In the late 1990s, Burton Strnad, a lawyer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was cleaning out his parent’s basement when he found a box of old letters. Inside, an envelope, bearing a Nazi stamp of censorship, held a letter dated December 11, 1939.
The letter, written Paul Strnad, Burton’s cousin from Czechoslovakia, was addressed to Alvin, Burton’s father. Using vague language, likely to bypass S.S. representatives reading Czechoslovakian mail, Paul asked for assistance in escaping the Nazi-occupied country. (A year earlier, the Munich Agreement was signed, granting parts of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany.) Other letters described the state of Prague in the late 1930s, where Paul was witnessing the hovering fate of Jews; he noted Prague’s attitude with the German presence had “anti-Semitic tendencies,” and that a “catastrophe has overtaken our country, a catastrophe which has upset our whole life.”
Remarkably, included with the letters were sketches from his wife, Hedy, an acclaimed fashion designer and tailor. Both Hedy and Paul were killed in the Holocaust.
In 1997, Burton turned Hedy’s sketches over to a local historian, and they ended up in the Jewish Museum Milwaukee. Finally, in 2014, the museum teamed up with the Milwaukee Repertory Theater to bring the sketches to life. The result—eight outfits featuring tailored blazers, A-line dresses, and chic fascinators, as well as an exhibit tracing the fateful trail of Paul, Hedy and countless other Czechoslovakian Jews during the Holocaust—are now on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan, on loan from the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, where it’s a permanent fixture.
The exhibit, Stitching History from the Holocaust, is in New York until August, and will then travel to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and then to the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach. No matter where it’s seen, however, the aim of the exhibit remains the same: piecing together the life of Hedy Strnad. With additional family letters, research from Yad VaShem, and additional information from Hedy’s niece in Germany, researchers have put together a vivid picture. Hedy was a redhead, her real name was Hedwig, and she owned a small studio in Prague. The designs don’t just resurrect Hedy’s talent; they exemplify one life, out of six million.
“It humanizes the number,” said Danielle Charlap, Associate Curator at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. “It’s hard for people to wrap their heads around the loss. But here is one tangible example, from one couple’s journey.”
While some of the Strnad family immigrated to America in the 1860s, around 80 percent of those who remained in Bohemia disappeared during World War II, said Karen Strnad, the 50-year-old daughter of Burton Strnad who lives in Austin, Texas. She said the fate of her European family remained largely a mystery until research for this exhibit was done.
In the case of Paul and Hedy Strnad, the duo was transported to Theresienstadt, and then to the Warsaw Ghetto. They either perished there, or in Treblinka. Paul was writing to Alvin who was in America; he sought help in obtaining a visa but Alvin was unable to secure one for his cousins, likely because of the strict quota the United States government enforced.
For Karen Strnad, Hedy’s designs, a part of her family’s past, are now a window into the future.
“I’m sad for my family’s loss but I’m happy Hedy’s creativity lives through her dresses,” she said. “They are a reminder of prejudice and persecution, and send an important message to the world.”
Chavie Lieber has written for The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Daily Beast, the Huffington Post, Business Insider, the Times of Israel, and more. Follow her on twitter @chavielieber.