Heather Dune Macadam came to Toronto on Jan. 24 to spend Shabbat with a special friend: Edith Grosman, a 95-year-old Holocaust survivor who is also one of the main subjects of Macadam’s new book, 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz.
Macadam, who is not Jewish, initially learned of the story of the first Jewish transport to Auschwitz, filled with young women from Slovakia, when she wrote Rena’s Promise, a memoir about Rena Kornreich Gelissen, another woman on that original transport. Through her research, Macadam learned that 297 of the almost 1,000 young women on the transport were teenagers, and she wanted to write their story.
“I had never actually spoken to one,” Macadam said. “When I discovered Edith, and met with her, I was recaptivated by the story and really wanted to tell it from a teenage perspective. And I wanted to tell it from a multiple narrative perspective.”
So Macadam got to work on the book. One of the first things she had to figure out was the actual number of women on the transport. There were conflicting reports of both 999 and 997. After careful research into the original documents, she found that while the original list said there were 999 people, due to a few errors, the actual number was, in fact, 997.
The confusion about the correct number of passengers matches a theme Macadam discovered over the course of her research: the Nazis were often much less meticulous in their recordkeeping for women than for men.
Macadam also found that the Slovakian areas the women on the transport were from were literally paying to get rid of them, and stopped handing them over to the Nazis only when it was becoming too expensive. Macadam said the sheer brutality of the exchange was tough to wrap her mind around. At first, she likened it to slavery, but realized that wasn’t quite right.
“A friend of mine was reading the manuscript and she said, ‘They weren’t really sold into slavery, were they?’ And I said, ‘Oh, shoot, I’m using the wrong term.’ But of course, there’s no term for that,” Macadam recalled. “This sounds really horrible, but if you’re a slave, you’re valued because you’ve been bought or sold. You’ve paid money for a human being, but you might actually take care of your property. But this is like, literally, ‘Take it. Take this person. I don’t care what happens to them.’ It’s a real mind twist.”
Macadam said the reason the Nazis didn’t value the women, even as property, is because they wanted to get rid of them. Macadam said the girls on the train were pressed into heavy labour, such as demolishing buildings.
“It’s just insane. And it totally speaks to the insanity of the Holocaust. They wanted to destroy these young women. They are deporting them so that they never come back, as one of my witnesses says,” Macadam said.
Ironically, though, the women who arrived at Auschwitz first may have actually been some of the most likely to survive, said Rosette Rutman, daughter of Ella Friedman Rutman. Friedman Rutman, 99, is another survivor of that first transport who is living in Toronto and a subject of the book.
Coming to Auschwitz early “probably saved my mother and aunts’ lives, because Auschwitz grew so quickly that they had jobs to do. They weren’t killed immediately,” said Rutman. She also said that, at points, she had to take a break from reading 999 because it was too difficult to imagine her mother going through the awful things she was reading. Even so, Rutman said she is very happy that Macadam documented the stories of the young women.
“These girls were dehumanized and de-womanized. And it speaks to a patriarchal society that demeaned women,” said Macadam. “For me, it feels very important, because our society tends to think teenagers don’t have a lot of important things to say.”