By Jose Lima
The Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU has commissioned a new dramatic work based on the museum’s current exhibition, Stitching History from the Holocaust. The one act play is called “A Stitch in Time” and tells the true story of Paul and Hedwig “Hedy” Strnad. The young couple perished in the Holocaust after failed attempts in 1939 to secure visas to flee to the United States from Prague. The work premieres Sunday, Jan. 29, at the Miami Beach museum.
The Strnads tried to escape the Nazis by forwarding sketches of Hedy’s clothing designs to prove she could earn a living in America with her talents, a requirement at the time to immigrate to the United States. The exhibit Stitching History from the Holocaust features both Hedy’s drawings as well as fully realized garments based on her designs, complete with the fashionable hats and shoes she envisioned.
The play was written by Miami’s Susan Westfall and is directed by Michael Yawney, FIU associate professor of theater. It takes place on a single night in the life of the couple.
“The Strnads stand in for all the people of the time whose lives were cut short,” Yawney said. “I want [the audience] to really know the Strnads, how loving, how funny, how sweet, how energetic and just how beautiful they were.”
The exhibition originated at Jewish Museum Milwaukee and is on view at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU through March 19.
“The universal themes in this exhibition still resonate in today’s modern world, and inspired us to commission this original play,” said Jo Ann Arnowitz, the museum’s executive director and chief curator. “The Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU is proud to bring this story to life for audiences in South Florida and the many tourists from around the world visiting Miami Beach this season. The messages of hope and perseverance in this story are just as striking now as they were almost 80 years ago.”
The dresses in the exhibition are based on the sketches that accompanied the Strnads’ letters requesting visas. Decades later, the documents were discovered by descendants of the original family that tried to help Paul and Hedy gain entry into the United States.
The designs were painstakingly brought to life by the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, using fabrics, colors and sewing techniques authentic to the late 1930s. Hedy’s drawings represented the height of fashion in 1939, providing a small window into the lives of Jews in Prague on the eve of World War II.
Although society was crumbling all around her at the time, Hedy managed to create designs that were glamorous, colorful and joyful. “When you see Hedy’s dresses, you can really tell the kind of person she was,” said Yawney, director of the play, who found inspiration from the finished garments. “The dresses are whimsical, witty and just really gorgeous.”
Hedy’s designs also reveal another significant story: Along with the loss of six million Jewish lives, the Holocaust extinguished an incalculable amount of talent and creativity. As the New York Times review of the award-winning exhibition states, “The fashions are both text and textile, a story of life and death told in fabric … a recollection of mortality and persecution.”
The Jewish-Museum of Florida-FIU is located at 301 Washington Ave. on Miami Beach. Performances take place Sun., Jan. 29, Wed., Feb. 1, and Sun., Feb. 5, at the museum. Tickets are available for purchase, and students can attend a special 11 a.m. performance on Jan. 29 for free.
The timing of the production coincides with Holocaust and Genocide Awareness Week at FIU, which includes a number of events open to the public.
Alexandra Pecharich contributed to this story.