Title: The Nine Hundred: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz
Author: Heather Dune McAdam
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Published: 28th January 2020
Synopsis: The untold story of the 999 young, unmarried Jewish women who were tricked into boarding a train in Poprad, Slovakia on March 25, 1942 that became the first official transport to Auschwitz.
‘Books such as this are essential: they remind modern readers of events that should never be forgotten’ – Caroline Moorehead
On March 25, 1942, nearly a thousand young, unmarried Jewish women boarded a train in Poprad, Slovakia. Filled with a sense of adventure and national pride, they left their parents’ homes wearing their best clothes and confidently waving good-bye. Believing they were going to work in a factory for a few months, they were eager to report for government service. Instead, the young women-many of them teenagers-were sent to Auschwitz. Their government paid 500 Reichsmarks (about 160) apiece for the Nazis to take them as slave labour. Of those 999 innocent deportees, only a few would survive.
The facts of the first official Jewish transport to Auschwitz are little known, yet profoundly relevant today. These were not resistance fighters or prisoners of war. There were no men among them. Sent to almost certain death, the young women were powerless and insignificant not only because they were Jewish-but also because they were female. Now, acclaimed author Heather Dune Macadam reveals their poignant stories, drawing on extensive interviews with survivors, and consulting with historians, witnesses, and relatives of those first deportees to create an important addition to Holocaust literature and women’s history.
War had just broken out, and the Nazis were steadily marching across Europe, taking over towns, cities and countries, and rounding up Jews. Jews were being sent away to work or rounded up and sent to ghettos in their countries. They lost jobs, homes and education as the Nazis and the governments of each nation rolled out laws over the late nineteen thirties and early nineteen forties to limit the rights of Jews.
In March of 1942, just short of a thousand young, unmarried Jewish women were made to board a train in Poprad, Slovakia. They were told they were headed for a three-month work order – which turned into three years. The original 999 or 997 – taking into account one girl who died on the train and the discrepancies and spaces in the hastily typed and written records of all the girls by the SS (as uncovered by the author in her extensive research with survivors of this transport, such as Edith Grosman (#1970), and her work to fight against Holocaust denial) girls and women were at Auschwitz before the iconic railway tracks and gates proclaiming Arbeit macht frei – work makes you free- ever existed at the camp. These days, some of the buildings have been destroyed, and some of the survivors have led talks at the camp.
In the three years the original women were at the camp, they saw every other transport come, they watched as children, men and women were herded into the gas chambers, and they watched people they knew die from illness, on the fences or when they were shot. This transport is interesting, and as Heather Dune McAdam notes, despite the precise records kept by the Nazis, it has been absent in other Holocaust literature – the stories of the women untold, and not every name or number properly recorded at times, so information has been lost. It is the hidden story of the women that the Slovakian government paid the Nazis to take away, and of the original nine hundred, only a handful survived, and it is to these women, and their families that Heather Dune McAdam respectfully reached out to in the course of her research, as well as utilising various Holocaust and Jewish institutions across the world.
In her introduction, Heather outlines her research process both primary and secondary, and how when she spoke to Edith, Edith told her that she should tell everyone’s story – and that is what Heather has done with what she has found and been given. She acknowledges gaps, and tells us why she changed names, and gives us a list of the real names with their pseudonyms in the front of the book. What she is doing with this story is giving more of a human face to the Holocaust – a bigger truth as well, and letting the girls speak for themselves, despite having to imagine what some of those conversations might have been based on descriptions – she indicates these imagined voices using a dash, and quotation marks for actual conversations and testimony.
The book is a companion to the film of the same name, currently in post-production. Combined, it is hoped that they will contribute to education about the Holocaust, and add something to the #MeToo debate, showing that the issues around consent have always been an issue and shouldn’t be ignored simply because of the passage of time or accepted norms of the time. Heather’s other goal in writing this was so that these stories are told, and the Holocaust remains in our memories – not only in those affected and their families. It is an essential book that reminds us events like this should never be forgotten – and ideally, should never happen again. As intriguing as this book was, as interesting as I am in reading about and hearing the untold stories in history – this is a difficult read and rightly so. We should be made to feel uncomfortable with what happened to these girls, and what they went through. Those of us who do not have family who suffered like this, in an inhuman way can never fully understand what these girls and millions of other people like them from groups that the Nazis saw as a threat to Aryan purity went through, but books like this go a long way in highlighting what it was like for them. A dark, yet necessary book, highlighting themes of inequality, war, and the human need to survive beyond the worst imaginable prospects – and how those remaining managed to survive the years in camp, the death march and the final days at Bergen-Belsen, where many, including Anne Frank, died only fifteen days before the camp was liberated by the allied forces, and what happened to them in the days, weeks, months and years after they were freed, and where they all ended up in the years after the war.