If you decide to read 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Transport to Auschwitz by Heather Dune Macadam, read it with a whole box of tissues handy. This is not because, as in fiction, authors know how to engage our emotions; this is a nonfiction book and the tears will be real. Despite all the times authors have written about the Holocaust, this story still has the power to horrify us, to remind us of the heroic efforts it took to survive this unimaginable cruelty and brutality, to make us wonder if we would have been a survivor, and to force us to accept that the right set of circumstances could possibly turn any one of us into a monster.
Macadam was studying the first transports to Auschwitz in 1942. She learned that a notice went out in Slovakia that spring requiring 999 young teen girls to pack a bag and report for a physical exam. The notice said that they were going to be employed somewhere just outside Slovakia and would return home in 3 months. A few parents tried to hide their daughters because they could not understand why the government was taking girls. But in the end 997 girls were collected and parted from their parents and from all they knew. Macadam made extensive use of the USC Shoah Archive and the official records in Israel to track down the girls who survived this first transport. Although rumor had it that the girls were going to a shoe factory, they actually were taken to occupy the first buildings at Auschwitz. Their small suitcases were confiscated and they were given the uniforms of dead soldiers to wear and some were given black and white striped dresses. On their feet they had homemade clumsy sandals which they called clackers.
Some of the survivors could not talk about their experiences, some could not remember the details because their minds had blocked them, but there were survivors who felt it was important to tell people what had happened in those camps. How anyone survived I cannot say. The treatment of these girls was insane and inexplicable, apparently only possible because the Nazi’s were convinced that Jewish people were less than human. But they did what they did under conditions of great secrecy, so clearly they knew well how the world would judge them. After these girls, transport after transport of young Jewish women were delivered to Auschwitz, and they, in fact, cleared the ground for the entire concentration camp by hand, without coats in winter, in those awful homemade sandals, and thousands died.
This is the most authentic book I have read so far about Auschwitz and the ‘Final Solution’ given that Macadam spoke with people who had lived there and experienced that nightmare. The slightest small misstep, a bout of illness, an injury could result in death. Eventually the girls with the lowest numbers were given indoor work in Canada, which was the name given to the buildings where confiscated Jewish belongings were sorted. This decision may have been the only reason some of these girls survived. The thing that saved their lives put them right next to the crematoriums which had now been built and operated day and night when transports arrived, eventually leaving people off almost at the entrance to the ovens. The girls could see their relatives and neighbors lined up to be killed. The ashes of other Jews filled the air they breathed. Even the comfort of an indoor job held horror.
When I read The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris, I was skeptical of the things the author recounted. I also tended to see Jewish people in the camps who had light duty as possible collaborators. The girls who survived have a lot of guilt about things they did in the camps, but most of them offered a kindness when they could without putting their own life or their own survival in jeopardy. There were girls who were given power as a building supervisor, and some of these girls were dangerous and mean, but the things the girls on this first transport out of Slovakia felt guilty about were unavoidable. Now I believe that Heather Morris was just recounting a story that a survivor told her and that it was most likely as trustworthy as memories of such trauma can be. I read books about the Holocaust because it is the least I can do to honor those who lived through those inhuman camps. But also, so I will always remember that if one deranged human could decide to commit mass murder based on hate or jealousy, or some pathological construct, then it could happen again.
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