Fifteen-year-old Ella begins work in the Upper Tailoring Studio in Birchwood, a concentration camp. Birchwood is author Lucy Aldington’s German translation for Birkenau, from Auschwitz-Birkenau. This book explores many of the atrocities for which the camp is famous from a viewpoint I have not read previously. Ella is a dressmaker and dreams of having her own shop. Snatched from the street on her way home from school, she was unable to say goodbye to her Grandparents with whom she lived. Put to work in the tailoring studio her designs and work soon become popular with those for whom they are made, the Commandant’s wife and the guards. The work is performed under extremely difficult conditions with tough restrictions on supplies and tools. Ella and Rose start work the same day and soon become inseparable. Rose tells stories while Ella dreams of her future. Carla, a guard, and Ella begin an unusual friendship that swings from friendliness to viciousness. It is the consequence of one of these latter times, when Carla sees the red ribbon given to Ella by Rose, that Ella is injured so badly she can no longer perform her sewing duties. Ella and Rose are sent to work in the camp laundry, where Rose becomes ill and is eventually sent to the hospital. Ella is torn between a chance of escape and devotion to her friend. What follows is a horrific ordeal as the Nazis begin retreating. Amidst the atrocities and cruelties, Rose experiences some acts of kindness that save her life. What she does not know, however, is the fate of her Grandparents and her dear Rose.
“Of all the horrors of Birchwood, of all the deaths and indignations, I discovered that loneliness is the worst.”
Lucy Adlington’s afterword explains aspects of the book that are fictionalised and the many based on fact. Interested readers will be encouraged to explore this topic further. The narrative firmly places the reader in the setting from Ella’s point of view. The characters are well developed and the dialogue realistic. I found the writing a little forced at times, and the ending too idealised. It did, however, provide an uplifting end to a fictionalised story that could have been all too real.
This book will join the increasing number written about this horrific time in history. I have read many novels based on the Holocaust but none that have explored the Upper Tailoring Studio that existed in Auschwitz. The scenes and descriptions of the studio and what was known as the Department Store are vivid and at times shocking.
Recommended for teen and adult readers.
Many thanks to Allen and Unwin for sending this book for review.