Image: German home dressmaking designs, 1941
The Selvedge Textile Literary Festival will comprise three acts examining the varied literature forms that reveal and document the history and culture of cloth. In the second act we will be exploring non-fiction that researches historical and contemporary cultures and stories of textiles. We're delighted that author Lucy Adlington will be one of the speakers. The following extract is from her book The Dressmakers of Auschwitz.
“Don’t become a seamstress. True, it saved my life, but you just sit there and sew.”
This was the advice of talented Jewish seamstress Hunya Volkmann to her niece Gila.
Image: Hunya Volkmann © Gila Kornfeld-Jacobs
In her twenties Hunya moved from her home town in Czechoslovakia to open her own dressmaking business in Leipzig, Germany, creating fashions for the city elite. Through the 1930s she witnessed the growing physical and legal violence against Jews. Unable to escape antisemitic persecution, she was rounded up for a very different sort of sewing work: forced labour in a factory upcycling furs into warm garments for the German military. In 1943 Hunya was deported to Auschwitz. Brutalised, sick and starved, her next work was weaving cellophane whips for SS guards. Even strong, spirited Hunya couldn’t survive such a regime for long. Her salvation came from another seamstress – brilliant cutter Marta Fuchs.
Image: Czech fashion Eva Magazine, Prague 1940.
Sold to the Nazis as an enslaved worker by the Slovak government in 1942, along with several thousand other Jewish women, Marta eventually managed to get a position sewing for the Auschwitz commandant’s family. Hedwig Hoess, the commandant’s wife, enjoyed a paradise life in a villa next door to the camp. Even while considering Jews ‘subhuman’ and condoning the mass murder carried out next to her new home, Hedwig wore clothes plundered from murdered Jews… and fashions stitched by a Jewish seamstresses. Such was Marta’s skill, other SS wives grew envious, so Hedwig established a fashion salon at Auschwitz, to cater to elite SS women. Here, clients selected designs from fashion magazines and fabrics from the camp’s plunder warehouses. As head of the fashion salon Marta used her influence to create a safe haven for as many Auschwitz inmates as possible. Some, like Hunya Volkmann were experienced dressmakers, tasked with producing gowns that the SS women ‘could not have imagined in their wildest dreams,’ according to Hunya’s description.
Image: Irene Reichenberg © Pavel Kanka
Other rescued prisoners, like young Irene Reichenberg, knew only the basics. When Irene and her friends had been ejected from education because they were Jewish she made a fateful choice: ‘On the spur of the moment I decided to learn to sew a little.’ Rescued by Marta from the horrors of hard labour building gas chambers, Irene sewed alongside specialist corsetieres, dressmakers and tailors. Even in the sewing salon life was precarious. Irene’s friend, brave Bracha Berkovič found shelter in the salon, along with her sister Katka. She said, ‘I was in Auschwitz for 1,000 days, and every day I could have died a thousand times.’ However, thanks to Marta’s talents and compassion, the seamstresses had a chance of survival, through meaningful work, hope and mutual support. Bracha lived to be 99 years old – the last surviving seamstress of the salon.
Image: Lucy Adlington and Bracha Kohut nee Bercovic © Lucy Adlington
Hunya recalled, ‘We became like a family, united in sorrow and joy.’
These bonds of solidarity continued for those dressmakers who lived to see liberation and beyond. After the war Hunya was in demand, sewing for high-end retailers in Israel, then she retrained as a factory sewer for Gottlieb leisurewear. It was understandable that she warned her niece Gila against professional sewing: her youthful enthusiasm for design and dressmaking had been tainted by Nazi persecution.
Marta continued to use her sewing skills after a daring escape to freedom in January 1945. She stitched clothes for Poles who hid her from Nazi round-ups and Russian artillery during the final months of the war. She eventually opened a dressmaking salon as a free woman (hiring friends who’d stitched with her in Auschwitz) and from the 1950s Marta used her textile and crafting skills to support physiotherapy for hospital patients. She simply commented, ‘Sewing saved my life. Why would I do anything else?’
Marta’s heroism was not recognised outside her family during her lifetime. You can now read an account of the remarkable group of women she saved in the international bestselling book, The Dressmakers of Auschwitz – The True Story of the Women Who Sewed to Survive.
Lucy's virtual presentation as part of the Selvedge Textile Literary Festival will draw from eyewitness interviews and original garments from the era, and will tell a remarkable tale of resilience, camaraderie and quiet heroism in the most extreme circumstances.
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