Sewing for Their Lives

When I was a kid, part of my middle school education was taking home economics. It had nothing to do with how to calculate the expenses for a household, but how to cook, bake and sew. I have one of those moms who felt it was important to teach my brother and myself how to cook and bake as kids. But we didn’t really learn to sew, so in the class I learned how to operate a sewing machine, thread a needle and sew by hand. Honestly, I was not good at it then and I am still not. I can put a patch on or stitch up a hole, but not make something from scratch. So, when I learned about how the concentration camp uniforms were made, I could not imagine having to sew for my life. Not just for a living, but to live, to survive one of the greatest horrors of this world- the Holocaust.

Medieval clothing illustration, only the fool wears stripes.

Why Stripes?

We’ve all seen movies where prison inmates are wearing stripped uniforms, but have you ever wondered why? Historically it is biblically based. In the book of Leviticus chapter 19 verse 19 it says “do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material”, in the literal translation. However, the Greek to Latin means not to wear two different colors. This caused stripped clothing to be deemed for lower classes, especially in Medieval Europe.

Right around the thirteenth century Pope Boniface VIII banned the clergy from wearing stripes, and at this same time in Saxony (modern day Germany) striped clothing is now part of its penal system and worn by prostitutes, serfs and those condemned as criminals. So, for the first time in history wearing stripes means you’re a criminal.

Arrival at the Camps

When the trains arrived at the various concentration camps the first thing to happen was a selection process. A very dehumanizing process as people were herded off trains like cattle, they were forced to strip naked and run in front of tables of Nazi doctors who would then select those fit for labor. This was a time of extreme modesty. Mothers and fathers rarely, if never, taken their clothes off in front of their children, let alone in front of hundreds of strangers. This was done to make them less human. It’s easier to be cruel to someone when you stop seeing them as human.

After the selection process was completed the inmates were given clothing, uniforms. The clothing they had arrived in would be thoroughly searched for money and jewels that had been sewn into the clothing, and then sent back to Germany for its citizens to use.

The uniforms the inmates were given were simple striped clothes. Variations from blue to purple striped with white. Oddly enough, the material was actually decently made with the fabric being dyed on both sides. Men were given pants, jacket and a cap. Women were given a dress or skirt and a jacket. Their shoes were wooden soles with linen straps sewn onto them. Aryan prisoners and some Jewish prisoners were allowed to keep their own leather shoes, this depended on the work that they would be doing and if they were considered “prominent prisoners”.

Only prisoners who had attained prominent status were allowed under clothes during the winter. These were prisoners who supervised food distribution and keeping the barracks in order. Their uniforms might even have a little pipping along the seams and pockets. Pockets don’t seem like much to a twentieth or twenty-first century mind, but when each tiny morsel of food can save your life, a pocket becomes very important hiding places for those tiny morsels.

Sachsenhausen camp prisoner uniform. Photo by Steve Bunting, flickr

The Uniforms

Prisoner uniforms were made at three different camps, Ravensbruck, Dachau and Sachsenhausen. It began as a job for men prisoners, but it was feared that they would revolt against it as sewing was seen as “women’s work”. So, the task of making the uniforms was given to camps with higher populations of women prisoners.

The average camp uniform was made with cotton mixed with a little wool. These were more expensive to make because cotton had to be imported. The summer uniforms were made of linen, and because linen was produced in northern Europe, they were much cheaper to make.

Even though the uniforms were made in different sizes, sizes were not marked on the uniform and in time size made no difference. As prisoners were given so little food, in time the uniform would need altering and the prisoners had to alter their uniforms themselves. The uniform that may have fit when they arrived, now hung off of the walking skeleton they had become. They would move buttons on jackets, take in the inseam of dresses, pants had straps and buckles to adjust the size, but eventually even those became useless and prisoners would add extra belt loops so that they could tie their pants up with string.

Each prisoners uniform had a patch on the left chest or left sleeve and another on the right side of the men’s pants. This patch was a rectangle piece of fabric that contained the prisoners’ number and a colored triangle with a letter in it. The color-coded badges were:

Yellow- Jewish

Red- Political

Green- Common Criminals

Black- Asocial or Gypsies

Pink- Homosexuals

Purple- Jehovah’s Witnesses

The letter inside the triangle told what nationality the prisoner was. Prisoners were allowed a change of clothes every 6-8 weeks. Some camps laundered them, but others like Auschwitz, began to use to steam to disinfect prisoners clothing.

Ravensbruck and Auschwitz

In 1942 new hours and quotas for clothing were introduced at Ravensbruck. The German textile company, Texled, had factories inside Ravensbruck and Dachau where they made prisoner uniforms and Waffen SS uniforms. Ravensbruck had a textile factory in the camp, along with twenty hand looms to make fabric. The striped fabric for the prison uniforms was made by hand and was seen as a job for “strong Russian women”.

The sewing shop at Ravensbruck was a dreaded place to work, the constant noise of the handlooms and textile machines was unbearable. In addition to the noise, prisoners worked eleven-hour shifts, 7 am-6 pm and 7 pm- 6 am, in which time they were given one half hour break and were to complete 180 garments per shift. They were to make a shirt in two and a half minutes. Prisoners who could not meet production were severely beaten and dragged off the factory floor. If the shift did not meet its full production quota, the entire shift would be punished. Often meaning that they would be left to stand outside, in heat and cold, for hours before being allowed to bed for a few precious hours of sleep.

Prisoners didn’t just sew. They made fabric, some ran fabric to one who had run out of fabric to sew, others would be responsible for changing needles and thread on sewing machines. Break downs were not allowed. The companies that ran these factories became extremely wealthy from slave labor. And after the war, many faced war crimes charges.

The prisoners often fought back in the only way they could, sabotage. Even though each night seams and stitching were checked for accuracy, they didn’t check to make sure that the buttons lined up with the button holes or that fur collars were attached correctly. Some prisoners would sew notes into the seams for the soldiers to find saying that they were losing the war.

Center: Hedwig and Rudolph Hoess

Now, Auschwitz was a different story altogether. The wife of the camp commandant, Hedwig Hoess, decided to go “back to her roots” when she employed a Polish seamstress to make her dresses. Her and her husband resided in a villa that over looked the camp, they would go through the clothing taken from prisoners and select anything that was of good quality and designers, and keep it for themselves. Mrs. Hoess called her time at the villa “paradise” and often bragged about her “shopping” trips to Canada- the place in the camp where the belongings of those taken prisoner and/or exterminated were gone through and sorted to be sent back to a Germany.

Mrs. Hoess decided to open an elite dress making shop in the camp, that she called the Upper Tailoring Shop. Most women in the 1940’s knew how to sew and sew well, as they often made their own clothing and their families clothes as well. Working at the Upper Tailoring Shop became a coveted work assignment as the shop had washing facilities and allowed for comradery between the workers.

Twenty-three women were selected from the inmates to work in the shop. Most of them were Jewish, with a Slovakian overseer named Marta Fuchs. Marta was known to be kind and compassionate. But, as the camp also held political prisoners, two of the seamstresses were French Resistance fighters, Aida Vasselin and Marie-Louise Colombian. Both women were skilled in sabotage. Aida sewed anti-Nazi leaflets into the corsets she made.

Hermine Hecht also worked in the Upper Tailoring Shop, she is one of the few from the shop that survived. She told how they were to make two outfits per week, per client. That the fittings were done in the workshop and that each Saturday “SS big shots” arrived to collect their wives and mistresses newly made clothing. It was a stark contrast that they could wear clothing made by a Jew but couldn’t walk on the same side walk as a Jew.

In the End

In January 1945 the Russian army was approaching Auschwitz. The SS evacuated the camp and the sewing shop, most of them will perish on the death marches. However, four dressmakers, Marta (the overseer), Borish, Lulu and Baba, attempted to escape. The hid in civilian clothing at the train station, awaiting an opening to try and board a passenger train. As they approached Marta was warned off, however the other three continued on. They were caught and shot by the SS. Marta was hidden by a Polish family and in return for sanctuary she patched and made their clothing. Marta survived the war.

I am continually amazed at the mixture of cruelty and hypocrisy that surrounded the Nazi regime. The way that they could take human beings and turn them into animals to be used and discarded just astounds me. All human beings have the ability for great cruelty, but also great compassion, it is up to us which one we choose.

I hope that you have enjoyed this post and will consider becoming a follower. I will be back in two weeks in another story to tell. See you in two weeks!

2 thoughts on “Sewing for Their Lives”

  1. Very interesting. I had no idea about the different colors to signify whose who. The history of the striped material was also great. The entire piece kept me reading waiting for the next twist or turn.

    Liked by 1 person

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