Updated: January 27, 2021 5:01 PM EST | Originally published: January 27, 2021 2:55 PM EST

At the end of February 1942, a rumor began circulating around the town of Humenné, in eastern Slovakia. The town crier would later speak the rumor into truth, announcing that all unmarried Jewish girls had to go to the town’s registration office, for reasons which would become clear “in due course.” Teenage sisters Edith and Lea Friedman were worried, but complied with the order, registering for what they thought was a “work opportunity” and believing that they were doing their duty for their country. Other young women thought they were going on an adventure with their friends. Much about the order remained shrouded in mystery, including where the girls were going, what kind of work they would be doing, and how long they would be gone for.

The reality was more sinister than any of the townsfolk could have imagined. Edith, Lea and more than 200 other teenagers from their town were taken to the train station, where the Hlinka Guard, Slovakia’s paramilitary forces, separated them from their parents without a proper goodbye, and forced them to board a train bound for Poprad, northern Slovakia. Hundreds of young unmarried Jewish women joined the girls from Humenne from other small towns and villages across Slovakia, forced to stay in the inhumane and traumatizing Poprad barracks, where they were fed starvation rations and ordered to clean the barracks on their hands and knees. At 8:20 p.m. on March 25, 1942, the girls that had been rounded up in Poprad—numbering 999 in total—boarded a train that would take them to Auschwitz.

A group of teenage girls from the town of Humenné, Slovakia, c. 1936. From left to right: an unidentified girl, Anna Herskovicova, another unidentified girl, Lea Friedman and Debora Gross (sister of Adela Gross). Adela Gross and Lea Friedman were two of the 999 unmarried Jewish women and girls on the first official transport of Jews to Auschwitz.
Friedman family photos, courtesy of Edith Grosman

Their journey was the first official Jewish transport to the notorious Nazi concentration camp, and until recently, their stories have been largely overlooked by history due to their status as powerless, ordinary individuals, and above all, as women, according to writer Heather Dune Macadam. “Teenage girls were not important, they were not intellectuals,” says Macadam, author of The Nine Hundred (its title in the U.S. is 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz), who spoke to TIME in the lead-up to International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27. Researched over the course of the last decade and building on a narrative thread she’d followed since the 1990s, The Nine Hundred draws on interviews and testimonies from survivors of that first transport and their families. “Intellectual men have owned Holocaust literature. I truly believe it is misogyny, and I also think it’s classist.”

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When that train pulled into Auschwitz in early 1942, Slovakia had become, over the course of three years, a Nazi satellite state. Antisemitic measures had become part of daily life; Jewish people were forced to wear a yellow star, and routinely faced discrimination in business, education and property ownership. According to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, 58,000 Slovakian Jews were sent to the extermination camps during 1942, and approximately 100,000 Slovakian Jews died during the Holocaust. Between 25,000 to 35,000 survived, including Edith Friedman. She survived typhus and tuberculosis, and had several close calls with S.S. guards, though she escaped selection for the notorious gas chambers during her time in the camp. Her sister Lea, who had become seriously ill with typhus after arriving at the camp, was killed in a mass gassing in December 1942. After three years of enduring the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Friedman was liberated when Germany surrendered in 1945, and she returned home to Humenné, where she was reunited with her parents. “To tell you the truth, I did not believe that I would survive,” writes Friedman (who became Edith Grosman after she married) in the final part of The Nine Hundred. “But I said to myself, I will do what I can.”

Tracking down survivors decades later

Macadam first became familiar with the story of the transport while researching her first book, Rena’s Promise, published in 1995. The book drew on interviews with Rena Kornreich, who was on that first transport from Slovakia, detailing the experiences she and her sister Danka had at Auschwitz. Macadam researched further, and found that the date of the transport, and the fact that the individuals were all girls, appeared to be a mere footnote in the annals of Holocaust literature. In 2012, around the time of the 70th anniversary of the transport, the author was living in Europe and visited the train station at Poprad, where she found a plaque dedicated to the memory of the girls with candles lit around it. There, she left a list of the names of women that she knew had been on the transport.

One of those names was that of Adela Gross, who was 18 when she boarded the train at Poprad, and was later killed in a gas chamber at Auschwitz. Gross’ family in Slovakia never knew what happened to her, until they found Macadam’s list at the train station in Poprad and contacted her. Other relatives of Gross living in California were reading Rena’s Promise, and also reached out to Macadam. “I get chills just thinking about it, it was such a huge moment to be able to give this beautiful young woman back to her family,” saysMacadam.

As more survivors of the transport, including Edith Grosman, started contacting her, Macadam decided to write a book to weave their narratives together, with supporting family testimonies from the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual Archive and the Slovak National Archives, as well as Yad Vashem. And even since The Nine Hundred was published a year ago, she’s been contacted by more survivors. Over the last year, Macadam has been working on adapting the book into a documentary, recently interviewing two out of the five living survivors she’s aware of, who are both in their 90s; one via Zoom in Australia, and one in New York in person . Both Macadam and her cinematographer had negative COVID-19 tests before conducting the interview, and wore masks and stayed six feet apart from their subject. “I did have to speak loudly so she could hear me,” says Macadam, who hopes the documentary will be released this year. “The hardest part of the interview was not hugging her.”

Newfound interest in the stories of women in wartime

“I’ve been telling this story publicly since 1994, and it’s never taken off until now. It felt like I was shouting into an empty barrel and getting little response,” Macadam says, adding that she feels the #MeToo movement has sparked greater interest in the stories of women. For her, the story of the 999 girls from Slovakia is a reminder that women and girls are the key targets in war and in genocide, and she felt a deep responsibility to tell their stories faithfully. “The challenge as a Holocaust biographer is to stick to the facts, and I do always try to end with something positive, so that we have a sense of hope, but you can’t sugarcoat this stuff. One of the most important things in my book is that in the end, they don’t all go home and live happily ever after.”

Grosman married and had children after her return home, but her life was not free from hardship as she recovered from the tuberculosis that had a debilitating impact on her health. In 1968, she and her family were forced to flee to Israel when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, eventually making their way to Canada. On last year’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Macadam was with Grosman at her home in Toronto, watching the commemoration ceremony take place in Poland on the television. Grosman was 95, and it was the last such year she would mark the day before her death in July 2020. Macadam recalls Grossman turning to her in the middle of the ceremonies, saying, “you know, the day we were liberated, I got my period back. I was jumping up and down with the joy of being a woman again. Of being free.”

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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