The Little Red Dress of Hope
When Judy Fleischer Kolb walks by visitors stopped in front of a little red dress on display at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, she loves to say, “That’s my dress!”
Judy’s red dress is a beautiful work of art, but for Judy, the dress holds her grandmother’s love and courage in every stitch and in each of its daisy buttons (Judy unofficially changed her given name Daisy to Judy as a 15 year old). It captures the imagination of museum visitors and spreads awareness about the unfathomable conditions Jews faced in Shanghai in order to escape almost certain death in Europe.
Judy delights in making connections with visitors, especially the youngest ones, as she shares her family’s story of escape from Nazi Germany to Shanghai. Shortly after the November 1938 events of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass” when waves of violence were waged against Germany’s Jews, Judy’s grandfather was arrested and her grandmother Martha liquidated her family’s fabric store and purchased fare for her family—her husband, son, and daughter and new husband—aboard a liner ship set to sail from Germany to Shanghai.
It was a long voyage that was just the first leg of her family’s epic journey. When they arrived in Shanghai in 1939, they were no longer recognized as Germans, yet not considered Chinese citizens either. “We were stateless,” Judy says. Even Judy, who was later born in Shanghai in 1940, had a certificate of identity in lieu of a passport, which identified her as a refugee. At its peak, the refugee population in Shanghai during WWII reached about 20,000.
Judy’s family had little money and started a local transportation company out of the bedroom Judy shared with her grandparents. In 1943, Japan seized control of the neighborhood, forcing all refugees into a one-square-mile area in the poorest section of the city.
Living conditions were deplorable. Drinking water had to be boiled and fruits and vegetables also had to be washed with boiling water before they could be consumed. The family used a so-called “honey pot” in lieu of a toilet and placed the pot outside each morning for emptying. Due to the unsanitary conditions, intestinal worms, dysentery, and diarrhea were a part of life—it was not uncommon to walk by dead bodies in the street.
Still, the family felt lucky to have escaped Germany, and lived each day aware of their blessings. “As a child in Shanghai, everything was normal and fine,” says Judy. “My parents never showed any feelings of distress.” Even when the unthinkable happened.
Information about family in Europe was hard to come by, especially when letters from Judy’s paternal grandmother stopped arriving. They soon learned that her paternal grandparents and aunt were gassed at the Auschwitz death camp where nearly one million of the six million Jews who perished were killed.
In spite of their devastating losses, “Anger did not define my father’s life,” Judy says. “My late father [Cantor Leopold Fleischer] never lost his faith and he showed what love and commitment were all about by the way he cherished my mother.” Judy continues, “My father and my grandmother were my heroes.”
Three years after the war ended, Judy and her parents, uncle, and grandparents received approval to set sail on a life-changing move to the United States. The family settled in San Francisco, where Grandma “Omi” Martha, an expert knitter and seamstress, found a job sewing denim and doing piecework for Levi Strauss. Judy still remembers her grandmother’s great pride in the volume of pieces she completed each day.
The Red Dress
Several years before the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center opened in 2009, a friend asked Judy if she would be willing to share her story and donate some artifacts to the new museum.
While deciding to donate many of her family’s documents, Judy realized that she had a very special red dress that her “Omi” had knitted. The little red dress was among a few items her mother saved from the family’s years in Shanghai—it served as a reminder of their story of survival and their commitment to hope throughout it all. Judy also saved another work of art from her grandmother, an adult-sized Chanel-style knitted suit.
Knitted objects that have stood the test of time and have been passed down from generations provide much learning and meaning. A few years ago, decades after my handknit baby blanket had long disappeared, my father gave me one last skein of my Bubbe’s (Yiddish for Grandmother) pastel yarn that he found. I was overwhelmed with gratitude. We fiber artists know that a handmade garment from an earlier time, or even the memory of one, can spark emotions decades later.
“My grandmother was tough, kind, and wonderful,” Judy says. To know she took the time to make these pieces while the family endured desperate living conditions in Shanghai, makes them even more meaningful for Judy. This red dress evokes a sense of pride for Grandma Martha’s ability to spread optimism and keep their family unit intact; sadness about the pain and suffering so many Jewish families like Judy’s endured; and a deep honor for her ability to open the door to this important historical conversation.
As knitters, we instinctively understand this dress is historically meaningful, and now that message has been translated through fibers to an even broader audience. Volunteer docents from the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center knitted and crocheted 60 versions of the dress, which are placed with copies of historical materials in vintage trunks and sent to educators across the United States to share with their classes.
Reaching more than 1,200 children per month, the dress has become a teaching tool and an emblem of life, hope, and the wartime Jewish experience in Shanghai. Grandma Martha could never have imagined all the places that little red dress would travel.
Now other knitters can honor Grandma Martha’s great courage and optimism. Find the pattern and the knitalong at Knitting Hope.
Designed by Melissa Shinsato; modeled by addison scharf; Photo by Gale Zucker
To learn more about the history of Jewish refugees in Shanghai, check out:
Shanghai Refuge by Ernest Heppner
Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich by Steve Hochstadt
From Exile to Washington by W. Michael Blumenthal