A dress for many brides

This true story, written by Helen Zegerman Schwimmer, is a testament to both love and endurance. It is reprinted here with Ms. Schwimmer’s permission.

Lilly Friedman doesn't remember the last name of the woman who designed and sewed the wedding gown she wore when she walked down the aisle over 60 years ago. But, the grandmother of seven does recall that when she first told her fiancé Ludwig that she had always dreamed of being married in a white gown he realized he had his work cut out for him.

For the tall, lanky 21-year-old who had survived hunger, disease and torture this was a different kind of challenge. How was he ever going to find such a dress in the Bergen Belsen Displaced Persons camp where they felt grateful for the clothes on their backs?

Fate would intervene in the guise of a former German pilot who walked into the food distribution center where Ludwig worked, eager to make a trade for his worthless parachute. In exchange for two pounds of coffee beans and a couple of packs of cigarettes Lilly would have her wedding gown.

For two weeks Miriam the seamstress worked under the curious eyes of her fellow DPs, carefully fashioning the six parachute panels into a simple, long-sleeved gown with a rolled collar and a fitted waist that tied in the back with a bow. When the dress was completed she sewed the leftover material into a matching shirt for the groom.

A white wedding gown may have seemed like a frivolous request in the surreal environment of the camps, but for Lilly the dress symbolized the innocent, normal life she and her family had once led before the world descended into madness. Lilly and her siblings were reared in a Torah-observant home in the small town of Zarica, Czechoslovakia, where her father was a melamed, respected and well liked by the young yeshiva students he taught in nearby Irsheva.

He and his two sons were marked for extermination immediately upon arriving at Auschwitz. For Lilly and her sisters it was only their first stop on their long journey of persecution, which included Plashof, Neustadt, Gross Rosen and finally Bergen Belsen.

On January 27, 1946, 400 people marched 15 miles in the snow to the town of Celle to attend Lilly’s and Ludwig's wedding. The town synagogue, damaged and desecrated, had been lovingly renovated by the DPs with the meager materials available to them. When a Sefer Torah arrived from England they converted an old kitchen cabinet into a makeshift Aron Kodesh.

"My sisters and I lost everything - our parents, our two brothers, our homes. The most important thing was to build a new home." Six months later, Lilly's sister Ilona wore the dress when she married Max Traeger. After that came Cousin Rosie. How many brides wore Lilly's dress? "I stopped counting after 17." With the camps experiencing the highest marriage rate in the world, Lilly's gown was in great demand.

In 1948 when President Harry Truman finally permitted the 100,000 Jews who had been languishing in DP camps since the end of the war to emigrate, the gown accompanied Lilly across the ocean to America. Unable to part with her dress, it lay at the bottom of her bedroom closet for the next 50 years, "not even good enough for a garage sale. I was happy when it found such a good home."

Home was the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. When Lily's niece, a volunteer, told museum officials about her aunt's dress, they immediately recognized its historical significance and displayed the gown in a specially designed showcase, guaranteed to preserve it for 500 years.

But, Lilly Friedman's dress had one more journey to make. Bergen Belsen, the museum, opened its doors on October 28, 2007. The German government invited Lilly and her sisters to be their guests for the grand opening. They initially declined, but finally traveled to Hanover the following year with their children, their grandchildren and extended families to view the extraordinary exhibit created for the wedding dress made from a parachute.

Lilly's family, who were all familiar with the stories about the wedding in Celle, were eager to visit the synagogue. They found the building had been completely renovated and modernized. But when they pulled aside the handsome curtain they were astounded to find that the Aron Kodesh, made from a kitchen cabinet, had remained untouched as a testament to the profound faith of the survivors. As Lilly stood on the bimah once again she beckoned to her granddaughter, Jackie, to stand beside her where she was once a kallah. "It was an emotional trip. We cried a lot."

Two weeks later, the woman who had once stood trembling before the selective eyes of the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele returned home and witnessed the marriage of her granddaughter.

The three Lax sisters - Lilly, Ilona and Eva, who together survived Auschwitz, a forced labor camp, a death march and Bergen Belsen - have remained close and today live within walking distance of each other in Brooklyn. As mere teenagers, they managed to outwit and outlive a monstrous killing machine, then went on to marry, have children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and were ultimately honored by the country that had earmarked them for extinction.

As young brides, they had stood underneath the chuppah and recited the blessings that their ancestors had been saying for thousands of years. In doing so, they chose to honor the legacy of those who had perished by choosing life.


The author Helen is the daughter of Holocaust survivors and was born in a displaced person's camp located on the grounds of the St. Ottilien Monastery in Bavaria, Germany. She weaves together personal vignettes about her parents, her husband and her three children with inspiring stories about luminaries in the fields of medicine, the arts, education, law, religion and the media in her critically acclaimed new book, “Like The Stars of The Heavens.” To order a copy of her book, please visit: popjudaica.com. To contact Helen, please visit: helenschwimmer.com.


PHOTO: Lilly Friedman and her parachute dress on display in the Bergen Belsen Museum.


Debra said...

Now that is a "love" story. What a beautiful story of the love a man has for a woman and the links he went to so that her dreams would come true. IT just goes to show LOVE can work miracles. Thank you for sharing that with me.
I sent the story on to a friend I have had since high school. She lives in Miami Beach Florida. Her name is Star. I told her to write a comment on your blog if she felt led to. Love, Deb

Frodo, Still Fighting Orcs said...

Please figure out a way to get this in the hands of the Pope. One of his underlings needs to digest this piece from beginning to end.

Gregg Sutton said...

There are two things I cannot wrap my mind around, the needlessness of war and what these dear people went through. Anne Frank, who died at Bergen Belsen, believed all people are good. Thanks for the story. It helps me believe.

Sam said...

The human spirit, beautiful, enduring, memorable.

tiny said...

This is both a love story and a tragedy. The enduring spirit of love and its healing power and the tragedy of loosing ones family members in such a senseless manner.

Must be serendipity the below was posted in the SoJoMail@sojo.net

There are six things that the Lord hates,
seven that are an abomination to him:
haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked plans,
feet that hurry to run to evil,
a lying witness who testifies falsely,
and one who sows discord in a family.
- Proverbs 6:16-19

Anger is not bad. Anger can be a very positive thing, the thing that moves us beyond the acceptance of evil.
- Joan Chittister, OSB

Hopefully, this country is now heading toward peace with our fellow human beings on earth.

annelle said...

Wonderful post...I was moved by the love story and by tiny's verseoftheday.

tom said...

My wife and I enjoyed the story. She wants the book for Valentine’s. I would trade a pound of coffee and two packs of cigarettes to get her anything she wants.

Good Southern Man said...

That is a beautiful story especially the part about the untouched Aron Kodesh, made from a kitchen cabinet. Lovely post!

Bill Sumrall said...

This is the story Oprah should broadcast.

Helen said...

I love the way the article looks on your site. Very classy design. Will look into Talking Books, also Oprah. As far as I know my husband's family is not related to David Schwimmer although that is the name of my husband's grandfather and they all have roots in Czechoslovakia. I've been getting several emails from "Schwimmers" who want to know if we're related.
Love the comments from your visitors. I'm especially impressed that you can gather all that info from your site meter. I'll have to ask my web designer about that. Thank you for sharing my story.
All the best,

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