The Dressmakers of Auschwitz, Lucy Adlington, Harper, 2021, 17.99, pb, 304 pp, 9780063136885
“Selection is such an innocent word out of context.”
In the 1940s it was not selection that was innocent but those selected: unmarried Jewish girls who were culled from villages such as Bratislava, at the foot of Slovakia’s Little Carpathians, and told only that they were going to work for the Reich. On arrival at Auschwitz, some were selected for the workhouse, others for the crematorium.
Seamstresses Irene, Renee, Bracha, and Katka were among those selected to work. And they were worked nearly to death until dressmaker and fellow prisoner Marta Fuchs selected them to sew elegant dresses, furs, and children’s clothing for the SS elite. Starving, sick, and often freezing while pushing needles in, needles out in the camp’s Upper Tailoring Studio, the women sewed for their lives.
Though the juxtaposition of a high-fashion tailoring salon in a Nazi slaughterhouse sounds more like nightmarish sci-fi than history, author Lucy Adlington assures the reader that this is neither fiction nor novelization. It is history revealed through detailed accounts of these women’s lives. Adlington opens the story by illuminating the violence, secrecy, and lies that enabled Hitler’s henchmen to get those unsuspecting girls into cattle cars.
Lucy Adlington couples imagery of apparel and adornments with small, intimate details to reveal the unraveling of civilized life: a young woman burns with shame when forced to disrobe before others. Another recoils as she pulls on lice-infested clothing before going to work sorting through plunder: the belongings of prisoners selected for extermination.
Dress historian Adlington chronicles attire through history, particularly in wartime, but this is more. Her prose, imagery, and clear, unsentimental narratorial voice conjure the very women who brushed ash from their hair as they passed the crematoria on their way to work at Auschwitz’s Upper Tailoring Studio.
Originally published in Historical Novels Review, Issue 98, November 2021
Citation: Kightlinger, Rebecca. "The Dressmakers of Auschwitz, Historical Novels Review, Issue 98: November 2021.
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