Across the country of Slovakia in March 1942, town criers announced that unmarried Jewish girls between ages 16-36 had to register at the high school (or some other community center) for government work. They would have to leave their families for three months to do this work. What the girls and their families didn’t yet know was that the “government work” really meant that they would be taken to Auschwitz concentration camp. Many never saw their families again.
Though books like Elie Wiesel’s Night are often taught in schools, the perspective of women in the Holocaust is taught less often. In extensive interviews with survivors from the first transport of girls taken to Auschwitz, Macadam’s book shows the reader how women’s experience of Auschwitz differed from that of men.
All prisoners entering Auschwitz had to give up luggage and jewelry before having every hair on their bodies shaved. Girls from the first transport were additionally subjected to “gynecological exams” that amounted to rape. Survivor Bertha Berkowitz eventually got a job as a leichenkommando, which meant that she moved the dead bodies of other girls. One small advantage of this job was that Bertha got to grow her hair back, but Bertha had hers shaved again when she was caught stealing. The experience brought back the horror of the first day when she was shaved and raped. It was “the only time I really wanted to commit suicide,” Bertha said.
Men and women battled diseases like typhus which is carried by lice and fleas. However, Commandant Rudolph Hoss stated that “conditions in the women’s camp were atrocious and far worse than the men’s camp.” Prisoners were “piled high to the ceiling. Everything was black with lice.” When family transports arrived, any women who had children were immediately gassed.
Girls, like men, might die from the work they were forced to do. Construction work was especially dangerous. Girls demolished houses by hitting walls with heavy iron rods and tried not to get killed by falling debris.
Other women had jobs that gave them a better chance at survival than men. Girls doing secretarial work got better clothes and food than even the other women. It was important for them to look good because they worked directly with the SS. As more prisoners arrived at Auschwitz, sorting clothes was another job often given to women. Trying to smuggle clothes for themselves or their friends could lead to the gas chamber, however.
One girl from the first transport, Helena Citron, caught the attention of SS Franz Wunsch. Although at first Helena wanted nothing to do with him, she started to fall in love with him. Their relationship meant that Wunsch did what he could for Helena, including saving her sister who had children from the gas chamber. He walked into the chamber’s changing room, separated Helena’s sister from her children, and marched out with her.
Both male and female prisoners needed help from friends and family to survive. Women without family needed a lagerstrasse sister–the term prisoners used to describe friendships that were as close as blood ties. When Edith Friedman lost her sister Lea to typhus, she also lost the will to live. Elsa Rosenthal became Edith’s lagerstrasse sister, making sure she ate the meager food and repeatedly telling her how much Elsa needed her.
The book 999 is a valuable addition to Holocaust research. I recommend it for ages 14 and up.