Title: The Dressmakers of Auschwitz
Author: Lucy Adlington
Genre: History, Non-fiction
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton/Hachette
Published: 31st August 2021
Synopsis: ‘Lucy Adlington tells of the horrors of the Nazi occupation and the concentration camps from a fascinating and original angle. She introduces us to a little-known aspect of the period, highlighting the role of clothes in the grimmest of societies imaginable and giving an insight into the women who stayed alive by stitching’ – Alexandra Shulman, author of Clothes…and other things that matter
‘An utterly absorbing, important and unique historical read’ – Judy Batalion, NY Times bestselling author of The Light of Our Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos
The powerful chronicle of the women who used their sewing skills to survive the Holocaust, stitching beautiful clothes at an extraordinary fashion workshop created within one of the most notorious WWII death camps.
At the height of the Holocaust twenty-five young inmates of the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp – mainly Jewish women and girls – were selected to design, cut, and sew beautiful fashions for elite Nazi women in a dedicated salon. It was work that they hoped would spare them from the gas chambers.
This fashion workshop – called the Upper Tailoring Studio – was established by Hedwig Hoss, the camp commandant’s wife, and patronized by the wives of SS guards and officers. Here, the dressmakers produced high-quality garments for SS social functions in Auschwitz, and for ladies from Nazi Berlin’s upper crust.
Drawing on diverse sources – including interviews with the last surviving seamstress – The Dressmakers of Auschwitz follows the fates of these brave women. Their bonds of family and friendship not only helped them endure persecution, but also to play their part in camp resistance. Weaving the dressmakers’ remarkable experiences within the context of Nazi policies for plunder and exploitation, historian Lucy Adlington exposes the greed, cruelty, and hypocrisy of the Third Reich and offers a fresh look at a little-known chapter of World War II and the Holocaust.
In 2017, Lucy Adlington wrote a young adult novel called The Red Ribbon, based on the premise and what she knew of the fashion salons set up by Hedwig Höss at Auschwitz. Following the release of this fictionalised version, the letters, and emails from those who were there, and wanted to tell their stories. Now, Lucy has returned with a non-fiction book about the women who worked in these salons, sewing clothes for Nazis and their families. She covers their transportation and time in the camps, what they went through, and what happened during selections and how the women coped, bringing it through to the end of the war and the women – the ones who survived it all – emerging. Yet it was about more than this – it was about the role clothes play in our identity and the way they can show power and control.
These women used clothes to show their identity before the draconian rules of the Nazis, and then had this stripped away, and used against them as they were made to wear striped clothes and old shoes whilst the Nazi uniforms represented power and prestige and identity – roles which would again be reversed as the war came to an end and the Nazis fell. The power that clothes have to show who we are, our identity and what we do with our lives is a key thread in this book, as they allow us to express ourselves. These women were denied that, making this account important as it explores a story that many do not know about – or at least, that is not commonly included in-depth accounts about the Holocaust.
Hearing these women’s voices and knowing their names gives a broader human face to the Holocaust in a chillingly authentic account that captures the voices and the stories of those who may have been forgotten. More than that, Lucy’s book shows the power that society has bestowed on clothes for centuries. What it means to wear certain garments, what symbols like the Star of David sewn onto clothes in the 1930s and 1940s in Europe represented, and the ways that it changed clothing for everyone. And what it led to: resistance in the camp salon as the women did what they could to survive, but to also make things harder for the kapo and the Nazi war effort. It was subtle but nonetheless effective in its execution throughout the gruelling years and in the harsh conditions the women endured.
What made this interesting was the gendered approach to the work in the camps – this book was about the women. From all accounts, the dressmakers were all women, based on Lucy’s research, which she discusses in the Introduction and the author’s note, reassuring readers that she’s done everything she can to be accurate. These books are harrowing yet useful to read – especially if studying the World War Two and Holocaust years. Fiction – of which there has been quite a bit in the past few years – can give some insights, but it is the non-fiction books like this that can bolster the fiction, and help us learn more, especially about stories we may not have been aware of.
It made for hard reading at times, but that’s what books like this are meant to do when highlighting dark times and atrocities like this. Make us uncomfortable, even if we might be interested in the area or working on it for an assignment. Whilst this book is aimed at adults, older teens at school might be able to read it and find it useful if studying related topics. It’s an interesting extension on what we know about the Holocaust and the camps, and Lucy has carried it off with class, empathy and seems to step back and let the women she spoke to tell their stories. A great insight into this era.