When Nazi Germany occupied much of Poland at the outbreak of World War II, the parents of Erna and Fela Dranger sent their daughters over the border from their home in Tylicz to the eastern Slovakian town of Humenné. Their cousin Dina Dranger went with them. Erna, 20, and Fela and Dina, both 18, found jobs and settled in with the local Humenné Jewish community. At some point, Fela moved on to the Slovakian capital of Bratislava with a friend.
The girls’ parents thought they had sent their daughters to safety. But on March 25, 1942, Erna and Dina were among the nearly 1,000 teenage girls and unmarried young women deported on the first official transport of Jews to Auschwitz.
Told by Slovakian authorities that they would be going away to do government work service for just a few months, the Jewish girls and women were actually sold to the Germans by the the Slovaks for 500 Reich Marks (about $200) apiece as slave labor.
Fela, in the western part of the county, was not on that first transport. However, it wasn’t long before she was forced to join her sister and cousin in Auschwitz, arriving there on April 23 on the eighth transport from Slovakia, the first satellite state to deport its Jews.
Very few of the 997 girls on that first transport — or any of the other early transports — survived the more than three hellish years until the end of the war. Erna, Fela and Dina Dranger beat the odds, with the sisters going on to raise families in Israel and their cousin Dina settling in France.
The story of what happened to these and the other women on the first transports to Auschwitz is told in “999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz,” a compelling new book by Heather Dune Macadam. (The Nazis had planned to deport 999 Jewish women on the initial transport, but Macadam discovered typos on the list — now held in the Yad Vashem archives — making the actual tally 997.)
In vivid detail, Macadam takes readers into the frigid, snowy towns and villages in eastern Slovakia just as the town criers announced that Jewish teenage girls and unmarried women up to age 36 must report to central locations such as schools and firehouses to register for work service. The girls were shocked when they were locked inside these buildings and forced to strip in front of Slovakian and Nazi officials.
Loving parents, assuming their daughters would be home for Shabbat dinner, were left confused and worried. The wealthy father of Magda Amster from Prešov, who realized the danger, pulled every string he could to rescue his daughter, but to no avail. The scene of his racing in his car after the transport train before it crossed the Polish border is heartbreaking.
We then follow these previously sheltered young women from loving families to Auschwitz. It was not yet the largest Nazi concentration camp and killing center when they arrived on March 26, 1942. There was little there, and the young women were forced to build the camp under grueling conditions. With bare hands, they cleared land, dismantled buildings, moved materials and did agricultural work. It wasn’t long before many of the girls, overseen by 999 female prisoners transferred from the overcrowded Ravensbruck concentration camp, started dying from accidents, disease, malnutrition or suicide on the electrified fence.
“999” clearly illustrates how the women of the first transport had an advantage over the Jews who arrived later, many of whom were immediately sent to the gas chambers — including many of the girls’ own family members. Those of the women who managed to survive the initial shock of adjusting to the nightmarish conditions learned how to keep themselves and their friends and relatives alive. Getting a job in a camp office (like graphic artist Helen “Zippi” Spitzer, whose story appeared recently in the New York Times) or in the sorting details called “Kanada,” allowed the women minor privileges not afforded other inmates.
“My mother was tough, but in a good way. She learned how to survive from day one. Her survival was probably due 90 percent to luck, but the other 10% was likely due to her personality,” Akiva Koren of Haifa suburb Kiryat Motzkin told The Times of Israel about his mother Erna Dranger, who secretly took food and other items from the pockets of victims’ garments she sorted in Kanada.
Macadam, who splits her time between New York and England, spoke passionately about why she wanted to write this book in a recent conversation with The Times of Israel.
“It’s never mentioned that the first transport consisted entirely of young women. Some were teenagers as young as 15. Why has this been ignored?” Macadam said angrily. “This work is about defending their history and memory.”
Macadam, who has a Quaker background, initially learned about the first transport to Auschwitz from Rena Kornreich. Kornreich, also originally from Tylicz, Poland, was on that transport and survived the Holocaust along with her sister Danka.
After meeting Kornreich in 1992, Macadam penned her Holocaust memoir, “Rena’s Promise: A Story of Sisters in Auschwitz.” The well-received book, originally published in 1995 and updated in 2015, was one of the first accounts of women’s lives in the camps.
Macadam, 60, was not finished digging into the history of the first transport and the lives of the young women. Determined to compile as complete a list as possible, she worked with the USC Shoah Foundation to identify 22 names — both survivors and non-survivors. (It was only later that she discovered the original Nazi list of 997 from the first transport at Yad Vashem.)
In 2012, Macadam went to Slovakia for the marking of the 70th anniversary of the first deportation. “It was like a pilgrimage,” she said.
Next to a memorial at Poprad train station, from which the young women were deported, Macadam left her list of 22 names and a letter she had requested from the then-chief rabbi of Great Britain, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. In his letter, Sacks mentioned all the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and referred to Rena Kornreich and the other women on the first transport in particular.
Slovak relatives of Adela Gross saw her name on Macadam’s list and contacted her. For 70, years they had had no knowledge of what had happened to the lovely, red-headed Adela from Humenné.
“I realized that this was a bigger story and that I wanted for people to have closure. There were other stories and other families out there suffering,” Macadam said.
Since it is believed that the Nazis did not keep full records on the first transports of women, and that any documentation that might have existed was destroyed as the Allies advanced, Macadam based her research for “999” on recorded survivor testimonies, memoirs, and scholarly works such as “The Auschwitz Chronicles” by Danuta Czech. She cross referenced sources to create as accurate a timeline and portrayal of events as possible.
95-year-old survivor Edith Friedmann, who now lives in Toronto, provided Macadam with a wealth of information in lengthy on-camera interviews. The relationship between Edith and her sister Lea, who were 17 and 19 respectively when they were deported on the first transport, is central to the book. Although permanently disabled from tuberculosis, Edith survived, while Lea did not.
“Edith still suffers from survivor’s guilt because Lea died and not her. She’s a biologist and she wonders whether there was something in her DNA that enabled her to survive, while her bigger, stronger older sister could not,” Macadam said.
“At the same time, it was important to me to portray the girls as real, three-dimensional people. Edith’s honest reaction at the time of Lea’s death was that she was glad she herself was still alive,” she said.
It was often familial bonds that helped the girls survive. Fela Dranger’s son Avi Isachari said his aunt Erna — whom he described as an “an iron woman” — got his mother a job in Kanada, enabling the two to find food and undergarments.
“My aunt Dina also had a special sense for commerce. She could make money from nothing but would always share with others,” Isachari said.
The Dranger women survived Auschwitz longer than almost anyone else, and the scars of the experience were forever imprinted on them. They may have not spoken to their children about Auschwitz, but their behavior did.
“My mother collapsed after my birth and my aunt had to take care of me,” said Isachari, who lives in Netanya.
“She was physically unwell and had other bouts of mental illness. I remember her going down to the entrance of our apartment building and screaming about Nazis coming to kill her,” he said.
Isachari and Koren said they were extremely grateful to Macadam for sharing their mothers’ stories through her work.
“The book gave me a lot of things I didn’t know or understand about my mother,” Isachari said.
“It’s made us very proud. I have a grandchild, so our family is now fourth generation [Holocaust survivors]. I am going to make sure that everyone gets a copy of Heather’s book,” Koren said.
Macadam is working on a companion documentary film to “999.” She expects it to be completed by spring 2020.