The Nine Hundred by Heather Dune Macadam
The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz.
The author co-wrote Rena's Promise with Auschwitz survivor Rena Kornreich; this was published in 1995 with an expanded edition being published in 2015. She explains that following her collaboration with Rena, and involvement in commemorating Holocaust events, she discovered that other women who were also on that first transport of Jewish women to Auschwitz in March 1942 were still alive.
Edith was in Poland and Ella in Canada. She realised there were more stories to be told and over the years has collated information and details from living survivors, from their families and from archived records and interviews.
She tells the story of these women from Slovakia who were sent with the express purpose of being used as slave labour to help create the Auschwitz killing machine. They were gathered from small rural towns with the proclamation that young unmarried Jewish women aged between 16 and 36 were required to travel to Germany to work for the German war effort.
Despite the tightening restrictions on Jews, ranging from being unable to attend school to the "Aryanisation"of Jewish businesses, most families obediently took their daughters, with bags packed and provisions for the journey, to small town train stations believing that they would return home. However once they arrived at Poprad in Slovakia, the 997 women were herded into cattle cars and taken across the border to Poland. It was a horrific shock for these women to arrive at the bleak camp of Auschwitz and to be stripped, tattooed and humiliated.
They were herded into bunk rooms and over the next three years they were treated brutally, detailed to tasks including clearing land with bare hands and sorting belongings of the thousands who arrived to be exterminated in the gas chambers. Many of this original group died but a handful survived and after the war picked up the broken pieces of their lives.
Writing about the Holocaust and certainly reading about it cannot possibly be easy. As part of a brutal and impossibly cruel event in human history, the author has chosen to record the experiences of these particular women through a narrative that moves from their ordered, secure, family-centred lives in rural Slovakia, to being taken for "factory work" and to the three years of hell in the camp at Auschwitz. For the few survivors the narrative continues, describing the ways in which they rebuilt their lives.
Focussing the lens on this small group of women cuts to the heart of the matter; the Holocaust cannot be truly understood in the generic term but in the experience of each person. Each of these women was an individual, a daughter, a sister, a cousin, and a person who cried, who suffered, who struggled to hold on to life. The magnitude and scale of the organised and systematic extermination can seem too large to comprehend but here we can see what happened to a group of women from a particular place.
The author has drawn her subject matter together with dedication and commitment over a long period of time and from a vast array of material. The thoroughness of the research is evidenced by the source notes and bibliography. Archives and personal recollections of survivors and their families are combined to tell a story; scenes are re-created and conversations are re-imagined but always underpinned with the evidence of interviews, archives, memoirs and historical documents.
The author has certainly achieved her objective to "build as complete a picture as I can" of this group of women. And as such, it is an important historical document in itself.
This book is a difficult read. It gathers together so much detail from such a wide range of sources and it has so many voices that it is often difficult to follow the fortunes of specific women. But in this narrative each voice is also personal; while each experience described is probably that of many of the six million, for me as a reader it is that of a single person who could be my sister, my mother, my friend.
It is also a difficult read because all the threads of this story pull together inexorably to remember an historical event incomprehensible in the height and breath and depths of its inhumanity.
As a testament to these women that they are heard, that they are not forgotten and that they are recognised this book has made an invaluable contribution to the record of history. It is in remembering that we share our humanity and we owe it to these people to do just that.
Reviewer: Clare Lyon
Published by Hachette