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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

Reading Resources

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

About The Author

Tanya Singer started Knitting Hope, a project that highlights the stories of people who were sustained or even saved by handknit items throughout history. And she runs Ewe Can Knit, a knitting lesson business in Westchester County, NY, where she teaches adults and children starting at age 8.  She shares the magic of knitting through lessons she developed to maximize learning and joy.




  • ? I can’t find the pattern. Knitting Hope refers me to Ravelry, and Ravelry refers me to Knitting Hope. What am I doing wrong?
    A most amazing story!

  • Shanghai as a place of refuge for European Jews is a bit of Holocaust history of which I was unaware. Thanks to Tanya for adding to my knowledge. I’m off now to check out Knitting Hope and the books she refers us to. I’m quite sure I have suitable red yarn in my stash so I will set aside my WIPs, including a KAL, and knit a little red dress.

    • I too had no knowledge of Shanghai as a refuge during the Holocaust! Thank you for sharing this story Tanya

    • Thank you, Lynn. I am looking forward to knitting with you.

  • Thank you so much for this post which combines two of my greatest interests Knitting and the Holocaust (I know that must sound really odd.) I have been an active member of my local Holocaust Commission in southeastern Virginia for over twenty five years and have been knitting even longer. We also have a similar program to the Illinois trunk education project called What We Carry. One of the stories we tell is that of a survivor from our community who was a refugee from Germany to Shanghai so it was wonderful to learn about another chapter of that story. The first thing I thought of before I even read the entire article was of course of the little girl with the red coat in Schindler’s List. I cannot wait to explore all of the links to Tanya’s story. Again a thousand thanks!

    • Your comment certainly is not strange to me! Thank you for sharing your knowledge of the What We Carry program with me. I will look forward to learning more about it.

  • Such a beautiful story of hope and faith! Hearing stories like these reminds me of how knitting, something we do with our hands, connects our hearts throughout time.

    “Knit on with confidence and hope through all crises”.

    -Elizabeth Zimmerman

    • Beautifully said!

  • Thank you Tanya for sharing this incredible story. I feel lucky to know you!!
    As a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I know how important this story is. It reminds me so much of my seamstress knitting grandmother who escaped France. We must continue to share this story and others and never forget.

    Rebecca Kevelson

    • So grateful for your support and for your work as an advocate for Holocaust education.

  • Thank You so much for this moving story of courage and perserverance and HOPE. Very meaningful. Today as I knit by the warm fire I shall think of your family and all the others who endured with nothing more than their own Spirits.

    • Beautiful story of Judy and her little red dress. School children visiting the Museum in Skokie identify with the dress with precious family memories and the fact that Judy and her family lived so far away in Shanghai. They learn so much from artifacts.

    • Beautiful! Happy knitting!

  • Thank you so much for your beautiful story. I visited the Jewish museum in Shanghai shortly before the world went into lockdown. It is a wonderful museum, memorializing the experiences of Jewish refugees in Shanghai. While we were there, a group of business students were also present. All of a sudden, we heard a shout: “That’s my grandma!” One of the students had just seen the portion of the exhibit dedicated to his grandmother and her family. The family had later settled in Israel. We spent some time talking to him about his grandmother and her stories. It made our visit even more meaningful, even more poignant.

    • What an incredible experience! Thank you for sharing that.

  • Wow. Just wow.

  • I just watched a PBS documentary about the “Shanghai Jews”, people I never knew about
    what a riveting story, especially the interviews

  • PBS recently aired a documentary about the Jews who took refuge in Shanghai.

    This little sweater has a very different story and yet it too survived:
    It’s also been written about in Piecework and patterned.

    I have worked with surviving textiles from the Holocaust and each object does indeed tell a story.

    • Thank you! This was my project and we have raised over $10 thousand dollars in pattern sales that goes directly to the Museum

    • Thank you, Gail. I would love to learn more about your experience with these textiles. Thank you for the comment.

  • When I studied Russian in the US Navy, my civilian instructor was a Holocaust survivor as a boy in Harbin, China. Life was very tough, especially when the letters from family and friends stopped coming because the people had died of starvation.

  • My friend Lea Stern came upon a small green sweater at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. With the museum’s permission she reverse engineered the pattern and it is now available through the museum’s gift shop. These small, treasured garments really bring home the scale of the horror that was the Holocaust. Here is a link to the pattern.

    • Lea is amazing and her work is incredible! I had the pleasure of meeting her in Rhinebeck. She is part of the Knit Along for the Little Red Dress!

  • The tears have begun as I think of the horror of Nazi Germany and the bravery of so many people who did survive and those who never had a chance. I’m grateful for our Democracy and the chance it had to survive this latest challenge and I am so deeply touched by the red dress. Thank You

    • Thank you, Annie. We cannot overstate the importance of preserving our Democracy. You are so right!

  • Thank you so much for this enlightening article

  • Here is a thread on Twitter The Judy Project, by the current Judy. It is complete with photographs and a shirt video of the original Judy. She made it her life’s work to teach acceptance and understanding to children. Her ability to experience the evil she did and be able to live such a life of love is a triumph. And *whatever* helps you do that is a blessing.

  • This story resonates for me in a number of different ways. My husband’s uncle (who was Jewish) was stationed in Shanghai during WWII and I remember him sharing stories when I was a young bride and we would visit. I am also a heart attack survivor and have been wearing my “Red Dress” pin all month and will continue to do so until the end of February. Even though all our medical research should be geared towards the pandemic, we need to remember that the #1 killer of women pre-pandemic was Heart Disease.

    I am not only a Jewish woman whose Dad is 92 and a WWII veteran but after the war he worked in the fashion industry in San Francisco (where I was raised) and knew the founders of Levi Strauss very well. Lastly, and thank you for allowing me to share, I am a Wellesley grad… I went back to school in my 40’s to obtain my BA (I didn’t have the opportunity as a young woman) as a Davis Scholar while taking care of 3 children, husband, house and dog. 🙂 I graduated in 2005 and am very proud to be a Wellesley sister.

    • Wow! We share so many interesting connections. I did not know about the red dress pins and symbolism. Kudos to you for attending Wellesley as a Davis Scholar and juggling school with a full house. Thank you for sharing.

  • addendum: Levi Strauss was founded in the 1800’s, my Dad knew the family who continued in the business during the1950’s-80’s.

    • The amazing Judy Fleischer Kolb has photos of her family working at Levi-Strauss. We have been able to connect with the company and hope to add yet another aspect of her incredible family’s life to the historical record!

  • Wonderful story! Thank you for sharing.

  • Thank you, today this encouraged me as my way through trauma of sexual abuse, being the the wife of two alcoholics and a husband with epilepsy I have realised apart from my faith, knitting and in latter years crochet have been my saviour. Thank you for telling your story and giving me the courage to share mine.

    • Thank goodness we have our craft and our community! Sending you strength, Karen.

  • What a moving story. Thank you.

  • Thanks for this. I feel so ignorant as I hadn’t known about China taking in WWII refugees.

    Also thank you for providing the perfect knit gift — now I know why I had so much trouble deciding what to knit for the new addition, because I was waiting for this dress! Mine will be in linen because it’s a California baby!

    • I can’t wait to see it! What a very special gift!

  • J picked up a book called knit how from an op shop and I found the story of The Little Red Dress.
    I am so glad I was able to read the short piece on it, and plan yo look up the whole story.
    I also loved reading what Tanya Singer has done and will look into it more. What an amazing lady.
    In people terrible hard journeys can come some amazing stories.
    Thank you Dianne

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