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Sewing for survival, with a ribbon of hope

Lucy Adlington's new book for teenagers focuses on the seamstresses of Auschwitz

    Meridith Towne and Lucy Adlington (in the red Liberation Dress)
    Meridith Towne and Lucy Adlington (in the red Liberation Dress)

    In 1943, Hedwig Höss, wife of Rudolf, the commandant of Auschwitz, set up a camp workshop with 23 dressmakers from among the prisoners, to make clothes for officers’ wives. Although non-Jewish prisoners were usually selected to work in SS households, most of the seamstresses were probably Jewish, says Lucy Adlington, whose young adult novel, The Red Ribbon, is inspired by the episode.

    In the book, Ella, a Jewish teenager, is brought to “Birchwood” camp and sent to the sewing workshop. Although almost everything that happens in the book is rooted in survivor testimonies, Adlington, who is not Jewish, gave the camp a fictional name so readers would not distance themselves from the moral dilemmas faced by the characters.

    Hate crime is still with us and practised in tiny everyday ways, she says. “I didn’t want people to read it and think ‘that was in the past’. Although the Shoah is overwhelmingly a Jewish tragedy, all of us have to engage with this idea of “what would I have done?’" She's written an afterword which she hopes will tell readers the facts behind the fiction.

    She chose to focus on female friendship. “Reading survivor testimonies of seamstresses, they emphasised the camaraderie. History doesn’t have to be male or military to be gripping. I’m a costume historian [she tours the country giving History Wardrobe talks] — I have had a lot of ‘it’s not real history; it’s just clothes’." But plunder and redistribution of their victims’ belongings was central to the Third Reich, she says and “sewing to survive” is a potent theme throughout history. In the ghettos, many survived by working in factories making clothes for their persecutors.

    While researching the book, Adlington met Anne Frank’s stepsister, Eva Schloss, who worked in 'Canada', the Nazis store for clothes taken from prisoners. “It is quite a thing for a historian to look into somebody’s eyes and realise that those experiences are somebody’s life. I felt presumptuous at first — who am I to ask her things?” Speaking about the first clothing she received after liberation (a Soviet army garment), Schloss’s eyes lit up. She told Adlington how Soviet soldiers measured the female survivors for bras. “She was giggling. It was a human moment.

    “Clothes are incredibly intimate — but public too. We should hold on to things that have memories of loved ones or an important event.”

    In the book, Ella makes a dress to wear on liberation— as many survivors did in real life. Adlington’s colleague, Meridith Towne, has created the dress for Adlington to wear at talks, including buttons bearing the initials of Ella's friends. The ribbon of the title is retrieved by the girls from the heap of prisoners’ possessions — and a red ribbon illustration flows from page to page amid ghostly thimbles, buttons and pins. “The red ribbon is a symbol of hope and defiance,” says Adlington. Even in that situation, “you can have colour and love and friendship”.

    The Red Ribbon is published by Hot Key Books, £10.99.

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