The Weavers of Traut­e­nau: Jew­ish Female Forced Labor in the Holocaust

October 12, 2021

A sym­pa­thet­ic his­to­ry that focus­es on the expe­ri­ences of women and girls dur­ing the Holo­caust and draws on new archival sources.

Begin­ning in late 1940, over three thou­sand Jew­ish girls and young women were forced from their fam­i­ly homes in Sos­nowiec, Poland, and its sur­round­ing towns to work­sites in Ger­many. Believ­ing that they were help­ing their fam­i­lies to sur­vive, these young peo­ple were thrust into a world where they labored at tex­tile work for twelve hours a day, lived in bar­racks with lit­tle food, and received only peri­od­ic news of events back home. By late 1943, their bar­racks had been trans­formed into con­cen­tra­tion camps, where they were held until lib­er­a­tion in 1945.

Using a fresh approach to tes­ti­mo­ny col­lec­tions, Janine P. Holc recon­structs the forced labor expe­ri­ences of young Jew­ish females, as told by the women who sur­vived and shared their tes­ti­mo­ny. Incor­po­rat­ing new source mate­r­i­al, the book care­ful­ly con­structs sur­vivors’ sto­ries while also tak­ing a the­o­ret­i­cal approach, one alert to social­ly con­struct­ed, inter­sec­tion­al sys­tems of exploita­tion and harm. The Weavers of Traut­e­nau elu­ci­dates the lim­its and pos­si­bil­i­ties of social rela­tions inside camps and the chal­lenges of moral and emo­tion­al repair in the face of inde­scrib­able loss dur­ing the Holocaust.

Discussion Questions

Based on archival records, his­tor­i­cal analy­ses, and mul­ti­ple sur­vivor tes­ti­monies, this deeply researched and method­olog­i­cal­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed book recounts the expe­ri­ences of over three thou­sand girls and young women who were forced from their homes in Sos­nowiec, Poland to labor in tex­tile fac­to­ries in Sude­ten­land, which Ger­many had annexed in 1948. Work­ing twelve-hour days and housed in bar­racks with min­i­mal rations, these young peo­ple, ages twelve to twen­ty, were cut off from their fam­i­lies and the larg­er world. Janine P. Holc describes the forced labor envi­ron­ment as a milieu of per­se­cu­tion, where Jew­ish women estab­lished kin­ship groups and con­duct­ed sur­rep­ti­tious com­mu­ni­ca­tions with adja­cent labor sites. She also explores the close and some­times pos­i­tive inter­ac­tions between Jew­ish work­ers and non-Jew­ish Czech employees. 

Toward the end of 1943, these sites became con­cen­tra­tion camps, where coerced labor con­tin­ued in dete­ri­o­rat­ing con­di­tions until lib­er­a­tion. Reflect­ing on the com­plex tes­ti­monies that inform her study, Holc writes about a world in which fear­ful and hun­gry peo­ple devel­oped their sys­tems for sus­tain­ing a sense of them­selves as chil­dren, as women, and as Jews.”