I studied the Second World War and the Holocaust extensively whilst at school and University, and have been lucky enough to visit Holocaust museums and memorials all around the world, from Poland and Hungary to Australia. It is a subject which I keep coming back to, time and again, particularly as more scholarly books and works of memoir are published. As an historian, it is so important to me to learn as much as I can about different periods in history, and about the many causes and triggers which led to a particular situation.
In The Nine Hundred, Heather Dune Macadam has chosen to focus upon a particular instance and group of women whom I knew little about – those who were sent on the first official Jewish transport to the Auschwitz concentration camp. In Poprad, Slovakia, in March 1942, almost one thousand young and unmarried Jewish women, many of them teenagers, boarded a train. They were “asked” to ‘commit to three months of government work service’, and believed that they were going to be working in a factory, before coming back to their families. With a ‘sense of adventure and national pride’ they set off. Only later did they realise what was in store for them, and many had to watch whilst their families were also forced to Auschwitz, and sent straight to the gas chambers. By the end of 1942, two thirds of the women on this first convoy had been murdered, and just a handful survived the war.
The Slovakian government despicably paid 500 Reichsmarks – or about £160 or $200 apiece – for the Nazis to take these young Jewish women away, and use them for slave labour. As news travelled slowly around rural Slovakia at that time, the announcements were staggered, and no immediate warnings could be made before more women were taken away. Macadam writes: ‘All over Slovakia, the same notices were being posted and simultaneously heralded by town criers clanging brass bells or banging drums. The only variable between communities was where the girls should go: firehouse, school, mayor’s office, bus stop. The rest of the news was the same…’.
Relatively little is known about this initial transport, but Macadam has pieced together so many sources, from consulting with historians to the relatives of these first deportees. She has also interviewed as many survivors as she could firsthand. She writes that knowing about these women is ‘profoundly relevant today. These were not resistance fighters or prisoners of war… Sent to almost certain death, the young women were powerless and insignificant not only because they were Jewish – but also because they were female.’
The foreword to the volume has been written by historian Caroline Moorehead, whose book, A Train in Winter, I loved. She comments that in The Nine Hundred, Macadam ‘has managed to re-create not only the backgrounds of the women on the first convoy but also their day-to-day lives – and deaths – during their years in Auschwitz.’
Alongside the wider historical context, which she covers excellently, Macadam has taken the decision to focus upon as many of the individual women in this transport as was possible. This means that what we read as a result is concurrently a shared experience, and a solitary one. In her author’s note, Macadam explains: ‘This book would not be a memoir… It would be about all of them, or as many as I could find information on and fit into this complex history.’ She goes on to write: ‘It is a great honor and privilege to be a part of these women’s histories, their champion and their chronicler.’
I liked the way in which Macadam has structured The Nine Hundred. It is a work of non-fiction, but some of the writing reads more like that of a novel, allowing one to become involved with the individuals immediately. Macadam begins her narrative in the incredibly cold winter of 1942, just before the girls were snatched from their homes. At this time, rumours were beginning to fly around Slovakia’s small towns and villages: ‘Flames of doubt and uncertainty were quenched by reason. If the rumor was true, the most reasonable said, and the government did take girls, they wouldn’t take them far away. And if they did, it would only be for a little while. Only for the spring – when and if spring ever arrived. If, that is, the rumor was true.’ Macadam goes on to recap many of the restrictions and laws made against Jewish people in Slovakia before this point, which ranged from being ‘forbidden to reside on any main street’ in a town, and being banned from having pets, to having to deposit their fur coats with the right-wing Hlinka Guard, and the denial of operations at any hospital.
The Nine Hundred is an invaluable resource, which has a real quality of immediacy about it. It goes without saying that the content of Macadam’s book is shocking and horrific, and I did find some of it very difficult to read. The author demonstrates real strength in setting the scene, and in giving appropriate background information whenever it is needed. One gets the sense, from the very beginning, that Macadam cares deeply about each of these girls, and she handles the portrayal of each expertly. The Nine Hundred is heartbreaking, but learning about these brave women, many of whom were forced to abruptly grow up and face so many horrors, is a powerful and moving privilege.