Holocaust-era Dress Designs Immortalized in Museum

Hedy Strnad died in the Holocaust, but the dresses she designed in an attempt to find a job in America live on at the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee.

Hedy Strnad's dresses
Hedy Strnad's dresses Screenshot

Hedwig Strnad, nicknamed Hedy, was a Jewish seamstress and wannabe dress designer in pre-World War II Czechoslovakia.

When the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939, Hedy and her husband Paul were among the thousands of Jews who applied for visas to leave the country.
They turned to Paul's cousin, Alvin, living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

“You may imagine that we have a great interest of leaving Europe as soon as possible,” Paul wrote to a letter to Alvin on December 11, 1939.

Included in the letter were detailed drawings of eight, modern dresses, designed by Hedy, which Paul hoped would help them get a job with a company in Milwaukee – and the precious U.S. visas.

“I hope the dress manufacturers you mentioned in your letter will like them,” Paul wrote.

Alvin was unable to arrange a job and visas in time. Both Paul and Hedy died in the Holocaust.

But the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee has managed to fulfill Hedy's dream by creating dresses based on her designs and putting them on display in the museum, 85 years after she sent them to America.

“We had a wonderful opportunity to fulfill a victim’s dream,” says the museum's director Kathy Bernstein.

Together with the costume director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Bernstein put together a museum exhibit starring the dresses. Titled Stitching History From the Holocaust, the exhibit at the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee will run through February 2015.

"It’s happy but it’s haunting, too," Bernstein says about the exhibition. "It’s a haunting thing.”

The story of the dresses was reported by PBS Newshour in collaboration with Milwaukee Public Television.