A Stitch in Time
Broken Threads: The Destruction of the Jewish Fashion Industry in Germany and Austria
Edited by Roberta S. Kremer
Berg, 136 pages, 29.95.
No one can accuse Magda Goebbels of having been impervious to the damage wrought on Kristallnacht. “What a nuisance,” Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels’s wife said upon hearing that a clothier she favored, Berlin’s Salon Kohnen, was being forced to close up shop. “We all know that when the Jews go, so will Berlin’s elegance.”
As this new book on the destruction of the German Jewish fashion industry makes clear, Frau Goebbels knew what she talking about. Among prewar Germany’s fields of endeavor, few had as profound a Jewish presence as the rag trade. Germany was home to some 100,000 Jewish enterprises, more than half of which were retail clothing stores. Among department or chain stores, more than 80% were owned by Jews.
Though it had its origins in 19th-century Paris, the department store concept was quickly embraced and expanded by 20th-century German Jews. The new stores revolutionized not just the shopping experience but the very feel of the German city. Innovative architecturally, they became centers of Weimar life. “The time at Wertheim department store flies by,” said Gustav Stresemann, who briefly was Germany’s chancellor. “Instead of buying that tie one came for in the first place, you head home with a bundle of the most diverse things. You promise never to be so frivolous again, but as soon as you enter a department store, the game begins over.” By 1927, Berlin’s Wertheim was Europe’s largest department store.
Well before the Nazis came to power, they took aim at the new stores, which they tarred as agents of modernism and contrary to German values. The campaign made for good politics. Among those who had the most trouble finding a place for themselves in the world of 1920s Germany were middle-class tradesmen hurt by the department store’s rise. Within months of coming to power in 1933, the Nazis — through boycotts, vandalism and punitively high taxes — brought the department stores to the verge of bankruptcy.
Jewish innovation came not only in the realm of shopping venues but also in the clothes themselves. Jews took fashion, once the province of only the upper classes, and democratized it by developing ready-to-wear lines in standardized sizes, appetizingly known in German as Konfektion. The popularity of the new lines made matters difficult for the Nazis, for their gripe with Jewish fashion went well beyond mere economics. As the Nazi machine gained steam, the idea that German women’s bodies would — however indirectly — be dressed by Jewish hands became untenable.
Already in May 1933, a group of manufacturers banded together with an eye toward breaking the Jewish “stranglehold” on the fashion industry. Known by the acronym Adefa, the group met with some early difficulties — their shows were attended poorly, their designs were not taken seriously — but with time, their goals were realized. By 1939, the German fashion industry was Judenrein.
In reading this beautifully presented, lushly illustrated book (originally an exhibition at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre), one is reminded of just how frequently the language of needlework is — often unwittingly — invoked in discussions of Nazi Germany: civilization’s unraveling, the fraying of the fabric of society. With this book, a small corner of a lost world can perhaps be said to have been stitched together again.