Fourteen-year-old Ella is a talented seamstress, and her skills are very important in this new world she finds herself in. She has been brought to Birchwood, and will make dresses and clothes for the glamorous ladies who frequent the studio. However, this is no ordinary sewing studio. It is in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Ella and her fellow prisoners are making clothes for their captors, and the wives of the commanders of the camp.
Ella must negotiate a dangerous world, in which everyone has to look out for themselves, and kindness and patience are rare commodities. Lucy Adlington deftly creates characters who are flawed and fallible, complex and brave, and places them in a dark and dangerous world. It would be easy to paint the prison guards are pure evil, but their depiction in more nuanced than that. Carla, a guard in the camp, is at first merely capricious and selfish, before revealing a much darker side later in the book. The description of the ‘Department Store’, an eerie series of warehouses filled with the belongings of the dead and imprisoned, is chilling, as is the ease with which the guards and commanders’ wives speak of ‘shopping at the Department store.’
Ella and her dear friend, Rose, keep each other alive throughout harsh winters, illness, beatings, and day to day abuse. But can they truly survive Auschwitz? Fundamentally, stories of the good in people win out in this book – the small kindnesses between prisoners who endanger themselves for others. A careful and moving depiction of hope overcoming horrific circumstances.