For a group of 40 seamstresses imprisoned at Auschwitz, the ability to create high-end fashion meant the difference between life and death.
Amid the horror of the Holocaust, starting in 1943, a select group of hand-picked women were segregated from their peers and set up in a workshop to create haute couture for the wives of Nazi camp officers. Their fame spread and wives from as far away as Berlin soon found themselves on a six-month waiting list for the Auschwitz seamstresses’ garments.
On February 14, Berta Berkovich Kohút — the “sewing circle’s” last survivor — died of COVID-related complications. She would have been 100 years old later this year, according to her eldest son, Tom Areton.
“She was the last living person from among these dressmakers,” Areton told The Times of Israel. “She was in Auschwitz for 1,000 days and she always said she could have died 1,000 times each of those days.”
The story of “Betka” Kohút and the unique workshop will be told in an upcoming book, “The Dressmakers of Auschwitz,” written by Lucy Adlington. Described as “the true story of the women who sewed to survive,” the book includes content from the author’s three-day interview with Kohút in 2019.
She was in Auschwitz for 1,000 days and she always said she could have died 1,000 times each of those days
Kohút was born in 1921 in a Ruthenian village, Chepa, in today’s Ukraine, then Czechoslovakia. When she was eight, the family moved to the Slovak capital Bratislava, where her father — Salomon Berkovič — opened a tailoring shop. Fortuitous for his daughters’ future, Berkovič taught Berta and her younger sister, Katarina, or “Katka,” to sew professionally.
When she was 12, Kohút contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a sanitarium in High Tatras. She left the institution two years later, fluent in Czech, in addition to her mother-tongue of Hungarian. After her return home, Kohut enrolled in the Orthodox Jewish School for Girls, where German was the language of instruction. As with sewing skills, fluency in several languages would soon serve Kohút well.
In 1942, the newly independent Slovak state became the first country under Nazi control to send its Jewish citizens to the German-built death camps. At age 21, Kohút was placed on the fourth “transport” — each with 999 Slovakian Jewish women — that was sent to Auschwitz from Slovakia. Her number was 4245 and her sister’s was 4246.
For their first 500 days as forced laborers, the sisters constructed roads and helped build the crematoria at Birkenau. Later, also at Birkenau, Kohút worked in “Canada,” the warehouse-like barracks where prisoners sorted and meticulously searched the belongings of Jews for hidden gold and other valuables.
While working in Canada, Kohút was able to smuggle out medicine to help her friend, Irena Reichenberg, who was ill with typhus. With the sorting barracks adjacent to the bellowing chimneys of Crematoria IV and V, Kohút tried to encourage her loved ones to focus on survival. She promised her friends that after the war, they would meet in Bratislava’s famous coffee shops for espresso.
“During her time at Auschwitz, I would say my mother was optimistic,” said Areton. “She would describe herself as being naïve.”
‘Procure more women’
The second half of Kohút’s 1,000 days in Auschwitz was shaped by Hedwig Hoess, the wife of camp commandant Rudolph Hoess, who asked her husband for a prisoner to help tend the children and sew.
After bringing a Slovak Jewish woman named Martha Fuchs into her home, Hoess started to receive sewing requests from envious wives of other SS officers. Fuchs brought in more seamstresses and sewing activities were moved to a workshop in one of the administration buildings.
“This was the seed for the sewing workshop,” said Areton. “The wife of Hoess kept asking Marta to ‘procure more women’ for the workshop,” he said.
As soon as Kohút was able, she brought her sister “Katka” into the group. During a year and half of the workshop’s operation, about 40 women sewed gowns and cocktail dresses for Nazi wives. Most of the seamstresses were Slovak Jewish women, although there were two communists from France and at least one Greek woman in the group, said Areton.
Using the skills she learned in her father’s shop, Kohút excelled as a seamstress. Some of the women did not come with the requisite skills, but the collective accepted them as a form of solidarity and resistance.
The “dressmakers” were treated relatively well, in part so they could perform efficiently and cleanly. The women had weekly showers and their food was placed on their beds, so did not have to fight for their meager daily rations. Most important of all, they no longer had to endure “selections” for the gas chambers.
To obtain materials, Kohút and other seamstresses made regular visits to the Canada barracks at Birkenau. The women returned to their workshop with textiles, fabric spools, and all kinds of accessories for high-fashion.
After several months of operation, the sewing workshop was receiving orders from as far away as Berlin, and a six-month waiting list developed. The women had more work than they could handle, and the SS wives occasionally rewarded the seamstresses with sugar or a spoilt food parcel.
“My mother said the women were professional and proud of their work,” said Areton. “They wanted their work to be seen as professional.”
When the Red Army started to approach Auschwitz, the sewing workshop prisoners prepared to evacuate the camp. They were able to organize extra clothing for the coming “Death March,” to Ravensbrück, which took place during the century’s coldest January to date.
After surviving the Death March from Auschwitz, Kohút was liberated from Malchow, a subcamp of Ravensbrück, in northeast Germany. According to Areton, on the morning of her liberation, she observed the Camp Commandant — dressed as a civilian — bicycling nonchalantly out of the Camp as the Soviets approached.
“The Commandant recommended to go to the village on the west side, where the Americans were, as opposed to falling into Soviet hands,” said Areton. “My mother said she did not care who liberated them, she was finally, after three years of hell, free.”
‘The story will keep coming out’
Until eight years ago, Areton and his younger brother, Emil, knew very little about their parents’ experiences in the Holocaust. With the death of the brothers’ father in 2013, “the floodgates of memories kind of opened up,” said Areton.
Leo Kohn Kohút was a “young idealist” who worked in the underground resistance printing false IDs. He was not caught until January 1945, when he was sent to Sachsenhausen and later a sub-camp of Dachau. Working in a Messerschmitt aircraft factory, he and other prisoners sabotaged the pipes of German air force planes.
Leo and Berta had met each other before the war, and when Kohút returned home to Bratislava, they married. The couple raised two sons, both of whom moved to the United States after becoming adults. In 1987, the couple left Czechoslovakia to join their sons in Marin County, California.
One of the ways Areton carries on his parents’ legacy is through a student exchange program he founded in 1980, called Cultural Homestay International. In 2016, Areton and his wife, Lilka, opened an International Museum of Propaganda in California to make people aware of political propaganda.
Since his mother’s death on Valentine’s Day, Areton has been corresponding with author Lucy Adlington about the coming book, which will be published in September. Areton has been helping Adlington to verify family information and Slovak spelling, he said.
“The book will be a testament to my mother,” said Areton. “She did not live to see the book, but she knew it was coming. It will be published in 15 languages,” he said.
“My mom was a very strong woman and her mind was incredibly sharp,” said Areton. “She remembered names, events, details, both long-term and current memory. She learned how to work a laptop at 92 and Skyped with the whole world. We sent her emails and photos of grand and great-grandchildren almost daily.”
Until the last week of her life, Kohút completed a weekly magazine of crossword puzzles in German. When her husband was alive, the couple took a miles-long walk every evening, regardless of the weather.
As for why the story of Auschwitz’s “dressmakers” has remained so low profile, Areton said he can only guess. However, he hopes Adlington’s book will introduce more people to his mother’s account of survival and resistance.
“I suspect this story will keep reappearing, even with the passage of time,” said Areton, who plans to erect a family Cenotaph next to his parents’ grave this summer. The monument will include the names of 57 Berkovič and Kohn family members murdered in the Holocaust.
“It is a fitting tribute to our heroic mother and to all the millions of innocent civilians who suffered and died at the hands of Hitler’s National Socialists,” said Areton.
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