On a freezing morning this winter a group of visitors gathered at a museum gallery in Wisconsin, surrounded by mannequins dressed in what would have been the latest fashion — if you were in the Europe of the late 1930s.
At first glance it looked like the Jewish Museum Milwaukee was putting on a standard fashion show, but the expressions on the faces of the visitors revealed that this wasn’t all about the clothes. Behind the pretty and colorful dresses, the sculpted felt hats and the flower prints lies a heartbreaking tragedy.
If the story behind the exhibit were made into a movie, it would probably open with a shot of Burton Strnad discovering an old box, circa 1997. The Milwaukee lawyer was clearing out his parents’ house after their deaths when he stumbled on a box that contained a large red envelope bearing a black swastika. The back 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 since also died) figured Paul was a relative, but until that 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, full-color fashion illustrations. The high-quality paper was unblemished in spite of the 75 years that had passed since a skilled hand had painted eight women dressed in the finest fashion of the day, paying attention to the smallest details, from the hat to the hairdo to the shoes.
The letter, which was written under the watchful eye of the Third Reich censor, contained a restrained plea for the help of Paul’s Milwaukee cousin Alvin. He wrote in fluent English and a stylish 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 his wife’s great talent. He didn’t mention her name, probably because the cousins knew each other well. Paul wrote that she was a successful and well-known fashion designer in the city, and he sent her lovely designs along with the letter as proof of her ability to find employment as a designer in the United States. Paul hoped that her illustrations would help Alvin get them an American work visa, enabling them to escape from the Nazi occupation.
“I received your last letter and thank you very much for your kind care,” Paul wrote in the letter, dated December 11, 1939. “I was very glad to hear that you are troubling to get an affidavit of necessity for my wife as a dress-designer. Would you be so kind as to let me know if you have had any success in this matter. You may imagine that we have a great interest of leaving Europe as soon as possible because there is no possibility of getting a position in this country. By separate mail I have sent you some dress-designs my wife made. I hope the dress manufacturer you mentioned in your letter will like them.”
Burton Strnad realized he had a valuable document in hand and donated the letter to the Milwaukee Jewish Historical Society (the museum had yet to open). What he didn’t know was that the 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 eventually gave rise to the museum exhibit “Stitching History from the Holocaust,” which closed March 1 in Milwaukee and will be traveling this year to Detroit, Chicago and New York. There is also a digital version of the exhibit that can be viewed for free online.
One of the first steps was figuring out the identity of the fashion designer in the photograph.
To do that, the museum staff looked for Paul Strnad’s name in the Yad Vashem archive. Only one such name appeared there — on a page of testimony written by a woman named Brigitte Neumann, the Strnads’ niece, which became the museum’s first clue. Brigitte wrote another page dedicated to Paul’s wife, mentioning that she was a “Lady Taylor” by profession. That’s how they knew the right woman had been found, and now she also had a name: Hedwig Strnad, affectionately known as Hedy.
After discovering Hedwig Strnad’s name the museum decided to make the illustrations a part of the museum’s permanent collection. For that purpose the museum’s team of researchers began intensive research to provide visitors with additional background on the period in which they were created. The museum staff began to research the period and to familiarize themselves with the place where the Strnads lived, using newspaper clippings, archival sources and immigration papers, in the hope of finding any sliver of information that would shed more light on various aspects of Hedwig’s life.
As the museum was researching Hedy’s past, it was approached by an American college student who lived in Berlin and wanted to help. He devoted himself to the search and after a while informed the museum that Neumann had been found and was living in Nuremberg, Germany. She was 80, but had a good memory of her aunt.
Neumann described Hedy as a strong and independent woman, full of joie de vivre, with bright red hair, who liked to smoke, a habit that wasn’t common among women at the time. She had a store and an atelier for fashion design where she was the unquestioned boss, employing a large and skilled team of haute couture seamstresses and tailors. Hedy’s faithful customers admired her fine taste and her stylish handwriting.
Hedy and Paul, said Neumann, were a couple who always looked happy: They ran a puppet theater, and when the sewing factory wasn’t busy the seamstresses would sew fashionable dresses for the marionettes as well as small dresses for Brigitte’s dolls. Neumann knew additional details: Hedwig was still alive in 1944.
“At the end of 1944 she was still in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz was liberated at the end of 1945, so it was just a matter of a few months, which was… too late,” she said.
Alvin, the cousin from Milwaukee who received the letter, was unable to obtain the desired work visa in spite of continued efforts to help. All his visa requests, which were later found by the museum, were rejected out of hand. With nowhere to go, the Strnads were sent to Theresienstadt and eventually killed.
“In this exhibition we acknowledge the incalculable amount of talent and creativity that were extinguished — never to be realized…to honor those whose talent was not allowed to be brought to fruition, and was lost in the Holocaust,” said museum curator Molly Dubin.
Before the eyes of the museum staff Hedy Strnad was transformed from an anonymous figure to a flesh-and-blood fashion designer. Her niece’s stories provided them with background not only about her personal life but also about her professional talents and her success as a designer in a city that was a real fashion powerhouse at the time.
The museum looked for another way to bring her past to life and ended up collaborating with the costume shop of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, a skilled workshop with decades of experience. The costume makers took Hedy’s precise illustrations and used them as blueprints for eight complete outfits, including all the accessories.
The repertory theater’s Jessica Jaeger, who directed the project, says the costume makers decided to remain faithful to the look of 1930s Prague rather than attempt to update the ensembles. But the costume designers didn’t necessarily consider all the implications of those illustrations.
“It never even crossed my mind until now…that she drew these out of hope to be saved,” Alexander Tecoma, the head designer in the workshop, said recently. “It’s so horrible! With that in mind, how can you draw something that has joy in it? How can you create something joyful in a time of your life that is so dark? A lavender coat! Joyful floral prints! Roses blooming on an evening dress! Who would design these when the world is crumbling around you?”
In 2014, right before the museum finished preparing the exhibition and the catalogue, Brigitte Neumann sent the museum another letter from 1939, which Paul had written to her father in German.
At the bottom of the letter Ellie Gettinger, who serves as the museum’s education director and was in charge of the project, identified a scrawl in an entirely different hand, expressive and vigorous: “Love to your children, Hedy,” written in German. The costume makers adapted the signature into a woven silk label, similar to those used by fashion designers in the days when Hedy owned a flourishing fashion house.
The sewn label restores to Hedy Strnad an act that is so important to most artists: leaving their signature, whether literal or figurative, on their works. Her rounded signature, full of life, makes her seem more human, as though she was never erased from the face of the earth. The clothes that bring Hedy Strnad’s designs to fruition not only create a monument sewn in fabric but embody the human need to mend the past, one stitch at a time.