Stitching History from the Holocaust

Jewish Museum Milwaukee
Milwaukee, WI

Six million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. Each had a story and a life, yet for too many of them, we are left with only the sparest of remnants. Hedwig “Hedy” Strnad was a dressmaker and designer in pre-World War II Prague. Stitching History from the Holocaust documents and commemorates her life and work.

In December 1939, nine months after the German army invaded Prague, Paul Strnad wrote a letter to his cousin, Alvin, in Milwaukee asking for help obtaining documents to enable their emigration. Hoping his wife’s talents as a dress designer might help them obtain passage, he sent along a sampling of her sketches of designs perfectly suited for social events of the 1940s. Paul and Hedy were both sent to Theresienstadt in 1942. They are just two of the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust.

In 2014 Jewish Museum Milwaukee created a changing exhibit featuring dresses based on Hedy’s design. This exhibit took five years to research and construct. The museum contracted the Milwaukee Repertory Theater Costume Shop to create the one-of-a-kind ensembles that have truly resonated with thousands of visitors. The display is simple, with eight mannequins showcasing Hedy’s beautiful designs. They created panels that explain the Strnad story and contextualize the story of Hedy and Paul and the many talents that were lost. There is also a short intro video and a digital exhibit (available at http://stitchinghistory.org/) to expand access to this story of the intangible loss of the Holocaust.

Through the Strnad story, the museum approaches broader themes like the challenges of immigration during the 1930s and 1940s, the War’s impact on the fashion industry in Europe, Czech Jewish history, and the legacy of genocide. Using these two people as an example, the museum was able to humanize the mass loss of the Holocaust in a way that emphasizes the individuality of victims and the lost potential that vanished along with them.