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Family history comes to life: Dress designs lost in Holocaust uncovered

November 15, 2014 at 4:43 PM EDT
When the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939, tens of thousands of Jews applied for visas to anywhere. Among them, Paul Strnad and his wife Hedy, a dress designer. Ultimately, neither would get a visa to leave Czechoslovakia. Now, in an exhibit called "Stitching History from the Holocaust," the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee is displaying the dresses Hedy once designed and could never realize. NewsHour special correspondent Martin Fletcher reports in collaboration with Milwaukee Public Television.

Watch the full documentary by Milwaukee Public Television here.

MARTIN FLETCHER: When the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939, tens of thousands of Jews applied for visas to anywhere.

And among them, Paul Strnad and his wife Hedwig, nicknamed Hedy. Their best hope to save their lives was help from their cousin Alvin, thousands of miles away in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

So on December 11, 1939, Paul wrote him this letter.

NARRATOR: “You may imagine that we have a great interest of leaving Europe as soon as possible.”

MARTIN FLETCHER: And Paul hoped he had an ace up his sleeve. These drawings. Eight beautiful dresses. And all accessories, down to hat pins and shoes, purses and gloves. Modern. Elegant. His wife Hedy was a seamstress — a dress designer.

Could Alvin find a firm in Milwaukee who’d hire Hedy and sign an affidavit to grant the couple visas to the US?

In his letter, Paul wrote:

NARRATOR: “I hope the dress manufacturers you mentioned in your letter will like them.”

MARTIN FLETCHER: Karen Strnad is Alvin’s granddaughter.

KAREN STRNAD: “It was a letter that was pleading for, you know, a savior, for you know survival. And using the dresses as a tool to be able to get out of there.”

MARTIN FLETCHER: Alvin Strnad tried to find Hedy a job and visas for them both. But too late.

Paul was declared dead January 31, 1943. Murdered in either the Treblinka concentration camp or the Warsaw Ghetto. Hedy’s fate is unclear, but her dresses live on.

Almost sixty years later, Karen’s parents found the letter in the basement, complete with a Nazi censor’s swastika stamp, and the colorful drawings.

KAREN STRNAD: “The dresses represent prejudice and persecution and what was lost in the Holocaust because of it. The dresses represent love.”

MARTIN FLETCHER: The Strnads gave the letter and dress designs to what is today the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee, just another painful link to the past.

Until one day a visitor had an idea. Why not make the dresses?

KATHIE BERNSTEIN, JEWISH MUSEUM OF MILWAUKEE: “We had a wonderful opportunity to fulfill a victim’s dream.”

MARTIN FLETCHER: So when Kathie Bernstein, the museum’s director, met the costume director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, she didn’t hesitate.

KATHIE BERNSTEIN, JEWISH MUSEUM OF MILWAUKEE: “I said, ‘We want to create an exhibit. We want to show — to have a tangible example of what has been lost in the Holocaust, and is this something the Rep can do? Well she said ‘Absolutely.’”

MARTIN FLETCHER: And the rest, as they say, is history.

The Milwaukee Rep began a labor of love.

KATHIE BERNSTEIN: “They became filled with Hedwig’s story. And it became personal for them.”

MARTIN FLETCHER: Then hard work paid off; a researcher found a letter from Hedy and bit by bit Hedy Strnad took shape.

KATHIE BERNSTEIN: “We found out she had red hair and that she smoked cigarettes, and that she had a sense of humor.”

MARTIN FLETCHER: Today the dresses with their accessories, Hedy’s last hope for survival, are the stars of an exhibit in the Milwaukee Jewish Museum called Stitching History From the Holocaust, running through February 2015.

KATHIE BERNSTEIN: It’s happy but it’s haunting, too. It’s a haunting thing.”

MARTIN FLETCHER: And inspiring too. For Karen Strnad, family history come to life, in the most personal way.

KAREN STRNAD: “When I put the dress on it fit me perfectly. The whole thing is surreal. The torch has been passed. It was passed from Hedy’s dress designs that she created in Bohemia to her husband to my great grandfather, who started this process in terms of starting the immigration application process in the United States.”

MARTIN FLETCHER: Among those admiring the dresses: family members who never knew their murdered relatives, didn’t know their story — and now do.

KAREN STRNAD: “History is ongoing — what we see here is history is ongoing. This is never gonna die. And we have to keep telling the story so that history does not repeat itself.”