A month ago now, we as a family took our annual trip up to Chicago, Illinois. It was fantastic as usual, but this time we extended the trip a bit more north to go up and visit Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as well. The main reason for this was because I wanted to visit an exhibit I have been interested in for the last several years, “Stitching History from the Holocaust”. It was being presented at the Milwaukee Jewish Museum – a beautiful, peaceful place off of Lake Michigan – until September 16 so sorry for the very late notice if you were interested! It was too good of an exhibit not to share, and so I hope this post fills you in a bit if you have not seen it yourself. I do believe the exhibit will be traveling to three states within the next year, though, so check their website’s schedule if you want to see this for yourself!
The exhibit tells the stories of several different unrelated families who had a link to both the sewing craft and the town of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. However, the primary focus is on Hedy Strnad, a 30 something year old with a talent for sewing and fashion design living in Prague, Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s who perished in the Holocaust. Despite her and her husband Paul sending letters to his cousin in Milwaukee requesting visas to come to America, along with 8 samples of stunning garment drafts as a proof of professional and business competency, they could not get out in time to survive. As far as is known, they were still alive in 1943, and could have died months before the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp they were held at was liberated in 1945.
The talent, the contributions to society, but most importantly the people’s lives lost in any human genocide is such an irreparable tragedy. Personal stories ended before their time can and will never be completed. Most of the time, as if the case with Hedy and Paul Strnad, there is no body, no certain date of death, and only vague sense of closure. I’ve realized all this and took it to heart before I visited the Jewish Museum in Milwaukee. However, this particular exhibit really connected this aspect of the past to history for me in a way nothing else has done before, and brought the Holocaust to my sensibilities in a very realistic and touching manner. It was not just because of the sewing aspect either…although I will admit that did help me bond to it!
You see, my great Grandmother’s parents had emigrated over here from Czechoslovakia in the late 1800s before the turn of the century. My Czech heritage (on my mother’s side; I’m German on my father’s side) is an important part of life that we still keep up by attending ethnic dinners and keeping in mind some of the old country habits and words that my mom remembers from her “Baba”. Even I remember her making homemade spatzles and kolachkes all the way up to when she was 93…she had a long life. I can’t help but wonder if my mom’s distant relatives had waited to come over, if things might have been similarly frightening and miserable for them as the stories I read in the exhibit. It also makes me proud to find out – after all these years – that my culture has such a wonderful, if rather unknown and underappreciated, standing in the fashion scene! Now, at least, we can now see and appreciate what was the ingenuity of a strong woman that was Hedy Strnad and get a small taste of what had been the strong fashion scene of pre-WWII Prague. I’ll bet Hedy never would have thought she would be as well known in the 21st century as she is!
As simple as they look at first glance, there is incredible detail and ingenious styling to all of these outfits…our photos do not give them justice. Hedy’s garments are a stunning example of how the couture scene of the independent pre-WWII Czechoslovakia (1920s & 30’s) was lively and renowned. Prague couture was known for its precision, craftsmanship and elegance; it was completely current with international style trends (thanks to local couturiers visiting fashion shows around the world, purchasing design rights, and importing trims, fabric, and women’s publications) yet still maintained a strong Czech flair. It seems that many socialites and Eastern European actresses who didn’t want the avant-garde styles of Paris, or thought that America was just either too casual or heavily influenced by Hollywood (and London, well they excelled at menswear then), considered Prague to be the place to find tasteful, chic garments. If you’re curious, read up on Hana Podolska and Oldrich Rosenbaum for just two examples of star fashion houses. Prague’s burgeoning film industry made explicit the link between the possession of fashionable clothing and elevated social status for Czech people of the late 30’s. The city’s rapidly developing high society required clothing that expressed and symbolized its lofty European ambitions for its future. Now Prague is the last thing on anyone’s mind when it comes to fashion. It’s so sad. I can’t help but wish such progress hadn’t been ended – I would have loved to see what would have come of it!
From the top rung to the bottom of all of this, thoroughly modern Jewish men and women were drafting, making, and marketing Prague’s fashion scene – not just associated with mending or second hand selling as they had been before WWI. Traditional Jewish values of modesty and such were ‘updated’ to be on par with a smartly dressed woman of 1939 – full, bias knee length skirts, high and draping or tie necklines, and good tailoring that shows off a slim and athletic body ideal for the time. Such assimilation into everyday culture around them protected many Jews in Bohemia – some were immune until their business expired after the events of February 1948, but most were either sent to the “ideal” concentration camp Theresienstadt, or their demise came when their country fell with them.
When you think about American fashion of the late 30’s, I realize that things came full circle. If American fashion was considered too sporty or too dressy, at the same time late 30’s women in the States were also wearing clothes in the style of the distant cousin to Bohemia – Tyrolean hats, belts, jackets, and dresses. Before the end of World War I, many designers in Prague that blossomed in the Interwar Period (1918 to 1948) gained at least some of their experience in Vienna, after all. It’s funny – other countries’ influence on American fashion was prevalent, even into the mid 1940s (at the latest) but those other countries were working hard to define themselves through garment styles and find their own niche of styles and creativity that set them apart.
As was stated in the exhibit, no one really knows whether Hedy Strnad was part of a bigger design house or in charge of her own independent business. Prague fashion operated much in the same way as they did in France at the time of the Inter-War period. After all, the French designer Paul Poiret was legendary in Prague not in the least because he had staged fashion shows here during the 1920s! A couturier (usually the owner) headed each “house”, setting the style of the company and managing a team of designers, illustrators, saleswomen, models, cutters, tailors, dressmakers and seamstresses. In Prague, though, the largest fashion houses were family affairs, with sons, daughters and spouses all joining in. To see the rest of Hedy’s designs – the other four outfits – please visit my Flickr page here.
For most of us of today who do sew, it’s either a hobby, an interest, a job, or a something which fulfills our needs. But once you have read the story of “Jack Marcus’ Sewing Machine” and how he was sewing to survive death, you will never take the talent for granted. This is the first story presented in the exhibit and it could not speak any stronger for itself. I will end my post with a condensed version of the text from the card next to this amazing vintage sewing machine.
“Jack Marcus of Warsaw survived the Holocaust by perseverance and sewing for his Nazi captors. At 15, Jack fled and hid at his mother’s insistence when all the Jews in his hometown, including his family, were loaded onto trucks for execution. Knowing useful work was essential to his survival, he went to a labor camp where his father had been taken to die. Jack was soon transported to Auschwitz where he was forced to sew caps for his Nazi captors, and practice on their clothes the tailoring skills he learned from his grandfather. At the end of WWII, a battalion of American soldier liberators employed Jack as their tailor. Jack was then able to immigrate to America in 1947, and settle in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1950 where he met and married Marlene, whose family had fled from the same Polish town before the war. He continued his profession as a tailor. One of the first things he bought with his own income was this Pfaff model 60 sewing machine. After more than 30 years as his own boss as a tailor, Jack retired and devoted himself to speaking at schools about his Holocaust experiences and doing community work. Jack Marcus died on January 25, 2017 at the age of 91.” His experience is another thread in the incalculable patchwork narrative that is “Stitching Histories from the Holocaust”.