Looking for PatternsTo understand Hedy’s story, it is helpful to know about the history of Jews in Bohemia. Bohemia is a territory where Jews and Christians, Czech-and German-speakers, lived. This western portion of the modern Czech Republic has remained a center of Jewish life since the 900s. In 1254, the king of Bohemia granted Jews physical protection and their independence, which ensured Jewish economic stability. Prague is one of the only European cities with almost continuous Jewish presence from the Middle Ages until the Holocaust.
Bohemia became part of the Habsburg Empire, which increased the Jewish population, but also led to challenges. Following the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), emperors sought to curb the growth of Jewish communities across Bohemia, allowing only one son of each Jewish household to marry and establish himself. Younger siblings settled in the small autonomous towns and villages less centralized within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There, they performed various jobs as servants of the local nobility. Jews were scattered to 2,000 towns by 1850, fracturing the Bohemian Jewish community. Two members of the extended Strnad family, Hedwig’s mother and Paul Strnad’s father, were born in small Czech towns.
In the late 1800’s, restrictions upon the Jews eased and many Jews became fluent in German to fit in with the elite. They left the Czech-speaking countryside, returning to Bohemia’s cities. You can find this upward mobility in the biographies of Paul and Hedwig; their parents came from the country, but they were born in cities at the turn of the twentieth century, Hedwig in Prague, and Paul in the border city of Ústí nad Laben in the Sudetenland. This linguistic integration led to a high cultural integration and a high intermarriage rate (between 1928 and 1933, 43.8% of Jews married non-Jewish spouses). The Holocaust and the destruction of the Jewish community in Czechoslovakia ended over a millennium of relatively peaceful Jewish-Christian coexistence.
Hedy’s story is also given context by understanding the important role of Jewish women in dressmaking in Europe. Tailoring and dressmaking had long been understood in Eastern Europe as Jewish professions, with entire families engaged in clothing production. Jews excelled in all aspects of the trade. Their entrepreneurship led to the rise of 19th century clothing factories, and by the end of that century, several Jewish families established couture houses that served as vital parts of Prague society. Having handmade dresses was not limited to the wealthy. While many people sewed their own clothes for everyday wear, most people relied on dressmakers and tailors like Hedy to create their finer clothing.
After the Holocaust, when the city was emptied of its Jewish people – its skilled fashion work force – Prague had trouble rebounding as a fashion center. The 1948 Soviet takeover provided the final death blow, after which private companies, including fashion houses, were converted into cooperatives and state enterprises.