Performing Arts

Desperate Jewish couple couldn’t survive Holocaust, but their story lives on

Some of the dresses designed by Hedy Strnad, who died in the Holocaust.
Some of the dresses designed by Hedy Strnad, who died in the Holocaust.

Like many people before — and after — them, Jewish couple Paul and Hedwig Strnad were desperate to emigrate to America.

In 1939 — the year the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, prompting tens of thousands of Jews to apply for visas — they considered the best way to present themselves as useful new Americans. And so, hoping to find asylum, they wrote a letter to a relative in Milwaukee, offering the best display of talent they had: sketches showcasing Hedy’s formidable and fashionable dress designs.

The Strnads never made it to safety: Both perished in the Holocaust. But their story is now on display at the Jewish Museum of Florida - FIU as part of ‘Stitching History from the Holocaust,’ an exhibit that originated at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee.

In Miami, though, the exhibit — which includes dresses made from Hedy’s sketches by Milwaukee Repertory Theater designers — includes a new twist: a one-act play, “A Stitch in Time,” written by Miami playwright Susan Westfall.

Museum membership director Nancy Cohen came up with the idea for a play and asked Westfall for a recommendation on someone willing to take on the job.

Westfall, Literary Director of Miami’s City Theatre, couldn’t resist: “I wanted to be that playwright!” she says.

Since the tragic end to the Strnads’ story is already known, she had to approach the story from a different angle, one that resonates today, especially in light of the American political climate and the subject of immigration.

“If we know the outcome, what is the compelling moment? It was the letter,” she says. “It’s the moment of this couple realizing they’re going to have to leave home. How do you pick up and go? What I wanted to write about was the moments of hope, the regret of leaving.”

The world premiere, directed by Michael Yawney, associate professor of theater at Florida International University and starring Ricky J. Martinez and Irene Adjan as the Strnads, will be performed four times at the museum (the exhibit runs through March 19).

Jo Ann Arnowitz, the museum’s executive director and chief curator, has been deeply touched by the exhibit and the play.

“I had no idea how vibrant and beautiful and creative these dresses were until I saw them in person,” she says. “They were so forward-thinking. Life was crumbling all around Hedy, and she was able to create a ball gown when there wasn’t going to be any ball. She was a person looking forward to life.

“It points to the creativity extinguished in the horror of the Holocaust. All the poems, all the songs, all the inventions and cures — all that creativity lost. We had a chance to make it come alive again, and I think that’s a wonderful thing.”

If You Go

What: ‘A Stitch in Time’ by Susan Westfall

Where: Jewish Museum of Florida - FIU, 301 Washington Ave., Miami Beach

When: 3 p.m. Jan. 29 plus a free performance for students at 11 a.m.; 7 p.m. Feb. 1 and 3 p.m. Feb. 5

Tickets: $10 for members, $16 nonmembers.

Exhibit: ‘Stitching History from the Holocaust’ runs through March 19