Milwaukee museum honors Jewish dressmaker FDR turned away

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Was the Jewish “lady tailor” who ran a Prague dressmaking shop a potential Nazi spy? The Roosevelt administration apparently thought so.

On the eve of the Holocaust, Paul and Hedy Strnad were denied safe haven in the U.S. photos/courtesy jewish museum milwaukee

The Jewish Museum Milwaukee recently opened a “Stitching History from the Holocaust,” a remarkable exhibit about the late Hedy Strnad, a Jewish dressmaker who with husband Paul attempted to immigrate to the United States from Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Holocaust.

The exhibit has its roots in a December 1939 letter Paul sent to his cousins in Milwaukee asking them to help seek permission for him and his wife to come to America. Paul enclosed eight of Hedy’s clothing design sketches. He knew the U.S. authorities would turn away refugees who might have trouble finding employment; Hedy’s sketches demonstrated her professional skills.

Testimony submitted to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, by the Strnads’ niece, Brigitte Rohaczek, provided the Milwaukee exhibit designers with additional information. She shared poignant memories of her vivacious Aunt Hedy — her real name was Hedwig — and the dressmaking shop she owned and operated in Prague. Hedy — a “lady tailor,” as Rohaczek described her — sometimes had her seamstresses sew clothes for Rohaczek’s dolls.

The directors of the Milwaukee museum came up with an innovative way to remember the Strnads: enlisting the costume makers from the Milwaukee Repertory Theater to create clothing based on Hedy’s sketches.

The resulting exhibit is a powerful and poignant way to introduce a personal dimension to Holocaust remembrance. It features eight outfits — among them fitted blouses and blazers, paired with A-line skirts and knee-length dresses that cinched at the waist.

The Jewish Museum Milwaukee exhibit features clothing based on Hedy Strnad’s sketches.

Why were the Strnads denied admission to the United States? America’s immigration laws at the time made it difficult for refugees such as the Strnads to enter, and the way the Roosevelt administration implemented those laws made it even harder.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s State Department piled on extra requirements and bureaucratic obstacles. In an internal memo in 1940, Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long sketched out his department’s policy to “delay and effectively stop” refugee immigration by putting “every obstacle in the way,” such as requiring additional documents and resorting to “various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.”

The annual quota of immigrants from Czechoslovakia was small — just 2,874 — but even that quota was not filled in any year during FDR’s 12 years in office.

In 1940, the year the Strnads wanted to immigrate, the Czech quota was only 68 percent filled; nearly 1,000 quota places sat unused. Even though there was room in the quota, and even though Hedy was a successful businesswoman and the couple had relatives in the United States, the Strnads’ applications were turned down.

At the same time the Strnads were seeking a haven, refugee advocates were trying to convince the Roosevelt administration to permit European Jews to settle in areas that were at the time U.S. territories but not states, such as the Virgin Islands and Alaska.

After Kristallnacht in November 1938, the governor and legislative assembly of the Virgin Islands offered to open its doors to Jewish refugees, but Roosevelt personally blocked the proposal.

In public and private statements, FDR claimed that Nazi spies might sneak into America disguised as refugees. U.S. officials imagined that if spies reached the Virgin Islands, it would put them within easy reach of the mainland United States. (No Nazi spies were ever discovered among the few Jewish refugees who were let into the country.)

As for proposals to settle Jews in Alaska, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes Jr. noted in his diary that Roosevelt said he would support the plan only if no more than 10 percent of the settlers were Jews — so as “to avoid the undoubted criticism that we would be subjected to if there were an undue proportion of Jews,” FDR explained.

Shortly after, the administration pushed through legislation that made it even more difficult for Jewish refugees to qualify for U.S. visas. The “close relatives” edict, as it was called, barred the entry of anyone who had close relatives in Europe. The theory was that the Nazis might take their relatives hostage in order to force them to become spies for Hitler. An interesting theory, but there was no evidence to substantiate it.

With all doors shut, the fate of Paul and Hedy — and countless other Jewish refugees — was sealed. They were sent first to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, an hour north of Prague. Then they were deported to the Warsaw Ghetto.

What exactly happened next is unclear. They may have been murdered in Warsaw, or they may have been deported, along with the other Jews of Warsaw, to the Treblinka death camp and perished there.

The “Stitching History” exhibit, open through Feb. 28, is a fitting tribute to a life taken too soon. It is also a sad reminder of a time when the U.S. government regarded Jewish refugees — even a lady tailor from Prague — as a danger.