Hanging by a thread: From Auschwitz survivor to presidents’ tailor

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World-renowned tailor Martin Greenfield has dressed everyone from Leonardo DiCaprio to President Barack Obama

In his memoir Measure of a Man, he details his his years spent as a prisoner at Nazi concentration camps and the loss of his family

Greenfield now runs Martin Greenfield Clothiers with his sons in Brooklyn

CNN  — 

Martin Greenfield is one of the world’s most respected and accomplished tailors. Since emigrating from the former Czechoslovakia to America in 1947, he has dressed everyone from the Rat Pack and Leonardo DiCaprio to Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Barack Obama.

But Greenfield’s success follows tremendous adversity. As a teenager, he survived two horrific years in concentration camps during the Holocaust, and lost his parents and siblings at the hands of the Nazis. In this excerpt from his memoir Measure of a Man, Greenfield describes how an encounter with an SS guard at Auschwitz led him to pick up a needle and thread for the first time, and how tragedy taught him the power of clothes.

Martin Greenfield: It was our second day inside Auschwitz. The soldiers asked if we knew any trades, like masonry, carpentry, medicine—that kind of thing. Dad grabbed my wrist and thrust it into the air.

“He is a mechanic. Very skilled,” he said.

Martin Greenfield

Above the gates at Auschwitz was a sign. It read Arbeit macht frei (“Work makes you free”). By volunteering my skills as a mechanic, my father protected me. It was his way of marking me for the Germans as a Jew whose skills they could exploit, as one not to be burned.

As soon as my father offered up my skills, two Germans walked toward us to take me away. I then did something I should not have done, something stupid: I ran. Why, I do not know. Fences and soldiers were everywhere. Where did I think I was going? I cannot say. But for whatever reason, I ran.

A few paces into my sprint, I heard a barking German shepherd barreling down on me. My arms pumped hard as I stretched my stride and ran faster than I’d ever run before. The barks got louder. I snapped my head back over my shoulder and saw the dog closing in. He leapt and latched his teeth onto my leg. I looked down. The dog hung from my calf. I shoved his head with both hands. He snarled and gnashed violently as I struggled to pry him loose. The dog’s jaw unlocked, taking a meaty chunk with him. Blood spurted on my prisoner uniform, the dog’s mouth—everywhere. I tried not to cry. Not in front of my father, not in front of the other men and boys.

The two soldiers tromped over to retrieve the dog and make sure he was uninjured. They then snatched me up off the ground and hauled me away from the group. I thought maybe that night I would join my father again, but that did not happen. That day, my second inside Auschwitz, was the last time I ever saw my father.

The Germans dragged me to the laundry. Whether they wanted me first to perform a simpler task than mechanical work, or whether this was a punishment for trying to flee, I do not know. But after my sprinting stunt, I was eager to show the Germans I was a hard worker who could be of use.

My first job in the camps was washing Nazi uniforms. I knew nothing of the task. Still, I grabbed a brush and an SS soldier’s shirt and scrubbed hard and fast. After working my way about halfway through the pile, it happened. I scrubbed so hard the bristles ripped the collar. The face of the pacing soldier at my station flushed red. I do not remember his words, but I remember his baton. He beat me until I bled. He needed to make an example out of me for the other prisoners. When he was finished with my flogging, he balled up the torn shirt and threw it in my face before huffing off.

The shirt was trash to the soldier but not to me. I kept it. Working in the laundry was a nice man who knew how to sew. He gave me a needle and thread and taught me how to sew a simple stitch.

I mended the shirt. To this day I still don’t know why, but when I got up the courage, I slipped the soldier’s shirt on and wore it under my striped prisoner uniform. It was a crazy thing to do, because none of the other prisoners had a shirt. But I did it anyhow. From that day on, the soldiers treated me a little bit better. They thought I was somebody—someone who mattered, someone not to be killed.

The prisoners treated me a little bit better as well. You must remember that some of the kapos (supervisors) were Jewish prisoners, but they could be brutal. They wanted to please the Germans, so some of them would be hard on us so the Germans would not punish them. Sometimes the kapos were harsher than some of the Germans. When I had my soldier shirt on, however, that did not happen. When I wore the shirt, the kapos didn’t mess with me.

The shirt means something, I thought. And so I wore the shirt. In fact, I ripped another one on purpose so I could have two. The day I first wore that shirt was the day I learned clothes possess power. Clothes don’t just “make the man,” they can save the man. They did for me.

Of course, receiving your first tailoring lesson inside a Nazi concentration camp was hardly the ideal apprenticeship. I would have much preferred to hone my craft on Savile Row or in the mills of Milan. Looking back, though, that moment in the camps marked the beginning of the rest of my life. Strangely enough, two ripped Nazi shirts helped this Jew build America’s most famous and successful custom-suit company.

God has a wonderful sense of humor.

Martin Greenfield’s memoir “Measure of a Man is available now.