Along with the slaughter of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, the Nazis also destroyed an unfathomable trove of art, music, literature and scientific discoveries, extinguished before they ever had the chance of emerging from the souls within whom they were stowed.
But once in a while, we get a chance to see what could have been.
“Stitching History from the Holocaust,” an exhibit currently at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, provides an exquisite glimpse into the work of Hedy Strnad, a clothing designer from Prague. Based on her drawings, the exhibit includes eight dresses she did not live to create.
On loan from the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, “Stitching History from the Holocaust” opened in Pittsburgh on Oct. 16 and will run through December.
The dresses were created by the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, which — working with the Jewish Museum Milwaukee — conducted historical research to ensure that the dresses stayed true to design elements and fabrics employed during the 1930s, when Hedy, who had a small shop in Prague, was in the height of her career as a dress designer.
The sharp attention to detail includes hand-painted zippers, as were common in the ’30s, according to Jackie Reese, the Holocaust Center’s marketing and education associate. A “Hedy Original” label has been sewn onto each dress.
The genesis of the exhibit was the 1997 discovery by the Strnad family in Milwaukee of an envelope with a Nazi seal tucked away in the family’s basement. The envelope contained a letter written in 1939 by Hedy’s husband, Paul Strnad, asking his cousin Alvin for help in procuring an affidavit to escape Czechoslovakia, which was then occupied by the Nazis. In the letter, Paul wrote that his wife was a dressmaker, and he included eight of her drawings to prove that she was talented and would be able to find work in the United States.
The Strnad family donated the letter to Milwaukee’s Jewish Historical Society, and in 2008, when the Jewish Museum Milwaukee opened, it became part of the museum’s permanent collection.
The exhibit’s opening here drew about 75 visitors, who were presented with a talk by Helen Epstein, the author of the memoir “Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for her Mother’s History.”
“There were thousands of pre-war Jewish dressmakers in Central Europe like Hedy and my grandmother Pepi, who were murdered during the Holocaust,” Epstein wrote in an email. “There were also dressmakers like my mother Franci who survived the war (some because they were able to use their sewing skills), and later supported their refugee families by making dresses in the U.S. and elsewhere. Displaying their work and educating people about their lives preserves the lives and talents of gifted women rather than abstractions and suggests some of the scope of what was lost.”
Prague was a fashion hub in the early 20th century, but following the war and the communist takeover in 1948 it did not reestablish itself.
Shining a light on Hedy’s individual story helps make the Holocaust more “tangible” to those who are learning about that time in history, said Lauren Bairnsfather, director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. Research shows that people “connect more with the story of one person than of more people, even three people.”
The exhibit includes photos of Hedy and Paul, and a reproduction of the letter he wrote to his cousin Alvin requesting help to get out of Prague. The letter, said Bairnsfather, illustrates “how difficult it was for Jewish refugees trying to get out of Europe and come to the United States. It was late, and war was on the horizon. And we were isolationists in this country.”
A glimpse of cosmopolitan Jewish life is also evident in the exhibit, Bairnsfather said, adding another dimension to the time period that students may not learn about during Holocaust units at school.
“In schools, there is not much time to teach the Holocaust, and teachers sometimes can’t fit in what Jews were like in Europe,” she said. “The Strnads were successful people in Prague, so it’s not just about Jews in the shtetl.”
Following the exhibit’s run in Pittsburgh, it will head to the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center and the Jewish Museum Maryland.
“One theme that emerges so strongly from this exhibit is this incredible loss of talent,” Bairnsfather said. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at