From Auschwitz Survivor to Presidents' Tailor: The Story of Martin Greenfield
- The Goods
- Published on Saturday, 28 February 2015 16:27
- Stacie M. Waldman
If you think you've heard enough stories of people who survived the Holocaust, you have not heard Martin Greenfield's story. If you think you've heard enough stories of people who dress celebrities and presidents, you have not heard Martin Greenfield's story. His is a unique and powerful one: one of family, survival, sheer luck, and the belief in the greatness of America. On March 26th, Mr. Greenfield will be speaking at the JCC of mid-Westchester and you won't want to miss the opportunity to hear this man's unforgettable journey from concentration camp victim to master custom men's tailor to Hollywood A-listers and U.S. Presidents.
I was given the honor of being invited to sit for an hour with Mr. Greenfield and hear more about his life story. I arrived at his factory in Brooklyn and was greeted by his son, Jay. Within moments, a stunningly dressed, elegant man with a big smile approached me for a firm handshake and led me to his office. There was not a computer in sight, just stacks and stacks of folders and framed pictures on every inch of wall space. I learned very quickly that the folders contained not only letters from ambassadors and university professors, but also letters from Jews and non-Jews around the world that had been affected by his story.
Although the questions I came prepared to ask reflected the style of his book, (half about his time in concentration camps during the Holocaust and half about his success as a master tailor to celebrities,) I quite quickly put down my notes and just listened. All Mr. Greenfield wanted to talk about was his childhood, his perfect childhood, and his family, and the day his life went from perfect to a series of horrors when the Nazis came and took him and his family away. "Growing up was a lot of fun for the first ten years," Mr. Greenfield told me, "until I had to start wearing the Jewish star on my arm. At age 10, the Russians sent my Czech teacher away and closed my Czech school- they put me in a Russian school. They wanted to send me to a work camp, so my father sent me to Budapest to work to avoid the Russian work camp. I became a different person when we became occupied and I had to wear the star. Before that, in Czechoslovakia, it didn't matter if you were Jewish or gentile, it must mattered that you were a person. I had such a happy childhood. There was always principle in my life- I was taught to bet on myself." He continued to talk about his family, namely his baby brother. "He was only a year old, my baby brother, when I left for Budapest. When I came home three years later he was 4 and all he wanted to do was hold my hand. We slept together in the same bed. He followed me everywhere and never let go. Until we got to Auschwitz. And that was the end of it. The end of him. That's what I couldn't conceive. The Nazi people destroyed my family; my two sisters, my mother, my grandparents, and my baby brother were all sent immediately to the gas chamber to die. My mother was originally sent to go with us but she wouldn't let go of my baby brother, so they were both sent to what was to be their deaths. Mengele made that decision. You know that name? The 'Angel of Death.' The doctor known for his unspeakable medical experiments on the innocents. My father and I were sent to work." Mr. Greenfield wanted to stay with his father but his father insisted that each of them had a chance of survival only if they parted. '"On your own, you will survive,' my father said. If you survive...you must honor us by living, by not feeling sorry for us."
In 1944, at the age of 15, Hitler's army rounded up the Jews of Pavlovo, Czechoslovakia where Mr. Greenfield lived with his family. They had an hour to pack up their belongings (which were handed over as soon as they entered the concentration camp) and were loaded onto a train that took them to a temporary ghetto and then to Auschwitz, the camp known for horrid medical experiments, the gassing then cremation of over a million Jews, and hard labor for the 10% of prisoners (mostly men) that were allowed to survive. "They gave us an hour to pack our things then they rounded us up and put us on a train. My dad was always an important guy- he was bright, he was an engineer, he helped build Czechoslovakia, he even built a synagogue- so we were on the last transport. Maybe my family got to live for two, three, five more days since we were the last transport," he remembered.
I asked Mr. Greenfield if he ever resisted the Nazis. "You could not resist anything," he responded. "If you resisted, you got shot. The one time I resisted they sent a dog after me. It bit my foot and it was bleeding in front of my father. They dragged me back. I still have a scar. They put me in the tailor shop to punish me and that is how I learned the trade. I also learned the power of clothes. I stole the shirt of the Nazi who had beaten me for accidentally ripping his shirt and I wore it in the camp (after I repaired it- my first tailoring lesson) underneath my prisoner's uniform. Wearing it made me realize that clothes possess power. Wearing the shirt helped me survive the camp. And now I am one of the most successful and famous custom men's tailors in America!"
Mr. Greenfield continued to reflect on his family, mostly the male figures in his life. "My grandfather, he was my Hebrew teacher. Part of my religious teaching was to treat all people with respect no matter what. That's why I did not shoot the woman who reported me for taking rotten lettuce out of her injured rabbit's cage." In his book, Mr. Greenfield describes a time when he was at Buchenwald when he was permitted off the grounds for work purposes. He was charged with helping to clean up the local mayor's house that had been bombed. When he got there, he found some pet rabbits, barely alive. As he was literally starving, he saw some brown, slimy lettuce in the rabbits' cage and a half eaten carrot and began to eat it out of desperation. The mayor's wife, carrying a baby on her hip, caught him and shouted at him that she was reporting him immediately. It struck him as particularly cruel given the circumstances, and also because he knew he looked like a skeleton and she had her child there as witness. Mr. Greenfield was severely beaten by an SS soldier immediately, and swore that if he survived Buchenwald, he would come back and seek vengeance on this woman- he would kill her. When he was liberated, on April 11, 1945, he began to formulate his revenge. He secured a machine gun and some friends, found the woman at her house, and with his hand quivering above the trigger, he, in his own words, became human again. "If I had shot her, the wound would have been in my own heart. That's how I was taught- it's written in the Gomorrah. I talked to the woman. I took her outside. I said, 'I am not Mengele. I am angry, but I cannot kill you.' I followed what was taught to me by my family. I have gotten many letters asking why I did not shoot her. I was raised to believe that I would have been as evil as a Nazi had I shot her. I was also taught to always share. There wasn't a Friday night that there wasn't a stranger at our table. One day, I asked my grandma, 'can't we ever eat alone?' She told me that we have enough, so therefore we share. We grew everything we ate and we had animals that sustained us as well. The greatest pleasure I have even today is when I have other people at my table or helping someone else I know needs help."
I asked Mr. Greenfield to tell me about his days after liberation. "My Czech teacher, a gentile, was one of the first people I found when I ventured back to Prague. He said, 'Your father wanted you to be a doctor. I will make you a doctor.' But I was determined to first find my father. It took me two years to find out about my father. He was shot at Buchenwald, where I was also a prisoner along with 89,000 others at the time. My father- he was executed one week before liberation. Only one week. When I was liberated by the Americans, before I knew what happened to my father, I vividly remember feeling such sorrow for those who suffered yet lived only to die right before liberation, during liberation, or shortly after. The Russian communists began to take over and they were almost as bad as the Nazis. They took everything from my family. My father's big, beautiful farm- they took it. Years later I went back to Pavlovo with my son and there were still Russians living there. It was no longer my family's house and farm.
After the war, Mr. Greenfield was sent for in Europe by relatives in America. An arduous boat ride left him on the shores of America in the hands of relatives he had never met. "I moved in with relatives in Baltimore," he said. "My cousins, three little girls, cried when I told them my story. Overnight, I thought, 'If I lived in this country, I wouldn't believe my story, so I'm not gonna talk about it.' I thought about what my dad had taught me and I wanted to honor my dad. 'Don't cry for us, just go on living. Honor us by living. Create our family in whatever you do if I don't survive.' For years I didn't talk bout what I had been through. Many of my big customers didn't know I was a Holocaust survivor- I always had a big smile and having an accent was commonplace. I didn't talk about it until a gathering in Washington, D.C. The Holocaust Museum was created and people started telling their stories. I did the Shoah [an audiovisual testimony] so my son's could have my story on tape. It took me until I was 86 years old to write a book."
"My relatives in Baltimore bought me my first GGG suit," he recalled. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Greenfield moved to New York and began working at GGG as a floor boy, eventually moving up the management chain. Thirty years later, he owned the company and changed the name to Martin Greenfield Clothiers. A very short list of the people he has dressed includes Presidents Eisenhower, Ford, Clinton, and Obama; Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.; Martin Scorsese, Jimmy Fallon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp, Ben Affleck, Michael Strahan, Kobe Bryant, Patrick Ewing, Conan O'Brien, Eddie Cantor, Sir Ben Kingsley, Al Pacino, Paul Newman, and the list goes on and on and on.
Asked about the response to his book, Mr. Greenfield became reflective and teary-eyed. "The book has been such a big hit. I can't believe it. Ambassadors invite me to lunch at their embassies. People want to talk to me. I get invited all over. In Texas, they have the book in one of the high schools and kids from the school have been writing me letters. They're not Jews. It's just incredible. You've got to read these letters. From China, from Buffalo, from all over, I don't know where to keep the letters any more. I can't answer every one. But I keep them all. Here, read this letter from a painter down south." I paused and read the letter. "Look what my book did for him. His letter made me cry. Look what he says. For this alone, if the book helped one person, isn't that something?" he asked. Mr. Greenfield proceeded to take the letter from me when I was done and reread it. A tear dripped down his cheek even though this was his second, third, or fourth time reading the same letter. It's impossible to get through his book without crying, yet here was Mr. Greenfield, Holocaust survivor and tailor to presidents, crying while rereading a letter from a stranger. "I got a letter from an 11 year-old that wants to become me. You wouldn't believe how an 11 year-old could write a letter like this. A 13 year-old relative wants me to be on the pulpit with him for his Bar Mitzvah." For several more minutes, Mr. Greenfield had me read letters from strangers who had been moved by his book. Many were hand written, some were emails that had been printed. They are all kept by Mr. Greenfield in manila folders piled on his desk surrounded by signed boxing gloves, basketballs, and pictures.
I couldn't leave without asking Mr. Greenfield about dressing so many famous people for so many years. He had even recently provided over 600 suits for "Boardwalk Empire." But he didn't have much interest in talking about that. "Being in the shop is my greatest pleasure. I know I won't be around forever so I'm teaching the younger people. I still do as much myself as I can." Although proud of his work, he seems to want his story to be his legacy more than his famous line of suits with his name on them. I had a quick tour of the factory and gave this miracle of a man a hug before he sat down on a century-old stool to eat Chinese food with his factory workers.
You can purchase Martin Greenfield's book on Amazon and you can come here him talk at a special event at the JCC of Mid-Westchester on March 26th from 7:30-9:00 PM.