Valuable Lessons in ‘Stitching History From the Holocaust' Exhibit

Fashion and the Holocaust. Two things not normally associated with each other. At the Jewish Museum of Florida/FIU, an exhibit called “Stitching History from the Holocaust” is tying the two together and teaching kids valuable lessons.

"There were so many people killed for no reason, just because of their religion,” said Beni Roberts, a 6th grader from West Miami Middle School.

On this day, a field trip from the school to the museum in South Beach takes a bus load of students back in time, to 1939.

"A lot of people with a lot of talent and they got persecuted for their beliefs,” said 7th grader George Ramos, explaining how the exhibit brings history alive.

The kids from West Miami Middle were immersed into the story of Paul and Hedwig Strnad, a Jewish couple from Prague who were desperately trying to escape the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia by immigrating to America. Paul wrote to his cousin Alvin in Milwaukee, asking him to help secure visas. Hedwig was a dressmaker with a thriving business in Prague, so Paul sent Hedwig’s designs along to prove they could work in their adopted country and would not be a burden on the government.

Fast forward to 1997. Alvin Strnad’s family found the letter and the dress designs and set out to uncover the story. They learned Paul and Hedwig were denied entry into the United States and died in the Holocaust, becoming two of the six million.

"The main purpose of the exhibit is to personalize the experience of the Holocaust,” said Jo Ann Arnowitz, the museum’s executive director.

Arnowitz says it’s hard for anyone, especially school kids, to grasp what six million actually means, but focusing on two people really brings the experience to them on their level.

"It’s better than reading in a textbook what happened, they can really get the picture of what it was like,” Arnowitz said.

The Strnad family brought the artifacts to the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee, and the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre took the dress designs and recreated them. The fashions from 1939 look vibrant and current in 2017.

"At the darkest period in history you have this woman who is creating something really lovely and in her way, making the world a better place,” said FIU theatre professor Michael Yawney.

As the kids walked through the exhibit, they learned not only about history, but also about the tragic tale of two refugees. That, of course, resonates today.

"We didn’t know when we started working on this how timely this would be,” Yawney said.

He and some colleagues wrote and produced a play which brings Paul and Hedwig to life. The students from West Miami Middle watched it on video.

"This museum is not just about preserving the past but also giving direction and lessons for the future,” Yawney said.

Of course, evaluating the plight of refugees and how our country should respond to them is a complicated issue. At least for adults.

"I think we should let them all in,” said 6th grader Lynet Brito.

It’s much simpler for children who have just internalized a lesson from history.

Stitching History from the Holocaust is on display at the museum through March 19th.

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