Author Archives: Lindsey Bridwell

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Nazi Spy? Not Hardly

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Paul and Hedy Strnad were rejected in their efforts to seek safe haven in the United States on the eve of the Holocaust.
(Photos courtesy of the Jewish Museum Milwaukee)

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

The Jewish Museum Milwaukee recently opened a remarkable exhibit about the late Hedy Strnad, a Jewish-Czech dressmaker, who, with her husband, Paul, attempted to immigrate to the United States on the eve of the Holocaust.

The 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.

Testimony submitted to YadVashem, 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.

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One of Hedy Strnad’s designs in the exhibit “Stitching History from the Holocaust.”

The resulting exhibit, “Stitching History from the Holocaust,” is a powerful and moving 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.

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 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 Terezin 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.

Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

The Choices We Make

This Shabbat, we read the beginning of the Torah, Parashat Bereishit. This text is about creation. On the first day, God created light and darkness. Each day God created something new such as the waters, the grass and the trees. After that, He created the sun, the moon and the stars, followed by birds in the sky and fish in the sea. The last creations were the animals on the land and finally the first people.

We understand that if the people were created first, they would have no resources to help them exist. Throughout the six days of creation God gave us a beginning for life. Just like Parashat Bereishit, there are new beginnings in my life. After becoming a bar mitzvah I will be considered a man. This new beginning began nine months ago when I started studying to become a bar mitzvah. Our lives will have many more new beginnings, and I think they will all build upon what has happened before.

In this parasha we also read about the Garden of Eden. The snake represents temptation in the world and approaches Eve with a fruit, telling her to eat from it. He tells Eve that nothing will happen to her except that she will be able to distinguish good from bad and that she will not die. Was Eve aware that she was making a choice that would affect the rest of her life? This text relates the real world to me as a young adult, because every day we face many choices, and we have to decide between doing good or bad. Sometimes people will try to influence us to do wrong. It is important to try to do good and to do the right thing.

The Light That Is Israel

This week’s haftarah is from the Book of Isaiah, chosen because it refers to the creation of the world. In the Torah portion, G-d creates light and darkness for the entire universe. In the haftarah, Isaiah says, “I will turn darkness before them to light.” Here, the darkness refers to the Israelites not obeying G-d’s laws and the covenant. So the Israelites find themselves in the darkness of exile out of the land of Israel. In contrast, G-d reminds the people that He created them to be “a light of the nation, opening eyes deprived of light, rescuing prisoners from confinement, from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.”

Isaiah refers to the people Israel as the covenant people, a light of nations. What does it mean to be a light of nations? Does it mean to be better than the other nations? Does the light refer to the ideas of the people of Israel?

There are several opportunities for Israel and the Jewish people to be a light of the nations. For example, the prophet Micah speaks to the people and says, “Only do justice, love goodness and walk modestly with your G-d.” This is certainly an ideal to work toward.

Another example where Israel serves as a light of the nations is found in the kiddush we recite on Shabbat. The kiddush teaches us to treat our animals, servants and strangers as we do ourselves — with a day of rest. In today’s world, Israel has developed technology and medical advances that have helped the world. In the area of politics, Golda Meir set a good example for women trying to reach high goals.

As I become a bat mitzvah, I hope also to contribute to Israel, the light of our nation. I plan to do this by continuing to contribute to our sister city, Ashkelon, and to other projects in Israel and to take as many trips as possible there, where I can continue to make connections with my homeland.

Sophie Getz is a seventh-grade student at Krieger Schechter Day School.

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All Smiles, All the Time

101714_beshertLaurie & Mike Rosen
First Date: Sept. 27, 2011, for yogurt
Wedding Date: May 17, 2014
Venue: Royal Sonesta Harbor Court Hotel in Baltimore
Residence: Pikesville
Favorite Activity: Spending time with their 4-year-old puggle, Bentley

Laurie Collins planned a surprise for boyfriend Mike Rosen’s 26th birthday. They were vacationing in Naples, Fla., and she arranged for a catamaran excursion.

Secretly, Mike was in touch with her mother, Shelley Collins, and planned to propose that day on the boat.

They awoke that morning, May 1, 2013, to rain showers. Shelley suggesting a nice lunch instead at the Ritz Carlton.

With the showers at bay, they ate outdoors, on the empty beach. After the staff sang “Happy Birthday,” Mike invited Laurie for a walk. Mike asked the hostess to snap a picture. Laurie turned to him and was surprised to find him on one knee.

He told her he was so happy that he couldn’t imagine his life with anyone else. He asked her to marry him.

It was the culmination of their 18-month relationship. They had connected via JDate and met for yogurt in Federal Hill in September 2011. Mike scored points immediately, as he brought Wisp mini-toothbrushes, which Laurie had mentioned to the then-dental student.

That led to a second date, and Mike came with flowers in hand. On their third date, Laurie met Bentley, Mike’s puggle. As their relationship developed, they enjoyed movies, the Inner Harbor, the dog park and dining out. Mike met Shelley and Larry Collins at a Ravens tailgate party.

Mike asked Laurie to be his girlfriend in late October, and they professed their love in December before heading to Mike’s native Suffern, N.Y., for New Year’s. That’s when Laurie met Heidi and Steve Rosen.

The next fall, Mike applied for his dental residency. Most applications were local, but they agreed to one in Palm Beach, Fla. Mike would only go if Laurie went along. They spent a fun year in the sun and lived at the beach, enjoying boating, jet skiing and restaurants. They returned to Maryland this summer, and Mike joined Smith & Co. Dental Practitioners in Bel Air. Laurie is a loan consultant for HFS Financial.

They married on May 17, 2014 at the Royal Sonesta Harbor Court Hotel. Rabbi Stephen Fink of Temple Oheb Shalom officiated at the traditional ceremony before 130 friends and family members as the two recited their heartfelt vows. The couple danced to “All of Me,” then broke into faster moves to “Happy.”

They agree they complement each other, and as Laurie put it, Mike is the peanut butter to her jelly, the bagel to her cream cheese and the love of her life. He’s calm to her impatience, and he’s pragmatic and rational to her impulsiveness.

But above all, his sense of humor won her over.

“His smile, his demeanor and tone” top the list of his characteristics that attracted Laurie, 30. “He made me laugh right away.”

The dentist, of course, noticed one thing immediately.

“She has a very nice smile,” he said.

Linda L. Esterson is an Owings Mills-based freelance writer. For “Beshert,” call 410-902-2305 or email Linda.Esterson@verizon.net.