Reviews: “The Sisters of Auschwitz” and “The Dressmakers of Auschwitz”10/05/2021
“The Sisters of Auschwitz,” by Roxane Van Iperen (Harper) and “The Dressmakers of Auschwitz,” by Lucy Adlington (Harper)
Surviving the savagery of Auschwitz required cunning and luck, but loyalty also played a role in keeping Jewish women alive. Those who shared the terror of a concentration camp with a relative at their side often fared better as they faced torture and starvation.
That is evident in these two nonfiction books set in Auschwitz during the desperate days of World War II. In “The Sisters of Auschwitz,” Jany and Lien Brilleslijper cared for each other when sick and kept up each other’s spirits, just like their friends, Anne and Margot Frank. In “The Dressmakers of Auschwitz,” Bracha Berkovic not only taught her sister Katka skills that kept her from the gas chamber but also helped friends and relatives join them in a bizarre sewing group.
The Brilleslijper sisters, who were Dutch, were part of an underground network that provided identification papers as well as hiding places for Jews wanted by the Nazis. Jewish themselves, the sisters managed to avoid shipment to the concentration camps by hiding in the High Nest, an isolated summer home that they rented. (Author Roxane Van Iperen became interested in the Brilleslijpers when she purchased the High Nest in 2012.)
The sisters and their families took in so many other Jews trying to escape Nazi occupation that the High Nest operated something like a commune. Children played on the grounds of the estate, while their parents kept up with news of the enemy by listening to the radio or reading magazines and newspapers.
One bizarre moment occurred when the owners of the house, two sisters, decided to visit to make sure the place was well cared for. The various occupants made sure the house was spotless, then hid on the grounds while the two sisters entertained the elderly women, who had no idea they had rented to Jews.
Eventually betrayed, the sisters were arrested and sent to Auschwitz, where they clung to each other to survive the inhumane treatment. Especially frightening were selection days, when women lined up naked so that Joseph Mengele could chose patients for his experiments. He stopped in front of one of the sisters, intrigued by what he thought was a violet-shaped birthmark. She was saved by telling him the mark was really a bruise, inflicted during a fight with another girl.
The Brilleslijper sisters were close to the Frank girls and saw their bodies buried after they died of typhoid just weeks before the camps were liberated. In fact, it was they who confirmed to Otto Frank that his daughters were dead.
“The Dressmakers of Auschwitz” is the strange story of a group of women who sewed to survive. Fashion-conscious Hedwig Hoss, wife of Auschwitz comandante Rudolph Hoss, put together a salon made up of Auschwitz prisoners to make her fashionable clothing. Up to 25 seamstresses eventually worked in the Upper Tailoring Studio to make clothes not only for Hedwig but also for the wives of Hermann Goering and other Nazi leaders. There were no labels on the clothes that the women sewed, but the clients were well aware that they were made by the very people their husbands were trying to eradicate.
As the demand for clothing grew, new seamstresses were recruited from relatives and friends in the camp. One was a young girl who couldn’t sew but picked up pins and ran errands. The woman in charge of the salon had promised the mother she would look after the girl.
In a time of extreme shortages, the women had access to the finest fabrics, plundered from Jewish shops as well as from the Auschwitz prisoners whose belongings were stripped from them when they arrived. The seamstresses lived somewhat better than other inmates. Hedwig gave them food and cigarettes and even flowers, but the women were always aware they could be sent to the gas chamber for the slightest infraction. When one terrified woman burned a dress with an iron, an offence that could have expelled her from the studio, another stepped in and replaced the burned section, convincing the client the new panel was part of a design she had approved.
Author Lucy Adlington, a novelist and clothes historian, was able to interview the last surviving dressmaker, then a 100-year-old woman living in San Francisco.
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