by Peggi Tustan

“People are still writing about the Holocaust?” I confess this was my first thought when my friend Michelle texted me an image of the book, 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz by Heather Dune Macadam. Two previously unknown facts piqued my interest. The first official transport was from Slovakia. As the daughter of Slovak immigrants, anything concerning Slovakia interests me. And second, the transport contained women, 999 of them, ages 16–36. As a woman, I was simultaneously aghast and curious to learn of their experiences.

The edict was announced February 28, 1942. In select Slovak cities, single Jewish females, ages 16–36, were directed to report for three months of government work. Certainly, the edict was disconcerting to Jewish parents. Rumors circulated that they would work at a Slovak shoe factory to aid the war effort. As anti-Semitism increased, some Jewish families considered this an opportunity to prove their patriotism and support their government. Few of these young women had ever traveled away from home. Some teenagers were excited to embark on this adventure with their friends. No one guessed the evil behind the edict.

The Auschwitz Concentration Camp is located forty-four miles north of the Slovak border in Poland. The (secret) official reason for these first transports was to provide a workforce to build housing for more Jewish laborers. And if so, why did they choose young women over young men? “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Makes You Free) read the sign over the entrance. Auschwitz, however, was no work camp. It was a death camp. From 1942 to 1944, over one million prisoners perished there.[1]

The first 999 were soon followed by five thousand more young Jewish women from Slovakia. They expected to work hard, receive normal meals, sleep in clean barracks, and return home in three months. Instead, upon arrival, they were immediately stripped of all clothing and possessions. Their hair was shaved. They received the over-sized, dirty clothing of dead soldiers to wear. Their daily ration consisted of one cup of tea and one bowl of rancid soup. Bunks were infested with fleas and lice. Daily, more transports arrived to the same welcome.

The women were assigned a variety of jobs. Some deconstructed homes in a nearby village that had been evacuated to expand the camp. Others prepared fields for planting by spreading manure with their bare hands. The lucky ones were assigned to sort the possessions of incoming prisoners. The sick and weak were executed. Eventually, even healthy prisoners were randomly selected for execution. In the end, every arriving train delivered victims directly to the gas chamber. Miraculously, a few women of the original transport survived to tell their stories. 999 is a tribute to their fierce resilience.

After 999, I read two more newly penned books on the Holocaust. Yes, people are still writing them and we need to keep reading them. Here’s why:

  • First, every human is created in the image of God. As such, each person deserves dignity and respect—whether or not we agree, look alike, or believe the same things. In this age of polarizing division, instead of vilifying our ideological opponent, books like 999 promote compassion, empathy, and the understanding of another’s view.
  • Second, anti-Semitism is currently on the rise.[2] The Holocaust reveals the horrendous result of this hateful mindset. Additionally, some claim the Holocaust never occurred.[3] Books such as the 999provide eyewitness evidence.
  • Third, these books remind us. We must question authority. Why is this required? What’s the reason behind the decision? This is especially critical when our leaders direct us to violate human life, decency, and morality. “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you,” Jesus Christ advises in his Golden Rule. [4]

Of the original 999, a few miraculously survived. One of them, Bertha Berkowitz (Prisoner #1048; Lautman), settled in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. Though sharing their experiences was traumatic, these women understood. Their stories must be told. So, the world may never forget. 

“Thousands 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 (Prisoner #1970)[5]


Peggi Tustan is an ordinary woman living an extraordinary real life in Christ. She writes, teaches, and mentors women in Northeast Ohio. Learn more about her at




[4] Matthew 7:12 NLT

[5] 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz, p. 375.