Anti-Semitism in Hitler’s Third Reich was fuelled by state-endorsed racism and personal greed. Perpetrators of the Final Solution put far more value on Jewish plunder than they did on Jewish lives, and high-ranking Nazi officials and their families were more than happy to wear clothes created by those they considered on a par with vermin. Nothing highlights this obscene indulgence more than the establishment of a fashion workshop – known as the Upper Tailoring Studio – in the middle of Auschwitz. Thousands of people were forced to work in sewing workshops set up in ghettos and concentration camps during the Second World War. However, this particular workshop was not for making or mending military uniforms. Instead, it was created purely for a vain elite who satisfied their love of fashion in the middle of a hell on Earth…
A workshop for the commandant’s wife
The Auschwitz commandant’s wife, Hedwig Hoess, had come a long way from her ‘back to the land’ rural roots when she first employed two local Polish seamstresses to sew in her villa overlooking the concentration camp. Hedwig called life in the villa “paradise”. There she could indulge in luxury items from the best couture houses of Europe. These included fabrics and fashions selected from the mounds of plunder being processed in vast warehouses in the camp, just a short distance from her beloved flower garden. Prisoners carried out the processing of goods, even coming across belongings of their own murdered relatives as they did so. When other officers’ wives and female guards grew envious of her wardrobe, Hedwig opened an elite dressmaking workshop – the Upper Tailoring Studio – inside the camp itself.
A needle was a prized possession in the concentration camp universe. Deportees were deliberately humiliated on arrival at the camps by being forced to undress in public and hand over all their clothes before having all hair shaved. Thus vulnerable and degraded, they struggled to hold on to their identity. Those few who survived selections for the gas chambers were given filthy striped uniforms to wear, or a random item of civilian clothing. Having a needle meant being able to patch and repair clothes or even make ‘illegal’ items such as bras and knickers. Clothes were crucial for protection in harsh weather. Appearance was also a significant factor for morale among inmates who wanted to keep a sense of humanity. However, daring to wear ‘forbidden’ clothing could result in death if discovered.
Work meant a slim chance of survival in the camps. Those who couldn’t work were quickly killed. On the whole, female deportees couldn’t boast the professional skills that would set them apart as potentially valuable to their oppressors – in the 1940s, few women were electricians or carpenters for example. Luckily, textile skills – part of a girl’s upbringing in this era – were valued in laundry details and mending rooms. The tailoring studio at Auschwitz was a unique and highly coveted workplace. It was indoors, there were washing facilities and, most importantly, the seamstresses gained a strong sense of camaraderie, which was crucial for survival.
There were about 23 women in the workshop, with a clever, compassionate Slovakian inmate named Marta as their overseer. The women were chosen for their skills, or because they had connections with existing dressmakers. They weren’t protected from disease and beatings beyond the workshop walls, but it was at least a haven for part of the day.
Defying the Nazi regime
Most of the Auschwitz dressmakers were Jewish women. Some are known to historians only by their first names or nicknames. At least two were members of the French resistance: Alida Vasselin, a corsetière who was arrested in 1942 for hiding anti-Nazi leaflets in the corsets she sewed, and Marie-Louise Colombain, a partisan sergeant who carried out militant actions against the Nazis before her arrest in 1941. They despised their clients. One bold Hungarian Jewish dressmaker, Lulu Gruenberg, once dared to taunt Hoess’s young son with a tape-measure noose in the workshop, saying: “Soon you are all going to hang, your father, your mother and all the others.”
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Jewish survivor Hermine Hecht reported that on Saturdays “exactly at noon, the SS big shots appeared to pick up their wives’ dresses”. Fittings took place at the workshops. The seamstresses were required to produce two outfits per client a week. They created new designs, and altered high-quality clothes brought into Auschwitz by Jewish deportees. Many SS clients ordered beautiful evening gowns in fashionable styles, to be worn to dinner parties, music concerts and cinema visits. They appeared to have had no qualms whatsoever about wearing the gowns of murdered innocents, or outfits created by enslaved prisoners. Irma Grese, one of the most sadistic SS guards, even had her own ‘pet’ dressmaker, a Viennese inmate – name unknown – who kept Grese immaculately turned out for all occasions.
As the Soviets approached Auschwitz in the bitterly cold January of 1945, the SS evacuated the camp of loot and prisoners, including the dressmakers. The prisoners left on foot in what became known as ‘death marches’. Four of the tailoring studio dressmakers had organised civilian outfits as part of an escape plan. Marta, the overseer, and three young seamstresses – Borish, Lulu and Baba – approached a passenger train, hoping to blend in with other Polish people. Marta was warned off the attempt, but the other three were caught and shot on the spot. Marta was hidden by local Poles and in return for sanctuary, she sewed their clothes and survived the war.
Lucy Adlington is an author, actor and costume historian. Her young adult novel, The Red Ribbon, is out now and was inspired by the true stories of the dressmakers at Auschwitz.