By Lucy Adlington
Auschwitz is so notorious for brutality and cruelty that it’s hard to believe you could read anything new that would shock you.
But THE DRESSMAKERS OF AUSCHWITZ (2021) does. It tells the story of 25 known women who worked in the Upper Tailoring Studio, the couturier dress-making studio established at Auschwitz by Hedwig Höss, wife of commandant Rudolf Höss.
Hedwig set up the studio, which was used by elite Nazi wives, after her prisoner/servant Marta Fuchs aroused envy in other SS wives with her sewing and tailoring abilities. She had originally conscripted Marta into her household for housework and child minding.
From their earliest “Brown Shirt” days, the Nazis used clothing to enhance the perception of power and authority. Elite Nazi women such as Magda Goebbels, wife of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels; Emmy Goering, wife of Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering; and Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, loved couture clothing.
Mrs. Goebbels and Mrs. Goering were likely customers of the Upper Tailoring Studio. The order book, which would have confirmed that, was lost when the Nazis destroyed records as they prepared to flee from the advancing Soviet Army in 1945.
Little information about the studio still exists. Author Lucy Adlington discovered a reference to it as she researched archival documents from the 1930s and ’40s for a book about global textiles in the war years.
Adlington follows the stories of the dressmakers from before the war, through their years in Auschwitz and after the war. Most of her book, though, outlines the history of the textile and fashion industries in Germany and the impact of Nazi antisemitism on them.
The parts of Auschwitz that weren’t dedicated to killing and torture were slave labor camps. The tailoring studio used camp prisoners to do its work. For the dressmakers employed there, it was a way to avoid the gas chambers. They had better accommodations, access to showers and better food than the typical inmate at Auschwitz. The Nazis used the dressmakers’ quarters for visits by the International Red Cross to hide the actual living conditions of most prisoners at the death camp.
Marta, a talented pattern-cutter, had run her own successful salon in Bratislava until she was deported to Auschwitz in 1942. She was eventually named kapo of the studio. While that title is associated with extreme cruelty in Nazi death camps, Marta used her status to support the seamstresses she managed. She helped the camp’s resistance organization, passed information learned through the work at the studio and planned an escape for herself.
Marta selected staff for the studio based on their abilities, the fact she knew them or because they came recommended by someone she knew. One of her seamstresses had worked for Chanel in Paris. Another learned tailoring at the side of her father. Still others had been professional designers and seamstresses before they had been sent to Auschwitz.
The studio was disbanded on Jan. 17, 1945. Höss had been reassigned to Ravensbrück and the Russians were advancing.
Before the war, being a fashion designer, a tailor, a seamstress or other post in the textile industry was good for Jews — and for women. Between the two world wars, about 80 percent of department stores and chain-store businesses were owned by German Jews in Germany. Almost half the wholesale textile firms were owned by Jews.
“Jewish workers made up a huge number of those employed in designing, making, moving and selling clothes. Berlin was an acclaimed centre of women’s read-to-wear apparel thanks to the energies and intelligence of Jewish entrepreneurs, over a century of development.”
Ironically, as the Nazis forced Jews out of the industry starting in 1933, non-Jews, often with little or no experience or talent, picked up the work with considerably less success. Using Jewish forced laborers in ghettos and concentration camps helped keep costs down.
After Kristallnacht, Magda Goebbels lamented the closure of a Jewish salon: “What a nuisance that Kohnen is closing . . . we all know that when the Jews go, so will the elegance from Berlin.”
Despite their anti-semitism, Nazis wives had no difficulty wearing clothes designed by Jews in concentration camps or luxury goods stolen the suitcases abandoned when their owners were sent to the gas chambers.
Adlington mingles reports from contemporary German fashion magazines with the events of the story. She also includes photos of the dressmakers and their families from before the war along with quotes about their experiences.
This book is difficult to read at times. There are anecdotes of heart-breaking poignancy here. In one, Katka Berchovic, working in one of the massive warehouses processing the belongings of gassed Jews, finds her own coat and that of her sister Bracha in the mounds of clothing and abandoned valuables.
She knows at once that her parents are dead. Preparing for their own deportation to Lublin in June 1942, they had most likely packed the coats their daughters had left behind thinking to give them to them when they were reunited. Instead they were murdered, probably in Majdanek, and their belongings shipped to Auschwitz for sorting.
While the sections on the history of the textile industry are interesting, they can be somewhat academic.
A needle and thread, a pair of scissors and bolt of cloth, buttons and ribbon — were both a lifeline to surviving in Auschwitz and enslavement in the horrors of Auschwitz.
The Author: Lucy J. Adlington
Lucy Adlington is an author, presenter and clothes historian. She writes history-inspired fiction and books on social history.
She’s a keen collector of vintage and antique costume.
Her novels include SUMMERLAND; THE RED RIBBON; THE DIARY OF PELLY-D; CHERRY HEAVEN; THE GLITTERING EYE; BURNING MOUNTAIN; and NIGHT WITCHES.
Her nonfiction works include STITCHES IN TIME, GREAT WAR FASHION, FASHION; WOMEN IN WORLD WAR ONE; OPENING THE WARDROBE; and WOMEN’S LIVES AND CLOTHES IN WW2.
She lives on a working farm in northern England.