While cleaning out his mother’s basement, Burt Strnad, a Milwaukee attorney, came across an envelope from his father’s cousin, Paul Strnad, a Jewish man residing in Czechoslovakia during World War II. In the letter he avoids Nazi censorship by using his wife’s desire to pursue a career in fashion design as a reason to immigrate to America. Also enclosed in the envelope was a collection of his wife’s designs to prove her talent.
The envelope’s contents launched the search of Ellie Gettinger, Jewish Museum Milwaukee education director, to discover the story behind the unnamed wife and develop an exhibit around it for the museum. Through the efforts of museum staff and the Milwaukee Repertory Theater costume design department, the exhibit that emerged is called “Stitching History for the Holocaust.”
The University of Wisconsin Ruth Davis Design Gallery welcomed the traveling exhibit on Sept. 11 by adding the work of UW design students to the installation.
The exhibit launched with a panel discussion featuring Gettinger, Kathie Bernstein, past Jewish Museum Milwaukee director, Molly Dubin, museum curator, and Carol Ross, UW alumnae and Milwaukee Rep costumes stitcher. The panelists discussed the creation of “Stitching History for the Holocaust” and the importance of UW design students’ participation in the traveling exhibit’s current home.
“How many of us have a box of something in the basement we don’t pay attention to?” Bernstein said.“…What if Burt Strnad hadn’t saved that packet? So today we have an exhibit that is here in Madison plus the fabulous, fabulous designs from the students, and they learned from it the story of Holocaust and intolerance.”
Keira Hockers, UW junior studying textiles and fashion design, said she was introduced to “Stitching History from the Holocaust” last fall in a design studies course. Students were asked to create pieces of clothing with a contemporary spin on the illustrations of Paul’s wife and 1930s and ‘40s fashion to incorporate into the exhibit.
When the Jewish Museum Milwaukee initially opened in April 2008, the letter and design drawings were included but with more questions about their owners’ backgrounds than answers. Gettinger tracked down the name of Paul’s wife, Hedy, through the digital database of Yad Vashem, a major Holocaust memorial museum in Israel, but reached a roadblock when she could not find current contact information for Brigitte Rohaczek Neumann, the Strnads’ niece who filed information about them for the database. Gettinger could only confirm that Neumann lived in Nuremberg, Germany before 1989.
After Gettinger’s mother suggested creating Hedy’s designs to enhance the exhibit, Gettinger enlisted the help of an intern in October 2013 to search for Paul and Hedy’s niece while studying abroad in Germany. He managed to find Neumann’s contact information and interview her in person.
At the age of 83, Neumann was asked to remember details about her aunt and uncle who she had not seen in more than 70 years. From describing Hedy’s red hair to her jolly mood, Gettinger said she provided important details that brought Hedy to life. She also described her aunt’s studio where she had multiple employees— proving Hedy was a professional designer. Neumann also gifted the exhibit with a letter from her aunt and uncle detailing their efforts to escape the country prior to World War II.
While Gettinger spent a year piecing together Hedy’s story, the Milwaukee Rep costume department created two copies of each of Hedy’s fashions designs. Ross described the difficult task of making authentic 1930s pieces of clothing without the ability to consult the designer for input.
“For the theater we always have a designer and we can ask them, ‘Okay so what does the back look like?’ but we had no idea what did she want for the back, what did she want for the fabric… and how was she thinking of executing some of these things,” Ross said.
Prior to the 2014 museum exhibit opening, Hedy’s signature was extracted from the letter and stitched into the clothing label to give her full credit for the designs.
Hockers said she enjoyed creating a piece for the exhibition at UW because the prompt demanded that she pay attention to another designer instead of a target customer.
“I think the coolest part of this project was the fact that it wasn’t really rooted in ourselves,” Hockers said. “It was a project that we could really focus on someone else and on someone else’s history and on honoring that and then contemporizing it.”
The exhibit is on display through Nov. 13.
Photos taken by Margaret Duffey