Stitching History from the Holocaust, a small exhibit that packs a big punch, is currently on view at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. It tells the story of Paul and Hedwig “Hedy” Strnad, a Jewish couple living in Prague in 1939.
Desperate to obtain an affidavit to escape the onslaught of Nazi Germany, Paul sent his cousin Alvin in Milwaukee sketches of his wife’s fashion illustrations and explained that Hedy was a dressmaker. They hoped these examples of her work would provide evidence of their financial independence and would be the key to getting them safe passage to the U.S. Despite Alvin’s best efforts, however, both Hedy and her husband Paul were murdered in the Holocaust. All that remains of their story are the letter Paul sent to Alvin and Hedy’s sketches.
Fast-forward 60 years when the Strnad family in Milwaukee discovered the letter and the drawings in their mother’s basement. They donated everything to the Milwaukee Jewish Historical Society, which later became the Jewish Museum Milwaukee in 2008.
Once the museum opened, these pieces became central to the permanent exhibition. A visitor commented that so much more could be done with the dress designs, photographs, and letters. Upon their suggestion, the JMM decided to work with the with the costume department of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater to create the dresses from Hedy’s illustrations. They researched the design from this period and painstakingly constructed each piece—from the buttons (hand-covered) to the zippers (vintage) and the pleats (sourced from New Jersey) to the patterns (silk screened).
When the Strnad family found Paul’s letter with his wife’s dress designs, they did not even know her name. Now, thanks to the efforts of the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, we not only know Hedy’s name, but something about her life and personality. From Hedy’s niece, we know that Hedy had red hair, was fashionable, and smoked. She and Paul had a hobby of making puppets and putting on shows. They were happy, jolly people. Professionally, Hedy had a dressmaking shop, with multiple machines, and sometimes her employees would sew doll dresses for Hedy’s young niece. These details do not bring Hedy back to life, but they do revive her in our memory, and remind us that everyone who was killed during the Holocaust was an individual with a story.
Stitching History from the Holocaust is at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York until August 14, 2016. It will travel to the School of Human Ecology in at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in September of 2016 and then to the Jewish Museum of Florida at Florida International University.
For more information on the exhibit, check out this terrific Emmy award winning PBS program.
All photos courtesy of the collection of the Jewish Museum Milwaukee. Thank you JMM!