A traveling exhibit, “Stitching History from the Holocaust” at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU in Miami Beach through March 19, finds a novel way of showing what the world lost: displaying eight dresses created from sketches of a fashion designer who perished in the Holocaust.
The exhibit is running in conjunction with an exhibition on Florida’s contributions to the fashion scene.
The captivating story of the dresses that make up “Stitching History from the Holocaust” began decades ago, with a family divided between two continents and two destinies.
In the winter of 1939, Paul Strnad, who was living in Prague, wrote to his cousin Alvin in Milwaukee, WI, to obtain an affidavit to help him and his wife Hedwig – or Hedy as she was called – escape the rise of Nazism. Paul sent Alvin sketches of Hedwig’s clothing designs, in the hopes that these examples of her work would provide evidence of their financial wherewithal. Despite Alvin’s best efforts to obtain visas for the couple, Paul and Hedy perished in the Holocaust.
Years later, the sketches were discovered by Alvin’s family members, and, thanks to the efforts of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Hedy’s drawings were brought to life. Her designs were the height of fashion for 1939, but the clothing also provides a window into the lives of Jews in Prague on the eve of World War II. They also attest to the dynamism of the Prague fashion industry before the Holocaust and reflect the styles of designers in the fashion centers of Europe in the 1930s and 40s.
Besides telling Hedy’s personal story, the eight dresses reveal another significant chain of events. Along with the loss of 6 million Jewish lives, the Holocaust extinguished an incalculable amount of talent and creativity. As the New York Times’ review of this award-winning exhibit states, “The fashions are both text and textile, a story of life and death told in fabric.”
Why were the Strnads denied admission to the United States? America’s immigration laws at the time made it difficult for refugees such as the Strnads to enter, and the way Franklin Roosevelt’s administration implemented those laws made it even harder.
In an internal memo in 1940, the year the Strnads attempted to immigrate, Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long sketched out his department’s policy to “delay and effectively stop” refugee immigration by putting “every obstacle in the way,” such as requiring additional documents and resorting to “various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.”
Even though there was room in the Czech immigrant quota that year, and even though Hedy was a successful businesswoman and the couple had relatives in the United States, the Strnads’ applications were turned down.
Shortly after, the administration pushed through the “close relatives” edict, as it was called, which barred the entry of anyone who had close relatives in Europe. The theory was that the Nazis might take their relatives hostage in order to force them to become spies for Hitler.
With all doors shut, the fate of Paul and Hedy – and countless other Jewish refugees – was sealed. They were sent first to the Terezin concentration camp, an hour north of Prague. Then they were deported to the Warsaw Ghetto. What exactly happened next is unclear. They may have been murdered in Warsaw, or they may have been deported, along with the other Jews of Warsaw, to the Treblinka death camp and perished.
Information from the JTA news service was used in this report.