Czech Dressmaker Sent Her Designs to the U.S. Before She Died in the Holocaust. Her Dresses are Now on Display at NCSML

A traveling exhibit now on display at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library (NCSML) is recognizing talent and creativity that was lost during the Holocaust.

“Stitching History through the Holocaust” showcases eight dresses designed by Hedwig (Hedy) Strnad, a dressmaker who lived in Prague with her husband Paul during the Nazi invasion.

In 1939, Paul sent a letter and a package containing Hedy’s dress designs to his cousin Alvin Strnad in Milwaukee. Paul hoped Hedy’s talent and Alvin’s affidavit as an American citizen would secure the couple visas to escape Nazi prosecution.

The couple did not make it to the United States. They were sent to Theresienstadt, a hybrid concentration camp and ghetto, and later transported to the Warsaw ghetto.

“The brainpower, the talent, and creativity that was all lost,” NCSML curator Stefanie Kohn said. “Here is an example of a very talented woman [Hedwig Strnad] who was killed in her prime and never being able to go on and create these beautiful things.”

Decades later, Alvin’s son Burton found the dress designs when he was clearing his mother’s basement and gave them to the Jewish Museum Milwaukee (JMM). The museum launched a five-year project with seamstresses and historians to create the eight designs, as well as research the couple and their story.

Hedwig’s eight designs — a ballgown, two suits, two coats, and daytime dresses — were meticulously created by the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. The process took more than 3,000 hours and about 10 months to complete. People involved with creating the dresses worked to determine likely fabrics, match the colors in the drawings, and assembled the dresses.

The Jewish Museum Milwaukee spent more than 3,000 hours and 10 months to create Hedwig Strnad’s dresses. — photo courtesy of NCSML curator Stefanie Cohn


The exhibit was displayed at the JMM in 2018. Since then, it has traveled to museums throughout the country.

Kohn saw the display in Milwaukee and said that it was a “gorgeous exhibit.”

NCSML is using artifacts from its own collection to fill out the exhibition, such as money from the Theresienstadt concentration camp and replicas of drawings created by children in Theresienstadt.

“Stitching History Through the Holocaust” opened on Saturday, Nov. 20, and will be displayed in the Smith Gallery until Sunday, March 21.

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