999: Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz

Welcome to Real Life. Some stories, though horrendous, must be told. 

People are still writing about the Holocaust? That was my first thought when my friend Michelle texted me this image of the book she was reading. Two previously unknown facts about the Holocaust piqued my interest. First, the transport was from Slovakia. As a daughter of Slovak immigrants, everything about Slovakia interests me. And second, the transport contained women, 999 of them, ages 16–36. As a woman, I was curious about their experiences. 

The edict was announced February 28, 1942. In select Slovak cities, single Jewish females ages 16-36 were to report for three months of government work. Though disconcerting to Jewish parents, remember, this was new. There had been no transports to concentration camps. It was rumored the girls would work at a Slovak shoe factory. As anti-Semitism increased, some Jewish families considered this an opportunity to prove their patriotism and support their government. Few of these girls had ever been away from home. Some teenagers viewed it as an adventure with their friends. No one could have guessed the evil behind the edict. 

Auschwitz is located in Poland, forty-four miles north of the Slovak border. The official reason for the first transports was to provide a workforce to build housing for more Jewish laborers. "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Makes You Free) reads the sign over the entrance. However, Auschwitz was no work camp. It was a death camp. From 1942 to 1944, 1.1 million prisoners died in Auschwitz.[1]

The first 999 were followed by 5000 more young women. They arrived thinking they would work hard, be fed normal meals, sleep in clean barracks, and return home in three months. Instead, they were immediately stripped of all clothing and possessions. Their hair was shaved. They were given dead soldiers’ dirty clothing to wear. Their daily ration consisted of one cup of tea and one bowl of rancid soup. The barracks were infested with fleas and lice. Soon, more transports arrived to the same welcome.  

In the beginning, as slave laborers, some deconstructed homes in a nearby village evacuated to expand the camp. Others prepared fields for planting by spreading manure with their bare hands. The sick and weak were executed. Soon, even healthy prisoners were randomly selected for execution. In the end, every train delivered victims directly to gas chambers. Miraculously, a few of the original 999 survived to tell their horrific stories. This book is a tribute to their fierce resilience.

The 999 is not light reading. Beyond my initial interest, here are a few reasons why I read it:

First, it awakens gratitude in me. After every chapter, during this month of Thanksgiving, I thanked God for the blessings of freedom, safety, shelter, and abundant food.

Second, every human being is created in the image of God. As such, every person deserves dignity and respect. Whether they agree with me or not. Whether they look like me or not. Whether they believe like me or not. In this age of polarizing division, instead of vilifying our ideological opponent, let's choose to listen, agree to disagree, and seek to understand another’s view. 

Third, anti-Semitism is again on the rise.[2] This book reveals the end result of this hateful mindset. And remarkably, others claim the Holocaust never happened.[3] The 999 provides eye-witness proof. 

And finally, it emphasized the importance of questioning authority. Why should we do this? What’s behind the decision? This is especially crucial when obeying authority violates human life, decency, and morality.

As a WWII Slovak Army officer, my father faced a moral dilemma. He was ordered to execute prisoners-of-war. Instead, he led them into the woods, discharged his firearm without harming anyone, and let them escape. As officers over him descended into lawlessness, my father sought his own opportunity to escape. He did. And eventually, he found asylum in America.

Of the original 999, a few actually survived. One of them, Bertha Berkowitz (#1048; Lautman), settled in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. Sharing their experiences was difficult and traumatic. But these women understood, their story must be told. So we may never forget. 

Thousand of books could be written on the disaster that was called the Holocaust, 
but it will never be fully described. Ever. I was there. 
And I have lived with it for over seventy-eight years.
–Edith Friedman Grosman (#1970)[4]

Take it further…
“Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you.
This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets.”
Matthew 7:12 NLT 

Image of Auschwitz sign: By Pimke - Own work, CC BY 2.5 pl, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=755157
Book images by Citadel Press. 
[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auschwitz_concentration_camp   
[2] https://theconversation.com/anti-semitism-is-on-the-rise-75-years-after-the-end-of-the-holocaust-and-second-world-war-132141 
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holocaust_denial
[4] p. 375, 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz.


  1. Peggi, I appreciate your insight linking the book to what is happening today in the world. Stories like this have to be read to remind us of what we are capable of both good and bad.

    1. I agree. Thanks so much for sharing this book with me!


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