By Harriet P. Gross
Martin Greenfield came to the United States in 1947, a 19-year-old without money but with a skill that, well-honed since, has served him well. Now a proud and prosperous 86, he tells all in “Measure of a Man,” which he talked about in person during a recent appearance for Dallas’ Jewish Book Fest.
Greenfield became tailor to the rich and famous, including presidents from Eisenhower on. He immigrated too late to make suits for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had died two years earlier than his arrival.
He’s since garnered much-deserved fame, but unfortunately, another Jewish needle-trades luminary could never reach the same heights. Martin Greenfield survived the Holocaust; designer/dressmaker Hedy Strnad did not. There seems irony in the fact that President Roosevelt blocked her plea for entrance to America.
Hedy (actually Hedwig) Strnad’s prowess was belatedly recognized and honored with a recent exhibit at the Jewish Museum in Milwaukee, where she and husband Paul had cousins who were ready to welcome them as they attempted a 1939 exit from Prague. But U.S. policy at the time worked against them.
Paul Strnad knew it was important for those seeking U.S. entry to show that they could support themselves. So with his letter to the relatives, he enclosed eight of his wife’s sketches. Then why was the couple’s plea denied?
In brief: As anti-Semitism ramped up in Europe, our State Department began making it harder and harder for Jews trying to flee to gain admission here. Allowable quotas from many countries were reduced due to fear that German spies might enter the country masquerading as refugees. And Roosevelt himself wanted to cap the proportion of Jews to be included even within those reduced quotas. Another irony: In 1940, the same year the Strnads were pleading for entry, even that reduced Czechoslovak quota went unfilled.
So what happened to Hedy and her husband? No one will ever know for sure. First they were sent to Terezin, the concentration camp not far from Prague. From there, deportation to the Warsaw Ghetto. After that — maybe death there, or maybe to Treblinka for certain death.
All of that was a long time ago. But families of such victims have long memories. A Milwaukee niece, Brigette Rohaczek, shared with Yad Vashem her early recollections of Aunt Hedy’s shop, and the clothes made there for her dolls. The city’s Jewish Museum heard the story and had an idea: It contacted Milwaukee’s Repertory Theater, which agreed to have its costumers create eight outfits, based on those sketches so lovingly kept by American family members whose best efforts for salvation weren’t enough — the legacy of two people rejected for safe haven by those making the all-important decisions of their times on who could enter this country and who could not.
The run of “Stitching History From the Holocaust” ended with the month of February. It was, according to Rafael Medoff, “a fitting tribute to a life taken too soon (and) a sad reminder of a time when the U.S. government regarded Jewish refugees — even a lady tailor from Prague — as a danger.” Through blouses and blazers, A-line skirts and chic cinched waists, the exhibit was a most vivid, down-to-earth reminder for viewers of a life lost, and an exceptional talent lost with it.
Medoff directs the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, D.C., and I’m grateful to have had access to his write-up on Hedy Strnad’s history and the Milwaukee exhibition highlighting it. Listening to Martin Greenfield tell his stories, I couldn’t help but think about our Yom Kippur liturgy: “Who shall live, and who shall die…” One does, one did. The “whys,” “wheres” and “what ifs” remain forever a mystery.
Proceeds from Greenfield’s presentation at Yavneh Academy will help send its teens on the annual March of the Living, to learn firsthand about the Holocaust. What could be more — in stitchery parlance — “fitting”?