When reading about a ‘tailoring studio’ in Auschwitz, historian Lucy Adlington tried to find out more about extermination camp inmates employed as tailors.
Speaking from London, Lucy Adlington describes how she was flipping through archival documents from the 1930s and 1940s to learn what it was like for women during the war. “I came across a reference to a fashion salon in Auschwitz, but there was very little information,” she says.
Adlington set out to look for clues to learn more about former tailors. In the process, she uncovered inspiring stories of resilience and survival. The findings of the author and historian are now being published in a new book entitled “Auschwitz Tailors”, published on 28 September.
‘High Level Tailoring Studio’
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Hedwig Höss, the wife of the Nazi Auschwitz death camp commander, ran a fashion salon in Auschwitz that employed women prisoners. Known as the “Obere Nähstube”, or “high-end tailoring studio”, the salon created and adapted high-end clothing for the Nazi elite.
Historian Lucy Adlington calls it a “terrible anomaly” that stood in stark contrast to the atrocities committed by the Nazis against the 1.3 million prisoners in the death camp.
The Nazis had always understood the power of clothing, from uniforms to high fashion, Adlington notes. Magda Goebbels, the wife of Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, did not shy away from wearing Jewish creations.
“What a difference: You’re wearing dirty rags and these women are coming in saying ‘Darling, make me a new dress,'” Adlington told DW.
Initially, the historian had only a list of the first names of the seamstresses: Irene, Renee, Bracha, Hunya, Mimi, and so on. Trying to find the names and surnames of women in the records is tricky, she explains.
Many women became nicknames or changed their names when they later got married. Some Jewish women also took Jewish names after the war.
In 2017, Adlington portrayed these women in a novel entitled “The Red Ribbon” (published in German in July 2021 as “Das Rote Band der Hoffnung”).
Her fictional story for the tailors tells the story of four young women, Rose, Ella, Marta and Carla, who sew clothes in the clothing store at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp as a means of survival in a hostile environment.
“I did not have enough information, so I imagined what it would be like to be a young woman sewing at Auschwitz for the commander’s wife,” she said. “And when this novel came out, people started contacting me to say, ‘Actually, she was my aunt, she was my mother, she was my grandmother.’
Adlington soon had a “strong sense that history is not buried; “It’s people’s lives,” she said.
The researcher began contacting the families of Auschwitz tailors and in 2019 she met in San Francisco a surviving tailor, Bracha Kohut, who was 98 years old.
“It was an amazing connection,” she said. “And I’m looking at it thinking, this is the same woman whose experiences I’ve read. “I am trying to understand how she, at such a young age, was able to endure that trauma.”
Hidden resistance of tailors
For many inmates, working in a tailoring studio was a way to survive. The leading tailor was a woman named Martha, who deliberately created the fashion salon as a paradise.
“She wanted to save as many women as she could. So yes, they had clean clothes. They had the opportunity to wash. And as one woman said, they had meaningful jobs, ”says Adlington.
“So instead of being treated worse than animals… as slaves who were traumatized by building gas chambers that would kill them and their families, they actually had something beautiful to do. I think this must have been extraordinary for their self-esteem. “
But the women in the tailoring studio did not just make beautiful dresses and did not offer their time. Many secretly aided resistance movements by using their relatively privileged positions to communicate with people outside the camp.
“They collected medicines and distributed them. “They stole everything they could… and I think the most important thing is that they kept morale high,” says the author.
“They were able to enter newspapers and secretly listen to the radio so that they could say, ‘Look, the Allies have invaded France.’ “Victory is coming, stay there.”
Tailoring boss Marta was also preparing to leave Auschwitz to tell the outside world about Nazi atrocities, Adlington adds.
A love affair
While Adlington was able to talk to Bracha Kuhot and the families of other tailors about her book, she has not been able to find traces of clothing that were tailored by these women.
“To my knowledge, no clothing is known to have survived this fashion salon. There was an order book in the salon that a witness says had the names of the highest-ranking Nazis in Berlin in it, so clients from Berlin ordered their clothes from Auschwitz. “But the orders did not survive,” the author told DW.
However, Adlington, a collector of high-quality clothing, said one of the tailors who survived Auschwitz later sewed a silk suit for her niece.
“Her granddaughter sent me the costume. So I have a suit made by one of the seamstresses and it makes me cry every time I see it. “It’s so beautiful to think about what you had to do in the camps to survive this woman named Hunya,” said Adlington, who reiterated that their job was essentially slave labor.
“But this dress she made for her granddaughter was sewn with love.”DW
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