‘The Dressmakers of Auschwitz’
The Dressmakers of Auschwitz: The True Story of the Women Who Sewed to Survive By Lucy Adlington (Harper)
In her extensively researched book, The Dressmakers of Auschwitz, Lucy Adlington, a British fashion historian and novelist, sheds light on a little-known aspect of the most notorious killing factory of the Holocaust.
Amid the horrors and smokestacks, about two dozen young Jewish women, considered “vermin” by their Nazi oppressors, designed, cut and stitched beautiful garments for people who despised them—the wives of men who were orchestrating the destruction of all Jews under Nazi rule.
Hedwig Höss, wife of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, came up with the idea for the dressmaking workshop, called the Upper Tailoring Studio, so that she and wives of other Nazi officials could be fashionably attired for social occasions. There was a six-month waiting list for a garment from the studio, and even Magda Goebbels, wife of Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, wore these Jewish creations.
Hedwig enlisted a Jewish prisoner, Marta Fuchs, who was working as her babysitter and sewed clothing for her children, to produce the dresses. Marta—all the seamstresses were known by their first names—then recruited friends and family in the dubious enterprise to save them from punishing labor and death in the gas chambers.
“For the dressmakers,” Adlington writes, “sewing was a defense against gas chambers and ovens.”
In the camps, Adlington explains, clothing and dignity were linked. The Jewish prisoners were robbed of their belongings, denuded and deloused. And so, when the original fashions created by Marta and her fellow seamstresses were not enough, the Nazi wives regularly plundered the camp warehouses, crammed with stolen clothes and other possessions from their victims. The Nazis put far more value on Jewish goods than Jewish lives.
Even in the face of such rapaciousness, there were rays of hope. The seamstresses were clothed and fed better than most of the other prisoners in Auschwitz. Many in the tailoring studio were able to secretly aid the underground resistance, using their relatively privileged positions to communicate with those outside the camp, steal medicines and bring news from the outside world. The seamstresses cherished a camaraderie that linked them for the rest of their lives. Indeed, after the war many of them gathered regularly to reminisce and embrace.
In her book, Adlington places the story of the Auschwitz studio in context. The Nazis not only understood the powerful image that clothing conveys “to reinforce group pride and identity,” she writes, but they also appreciated the business side of the fashion industry. Between World War I and II, Germany developed a flourishing textile and clothing trade.
About 80 percent of department stores and chain-store businesses in Germany belonged to the country’s Jews, and half the wholesale textile firms were owned by Jews. The clothing industry was heavily reliant on Jewish talent, connections and capital, Adlington writes. It generated huge revenues, and was a major factor in international trade. The Nazis wanted those profits for themselves. State-sanctioned antisemitism allowed the Nazi government to seize Jewish assets in the fashion and textile industries, from department stores to factories, to bolts of fabric and spools of thread for sewing.
This acquisition process, or theft, was part of the larger plans for Aryanization. “The main goal of Aryanization,” the author explains, “went far beyond simply causing distress and hardship. The prize was actual ownership of Jewish businesses, as well as elimination of competition.”
Adlington had long wanted to pen a nonfiction account of the dressmaking salon. Years earlier, she had come across research on several of the dressmakers in an account from Lore Weinberg Shelley, a Jewish scholar, psychologist and Auschwitz survivor. But Adlington’s research stalled, so she turned to fiction, publishing a young adult novel called The Red Ribbon in 2017, which reimagined the story of the sewing workshop. The novel caught the attention of the dressmakers’ families in Europe, Israel and the United States, who contacted Adlington via email, expressing their desire to share their mothers’ or grandmothers’ painful stories.
Most of the survivors of the Upper Tailoring Studio had passed away by then. But in 2019, Adlington was able to interview one former dressmaker in person: Bracha Kohut, then 98, who was living near San Francisco. “You listen!” Kohut commanded during the interview, before telling Adlington about her experiences in full detail. Kohut had kept silent about her ordeals when her children were young, hoping to protect them from the knowledge of the horrors she had experienced.
Kohut died in 2021, shortly before The Dressmakers of Auschwitz was published. Thanks to Adlington’s exhaustive research and evocative descriptions of the extraordinary events detailed in this book, Kohut and her fellow dressmakers will not be forgotten.
Stewart Kampel was a longtime editor at The New York Times.