributed to civilians in need—keeping the population semi-sweet during long years of war-economy shortages. Everyone benefited except the actual owners of the goods. In Auschwitz the commandant’s wife, Hedwig Hoess, calmly filled her house with plundered furniture, artwork, soft furnishings and clothes. Whatever she wanted was hers for the taking, or the making, by work kommandos of slave laborers, including the group of prisoner seamstresses who sewed for her.
YZM: Dressmaking was a financial resort for so many women because it required little equipment and could be done within the confines of home; did this have particular importance for Jewish women?
LA: When fascist governments decreed that Jews could not own or run businesses, and that they could not study at university or practice their trades, this inevitably led to great distress and economic hardship. In Slovakia Bracha Berkovič and Irene Reichenberg—two of the young women who would end up sewing for Hedwig Hoess—were both bewildered and worried when their fathers lost their businesses this way, and when their own vocational training plans were also ruined. Irene’s father was a shoemaker. He continued to eke out a subsistence working discretely from home, until deportation. Bracha’s father was a tailor. He resolved to teach his children tailoring skills so they’d have something to fall back on. Bracha, Irene and their friend Renée took clandestine sewing lessons. “I decided to learn to sew a little bit,” said Irene. What a fateful decision.
Dressmaking and sewing are often overlooked in economic histories, and yet they are a fundamental element of household management and a vital source of income, particularly during war. Jewish women had to be thrifty and resilient to support their families in such desperate times. There are countless tales of knitters unravelling old woolens to make them up into new garments to sell; of embroiderers embellishing textiles as so earning money from their skills; of seamstresses crafting clothing out of any fabrics they could find. Once deported to ghettos and concentration camps, many traditional female skills were considered surplus to requirements: the Nazis required labour to support their war efforts. Sewing was one of the ways women could earn daily bread and a ‘right to life’. Despite Nazis announcing that the German clothing industry would be ‘Jew-free’, they were still happy to distribute clothes and uniforms stitched by Jews…and to enjoy the enormous profits from these textile enterprises.
YZM: What distinguished the twenty-five women in the Upper Tailoring Studio? What, besides their skill with a needle, kept them alive?
LA: There were thousands of seamstresses imprisoned in Auschwitz between 1942 and 1945—most there for the ‘crime’ of being Jewish, according to Nazi laws. Some were from distinguished couture houses; some had run salons of their own. The women chosen to sew in the SS fashion salon weren’t picked because they were the best or the most illustrious. They were saved because of luck and loyalty. Luck gave Jewish dressmaker Marta Fuchs the chance to work at the Hoess villa, making clothes for all the commandant’s family. Loyalty meant Marta was determined to salvage as many friends and family members as possible from the hell of hard labour and the threat of the gas chambers. Clever and compassionate, Marta constantly pushed for more dressmakers in the salon Hedwig Hoess established for herself and other SS wives. Marta’s sister was married to one of Irene’s brothers, so Irene eventually came to sew. Irene then mentioned her friend Bracha. Bracha put in a word for her sister Katka…and so it went. Within the salon the women had clean uniforms, not filthy rags. They still had dire food, but they did not have to fight for it. Marta even evolved the salon into a hub for resistance, linking with the camp underground. Essentially, the dressmakers were reminded that they were human beings, not ‘vermin’ as the SS termed them. They had meaningful work, camaraderie and a chance to hope.
YZM: Describe the aftermath of that experience for those who survived it. Did the bonds they forged last past the war years?
LA: The dressmakers held together as long as was humanly possible, bound by love and loyalty. They supported each other during the horrific Death March from Auschwitz, and in subsequent concentration camps. Those who survived travelled homeward together after liberation. Together they searched for relatives—usually in vain. They salvaged dignity and independence together. They acquired sewing machines and began dressmaking work again together. Inevitably marriage, and the search for safe havens outside of Europe, meant their bonds were stretched—but they never broke. There were letters, telegrams, phone calls; eventually Skype and emails. Whenever possible, the dressmakers gathered for reunions, where they laughed and chatted like schoolgirls according to those who saw them together. They supported each other during divorces, bereavements, wars, restitution battles, medical troubles and mental trauma. And now their families are also joined by the bonds woven in that infamous dressmaking studio.
YZM: What light does the story of these women shed on the larger story of the Holocaust? What remains of the studio and how is it viewed and understood today?
LA: The history of these dressmakers of Auschwitz is important because it centers on a particularly female experience and gives credit to the skills of fashion design and sewing. It raises issues of complicity of bystanders and perpetrators, such as German shoppers and SS wives in the Third Reich. It shows how greed was a significant motivator for Nazi plunder and atrocities. It is proof that there was Jewish resistance in many forms, and innumerable acts of quiet heroism.
The building that housed the Upper Tailoring Studio is still standing. It is a Polish vocational college, just across from the Auschwitz main camp. When I wrote to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum archives enquiring after documentation about the salon they said nothing remains in the archives: the SS had a bonfire of evidence before their retreat in January 1945. Beyond the testimonies gathered by Dr. Lore Shelley there is almost nothing known about the fashion workshop. Until now.
The most important aspect of my book is that it gives voice to women who were supposed to be silenced by genocide. Dr. Lore Shelley wrote of survivors: “We all should have testified long ago, but I believe it is never too late.” This book is the dressmakers’ testament.