Stories that Consider the Future

Globalization, technology, the aging of the work force… so much is changing, affecting what work will look like in the future. Read stories that reflect on the future of work. What choices and opportunities will young people have? What do we value?

 

What Survives: Hedwig Strnad’s Dresses

Stitching History from the Holocaust exhibition at the Jewish Museum MilwaukeeWhat will be left of our work when we are gone? Will the fruits of our labor remain in the future, a testament to our talents and efforts?

Some of us count our family as our life’s work. Others can look to a highway, a farm, or a business and say “I helped to build that.” Even if we haven’t published books or designed buildings, the work we’ve done often lives on after we pass.

The Jewish Museum Milwaukee has created an exhibition around the sketches of a seamstress and fashion designer who died in the Holocaust. The documents have been part of the Museum’s archives since before it opened and were central to the permanent collection. They helped to illustrate the incredible amount of talent that was lost in the Holocaust. When a visitor suggested that the dresses be made, the Museum began further research into the story of the sketches in order to develop the exhibition “Stitching History from the Holocaust.”  The WHC is proud to have given a grant for the project.

Putting Talents to the Test

Hedwig (‘Hedy’) Strnad and her husband were Czechoslovakian Jews living in Prague. Hedy was an independent dressmaker with her own shop. Before the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, Jews had full citizenship rights as a recognized minority. Under German occupation, the discriminatory Nuremberg Laws denied Jews the most basic human rights and many, including the Strnads, found themselves unemployed.

Hedy’s husband Paul had a cousin in Milwaukee, to whom he wrote asking for help. Hedy was still able to do piecework, getting paid a small sum for her sewing, but Paul had no work. In the letter, Paul sent some sketches of Hedy’s dress designs.  Still recovering from the Depression, the United States was giving out a limited number of visas. People who wanted to immigrate tried to prove they would not be a financial burden. The illustrations were meant to show that Hedy, and Paul, would be employable in the United States. 

A Life and Work in Context

“It was only in [Hedy’s] lifetime that Jews in her city had been able to become actual fashion ‘stars.’”

An essay by textile and fashion historian Beverly Gordon in the exhibition catalog puts the dress sketches into context. “Hedwig’s designs were upbeat and attractive,” though they ultimately were not enough to catch the eye of an American dress manufacturer who could have brought the couple to the United States. 

“Tailoring and dressmaking had long been understood in Eastern Europe as Jewish professions, with entire families often engaged in clothing production,” Gordon writes, though “it was only in [Hedy’s] lifetime that Jews in her city had been able to become actual fashion ‘stars.'”

In the 19th century there was a rise in clothing factories, many run by entrepreneurial Jews, “and by the end of that century, several Jewish families established couture houses that became vital parts of Prague society.” Prague couture “was completely current with international style trends, but maintained its exquisite Czech tailoring and a unique local flavor.” The majority of women had their clothes made by independent dressmakers who copied and adapted the styles of the times. Hedy’s sketches, along with what was discovered through the Museum’s research, help to put Hedy’s life and work into context.

The Jewish Museum partnered with the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Costume Shop to have Hedy’s dress designs created, with attention to every detail. Though Hedy’s life was cut short, and her story stands for all that was lost as a consequence of the Holocaust and the war, some example of her work now lives on into the future. 

Photo of “Stitching History from the Holocaust” image by Dan Zaitz used with permission.