Stitching History returns triumphant

 

MILWAUKEE – What’s a museum to do when a whole roster of other museums want your exhibit to come for a visit? Make it even better and bring it back.

“Stitching History from the Holocaust,” a Jewish Museum Milwaukee exhibit that has traveled to other venues around the nation, and seen coverage in the New York Times and elsewhere, is returning here Sunday, April 8.

This time, two more true stories are being added to the one about the dressmaker who sought to escape the Nazis. The new exhibit hints at this shift by changing “History” to “Histories” in its title – now it’s “Stitching Histories from the Holocaust.”

The dresses in the exhibit are coming back unchanged and are related to the story of the late Hedy Strnad. The Jewish-Czech dressmaker and her husband, Paul, attempted to immigrate to the United States on the eve of the Holocaust. They’d hoped their dress designs, sent to America, could somehow get them out of Nazi Germany.

“Stitching History from the Holocaust” was last displayed here in 2015. It has since traveled to the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York; a gallery at the University of Wisconsin – Madison School of Human Ecology; the Jewish Museum of Florida at Florida International University; and the Holocaust Memorial Center of Farmington Hills, Michigan.

“The way that it has been embraced as a resonant universal story in communities across the country has been an incredible experience for us,” said Jewish Museum Milwaukee Curator Molly Dubin.

“Really, every community that’s taken it has really made it their own,” she added. Some are augmenting the exhibit with their own collections or approach. In Madison, textile students created their own pieces in response to Hedy Strnad’s designs, Dubin said.

The original exhibit has its roots in a December 1939 letter sent by Paul 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.

The directors of the Milwaukee museum came up with a 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 way to introduce an individual, 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.

Now, it also features the stories of two more families. All three families featured are cut from the same cloth, so to speak, because all are bound up with immigration issues during the Holocaust and all connect to Wisconsin.

“Stitching Histories From the Holocaust” appeared in its original form at Jewish Museum Milwaukee, a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, from September 2014 to March 2015. It returns this year to the museum with new material at 1360 N. Prospect Ave., on display from April 8 – Sept. 16.

As for what’s to come after Sept. 16, the exhibit is already under contract to get back out on the road. It’s slated for the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center in Alabama and the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

An opening preview event is slated for April 12. More information is available in Coming Events, this edition, or at 414-390-5730 or JewishMuseumMilwaukee.org.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this story.