CEDAR RAPIDS — In 1939, a Jewish man living in Prague named Paul Strnad sent letters to family in the United States. Czech Jews were facing increasing persecution; his family had lost their jobs, and he was helping his wife Hedwig make artificial leather and silk flowers to get by. Before the Nazi invasion, Hedwig, called Hedy, was a dress maker with her own studio, and he sent along drawings for dresses she had designed.
The Strnads were hoping their family could help them get visas to the United States. That didn’t happen; with strict immigration quotas and anti-Semitism in the United States, few Czechs were allowed into the country that year. The couple were deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp, called Terezin in Czech, and they died in the Warsaw ghetto in 1942.
But the dresses Hedwig Strnad designed live on, and are on display in a new exhibit, “Stitching History From the Holocaust,” at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library.
“It’s an important story featuring a woman who lived in Prague. It’s her story of trying to escape from Czechoslovakia in 1939,” museum curator Stefanie Kohn said. “They didn’t get out, and she and her husband eventually died, but these designs and her story live on.”
After Paul Strnad mailed the designs to his cousin in Milwaukee, they ended up in a basement and were discovered decades later, when they were donated to the Jewish Museum Milwaukee. The museum partnered with the Milwaukee Repertory Theater Costume Shop to bring them to life. People at the costume shop did extensive research on the materials and techniques available in 1939, researching vintage patterns and finishing the cloth with silk screen printing and hand painting to match Strnad’s drawings. They created a label for each dress with a signature copied from the Strnad’s letters.
“It just wound up resulting in this extraordinary body of materials, these new artifacts that are part of this legacy of memory,” said Molly Dubin, curator at Jewish Museum Milwaukee.
A binder with copies of the drawings and fabric swatches is part of the display for people who want to feel the materials and get a closer look at the drawings.
The Jewish Museum Milwaukee has loaned the dresses to the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, where they will be on display through March 21. The museum is open to the public for normal hours at this time.
The Strnads were sent to the Terezin concentration camp alongside many artists and musicians. The soundtrack playing in the background of the exhibit is a recording of music written by prisoners a the camp. On one wall are reproductions of children’s drawings made in the camp, from the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library’s collection.
They were made between 1943 and 1944 as part of art classes taught to children imprisoned there by artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis.
She hid the drawings in two suitcases in the children’s dormitory before she and the majority of her students were sent to Auschwitz, where they were killed in gas chambers.
Kohn said the drawings, the music and the dress designs are small windows into the potential future creations lost when whole generations of Jewish life were destroyed in Europe.
“The human life that was lost was a tragedy, but the human ideas and creativity and solutions died, too,” Kohn said. “This exhibit is this woman’s individual story but also the bigger story.”
Dubin said she hopes seeing the dresses helps convey that loss.
“We were bringing to fruition a dream that was never realized, bringing Hedy’s creation to the world, and we had to do it justice,” she said. “It very much is a story of lost talent, the idea of bringing talent to life. We have this cultural, intellectual void with everything that was extinguished in the Holocaust.”
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