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BOOK BITES | Lucy Adlington, Véronique Tadjo, Allen Ambor

17 April 2022 - 00:00 By Gabriella Bekes, Tiah Beautement and JENNIFER PLATT

This week: a true story of women prisoners in Auschwitz who sewed haute couture garments for wives of SS officers, a tale to show that viruses don’t see borders, and a memoir on how the Spur franchise was born.

The Dressmakers of Auschwitz ★★★
Lucy Adlington
Hodder and Stoughton

In  the heart of the death camp of Auschwitz was a fashion salon where young Jewish women, mainly from Slovakia, sewed haute couture garments for the fashion-obsessed wives of SS officers from as far away as Berlin. Started by Hedwig Hӧss, the wife of camp leader Rudolf Hӧss, the studio was a haven for the dressmakers from the horrors of existence in Auschwitz. Years later, after finding mention of the salon while writing about textiles during the war, the author dug deeper and found the story of these women. By then only one of  the 25 seamstresses was still alive — Bracha Berkoviĉ-Kohhύt, 98 years old, living in California. With her sharp memory she tells of her 1,000 days in Auschwitz. When Bracha and her sister Katya arrived in Auschwitz in 1942 they were put to work digging trenches and building a railway line. Their only joy was meeting up with fellow dressmakers, creating a bond that would help them survive. After nine months, Bracha was moved to the Kanada barracks to sort the huge treasure trove of goods confiscated from the Jews when they arrived, which were then loaded onto trains and taken to Germany. Here she met Marta and together with other women, mainly Slovakians who could cut and sew, created Hedwig Hӧss's Upper Tailoring Studio in 1943, situated at the SS HQ outside the camp. The dressmakers would often use fabrics or furs taken from the mountain of loot in Kanada to embellish the outfits. Just opposite this building was the camp and the crematoria that spewed ash of burnt human remains. This is a story of vicious cruelty. But, above all, it is about friendship and survival. — Gabriella Bekes 

In The Company of Men ★★★★
Véronique Tadjo

“Pity is a death sentence,” cautions the Baobab in this slim novel focusing on the Ebola crisis. The story progresses through a series of narrators, including a nurse, a daughter, the virus, a bat and a foster grandmother. Each provides their own snapshot of the tragedy. The tale was originally written in French in 2017. But by the time Covid-19 hit, the book was being released in English. Tadjo’s original goal was to show the interconnectedness of the environment and ourselves. But as told to NPR, now with a new virus on the loose, she hopes people understand “viruses don’t see borders". A story of raw beauty, compassion, hope and condemnation. — Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie






A Taste for Life ★★★★
Allen Ambor

It’s easy to look at the cover and discount this as just a business memoir but Allen Ambor takes readers on an entertaining jol through his life. We go with him on his gap-year sojourn to Europe (before it was called a gap year), his working adventures in London, his visits to family in Germany, and the panic he felt when his passport and cash were stolen in a hostel in Paris. When he comes back to Joburg, he decides to study a Bachelor of Arts at Wits, which is, as he writes, “The ideal degree for a young man still trying to figure out what to be or not to be.” But his love of theatre, entertainment, restaurant work - and a good steak -  help him figure out what he wants to do and it all comes together when he opens his first Spur in Cape Town in 1967. It’s a savvy, dare I say it, meaty memoir. — Jennifer Platt