On a freezing cold morning this winter, a group of visitors gathered in a Wisconsin museum gallery, surrounded by models dressed in what would have been the latest fad – if you were in late 1930s Europe.
At first glance, it looked like the Jewish Museum in Milwaukee was hosting a standard fashion show, but the expressions on visitors’ faces revealed it wasn’t just the clothes. Behind the pretty colorful dresses, sculpted felt hats and flowery prints lies a heartbreaking tragedy.
If the story behind the exhibit were made into a film, it would likely open with a photo of Burton Strnad uncovering an old box, circa 1997. The Milwaukee lawyer was cleaning his parents’ house after they died when he was came across a box that contained a large red envelope bearing a black swastika. The reverse side of the envelope, which was sent from Czechoslovakia in 1939 to Burton’s father, Alvin, was signed by a man named Paul Strnad.
Burton (who has also since died) believed Paul was a relative, but until this day he had never heard of the man, who turned out to be his father’s cousin from Prague. Inside the envelope he found a letter, an old black-and-white photo of a man and a woman, and eight original color fashion illustrations. The high-quality paper was spotless despite the 75 years that had passed since a skillful hand painted eight women dressed in the finest fashion of the day, paying attention to every detail from hat to hairstyle. by the shoes.
The letter, which was written under the watchful eye of the Third Reich censor, contained a restricted appeal for help from Paul’s cousin in Milwaukee, Alvin. He wrote in fluent English and with an elegant hand that he wanted to leave Europe as soon as possible, and described the difficulty of finding work after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. He also described the great talent of his wife. He didn’t mention her name, probably because the cousins ââknew each other well. Paul wrote that she was a successful and well-known fashion designer in the city, and he sent her some pretty designs with the letter as proof of her ability to find a job as a designer in the United States. Paul hoped his illustrations would help Alvin get a US work visa, allowing them to escape Nazi occupation.
âI received your last letter and thank you very much for your kind care,â wrote Paul in the letter dated December 11, 1939. âI was very happy to hear that you are having difficulty obtaining an affidavit. of necessity for my wife as a seamstress. Would you be so kind as to let me know if you have had any success in this matter. You can imagine that we have a great interest in leaving Europe as soon as possible because there is no possibility of getting a job in this country. By separate mail I sent you some models of dresses that my wife made. Hope the dress maker you mentioned in your letter likes them.
Burton Strnad realized he had a valuable document in hand and donated the letter to the Milwaukee Jewish Historical Society (the museum had not yet opened). What he didn’t know was that museum staff would embark on a fascinating two-year journey of discovery that involved a team of archivists, anthropologists and experts on fashion, immigration and the Holocaust and ultimately resulted in the museum’s exhibition âStitching History of the Holocaust,â which ended on March 1 in Milwaukee and will travel this year to Detroit, Chicago and New York. There is also a digital version of the exhibit which can be viewed for free online.
One of the first steps was to determine the identity of the fashion designer in the photograph.
To do this, museum staff researched the name of Paul Strnad in the archives of Yad Vashem. Only one of those names was on it – on a testimonial page written by a woman named Brigitte Neumann, the Strnads’ niece, who became the museum’s first clue. Brigitte wrote another page dedicated to Paul’s wife, mentioning that she was a “Lady Taylor” by profession. This is how they knew the right woman had been found, and now she also had a name: Hedwig Strnad, affectionately known as Hedy.
After discovering the name of Hedwig Strnad, the museum decided to make the illustrations part of the museum’s permanent collection. To this end, the museum’s research team has started intensive research to provide visitors with additional information about the period in which they were created. Museum staff began to research the period and familiarize themselves with where the Strnads lived, using newspaper clippings, archival sources and immigration documents, in the hope of find information likely to shed light on various aspects of Hedwig’s life. .
While the museum was researching Hedy’s past, he was approached by an American student who lived in Berlin and wanted to help. He devoted himself to research and after some time informed the museum that Neumann had been found and was living in Nuremberg, Germany. She was 80 years old, but had fond memories of her aunt.
Neumann described Hedy as a strong and independent woman, full of joie de vivre, with shiny red hair, who loved to smoke, a habit that was not common among women at the time. She had a store and a fashion design studio of which she was the undisputed patron, employing a large and skilled team of seamstresses and high fashion tailors. Hedy’s loyal customers have admired his good taste and elegant writing.
Hedy and Paul, says Neumann, were a couple who always looked happy: they ran a puppet theater, and when the sewing factory was not busy, the seamstresses sewed trendy dresses for the puppets as well. only little dresses for Brigitte’s dolls. Neumann knew additional details: Hedwig was still alive in 1944.
âAt the end of 1944 she was still in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz was liberated at the end of 1945, so it was only a matter of a few months, which wasâ¦ too late,â she said.
Alvin, the Milwaukee cousin who received the letter, was unable to obtain the desired work visa despite continued efforts to help him. All his visa applications, which were later found by the museum, were rejected out of hand. With nowhere to go, the Strnads were sent to Theresienstadt and were eventually killed.
âIn this exhibition, we recognize the untold amount of talent and creativity that has been extinguished – never realizedâ¦
As museum staff watched, Hedy Strnad went from an anonymous character to a fashion designer in the flesh. The stories of his niece provided them with information not only about his personal life, but also about his professional talents and his success as a designer in a city that was at the time a true powerhouse of fashion.
The museum looked for another way to bring its past to life and ended up collaborating with the Milwaukee Repertory Theater Costume Shop, a skilled workshop with decades of experience. The costume designers took Hedy’s precise illustrations and used them as blueprints for eight complete outfits, including all accessories.
Jessica Jaeger, of the Repertory Theater, who led the project, said the costume designers decided to stick with the 1930s Prague look rather than trying to update the outfits. But the costume designers didn’t necessarily take into account all the implications of these illustrations.
âUntil now, I never even thoughtâ¦ that she drew them in the hopes of being saved,â said Alexander Tecoma, the studio’s chief designer, recently. âIt’s so horrible! With that in mind, how can you draw something that has joy? How can you create something joyful in such a dark time in your life? A lavender coat! Happy floral prints! Roses that bloom on an evening dress! Who would design them as the world crumbles around you? “
In 2014, just before the museum finished preparing the exhibition and catalog, Brigitte Neumann sent the museum another letter from 1939, which Paul had written to his father in German.
At the bottom of the letter, Ellie Gettinger, the museum’s educational director and project manager, identified an entirely different, expressive and vigorous doodle: âLove to your children, Hedyâ, written in German. The costume designers adapted the signature into a woven silk label, similar to those used by fashion designers during the days when Hedy owned a thriving fashion house.
The sewn-on label gives Hedy Strnad an act so important to most artists: leaving their signature, whether literal or figurative, on their works. Her rounded signature, full of life, makes her more human, as if she had never been wiped from the face of the earth. The garments that bring Hedy Strnad’s designs to life not only create a monument sewn into fabric, but embody the human need to mend the past, one stitch at a time.