The Eight Dresses That Brought a Holocaust Victim’s Story to Life

The Eight Dresses That Brought a Holocaust Victim’s Story to Life

Burton Strnad was cleaning out his parents’ Wisconsin home when he found a letter, sent from Prague in 1939 and stamped with a Nazi swastika. Inside was a desperate plea for help from his father’s cousin, Paul, and eight watercolor sketches—dresses designed by Paul’s wife.

It would take 10 years to unravel the truth of what happened to Paul and the talented dressmaker, a story we featured in the October/November 2016 issue of Mysterious Ways magazine—a mystery that inspired the creation of the dresses for the Jewish Museum Milwaukee’s Stitching History from the Holocaust exhibit.Diana Aydin

  • A photograph of Paul and Hedwig Strnad, paired with Paul's letter

    The Strnads and the Letter

    Burton found the letter in his parents’ basement. It was dated December 11, 1939, nine months after Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. Paul wrote to Burton’s father for help securing employment and visas to the U.S. for him and his wife, a dress designer.

  • A dress (left) based on one of Hedwig's designs (right)

    Dress No. 1

    “I was very glad to hear that you are troubling to get an affidavit of necessity for my wife as a dress-designer,” Paul wrote to Burton’s father. “You may imagine that we have a great interest of leaving Europe as soon as possible because there is no possibility of getting a position in this country. By separate mail I have sent you some dress-designs my wife made.” 

  • A dress (left) based on one of Hedwig's designs (right)

    Dress No. 2

    Burton knew little about Paul or his wife—the letter didn’t mention her name. His father had passed away. He gave the letter and dress designs to a Milwaukee archivist. Ten years later, the Jewish Museum Milwaukee opened its doors and the letter and sketches became one of the most popular displays.

  • A dress (left) based on one of Hedwig's designs (right)

    Dress No. 3

    Ellie Gettinger, the museum’s education director, was particularly struck by the beauty of the designs. Her mother’s grandmothers had been dressmakers in Russia. “You could be doing so much more with this exhibit,” her mother told her. “You can make these dresses.” But whose dresses were they?

  • A dress (left) based on one of Hedwig's designs (right)

    Dress No. 4

    Ellie turned to the World Holocaust Remembrance Center’s name database and found a page of testimony filed by Paul’s niece, a woman named Brigitte Rohaczek. The document confirmed Paul had been married to a “Lady Taylor” named Hedwig. According to the testimony, the couple was deported to the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 and most likely died there or the Treblinka concentration camp.

  • A dress (left) based on one of Hedwig's designs (right)

    Dress No. 5

    Ellie tried to find Brigitte, who lived in Germany, but the search went nowhere. In October 2013, Tyler Grasee, a student at Lawrence University, emailed Ellie about an internship at the museum for the following summer. It struck Ellie as odd that he was inquiring so far in advance. But Tyler was about to study abroad in Germany. “Is there anything I can do while I’m there?” he asked.  

  • A dress (left) based on one of Hedwig's designs (right)

    Dress No. 6

    It took Tyler just a few days to track down Brigitte in Nuremberg and set up an interview. “She was a very fashionable girl,” Brigitte told Tyler about Hedwig. “And they were always in a good mood, these people. They had a lovely life. They were content.” 

  • A dress (left) based on one of Hedwig's designs (right)

    Dress No. 7

    Hedwig—or Hedy, as she was called—had dark red hair and owned a dress studio in Prague, Brigitte said. The women who worked for Hedy would sometimes make clothes for Brigitte’s dolls. Brigitte gave the museum a letter she’d kept from her Uncle Paul that included a note with Hedy’s signature.

  • A dress (left) based on one of Hedwig's designs (right)

    Dress No. 8

    Ellie and the museum worked with the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre to bring Hedy’s eight drawings to life, complete with hats, gloves, shoes, vintage zippers and silk screens of the floral patterns in her sketches. Hedy’s signature was recreated on a label and sewn inside each creation. 

  • More than 50 years after Hedy’s death, her work was unveiled in her first fashion show in America. And, like the dresses themselves, two halves of the Strnad family, here and in Europe, were stitched back together. 

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