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Fashion and Feathers

Jewish “garmentos” in Germany, Austria and South Africa

For hundreds of years, Jews in all parts of the world have made their living through the clothing trades, from toiling in little shmata businesses to owning huge department stores such as Macy’s and Abraham & Strauss. Two recent books explore this history, each from a very different angle.

Broken Threads: The Destruction of the Jewish Fashion Industry in Germany and Austria edited by Roberta S. Kremer (Palgrave, $36.95) documents how German Jews found their way to the garment business — via the Emancipation of the Jews in Germany during the 19th century — and how this connection came to a brutal end. The book, an outgrowth of a 1999 museum exhibit in Vancouver, is beautifully designed and illustrated. Each of its six essays focuses on a single aspect of this tragic story, from the architecture of the retail stores to the Nazi cruelties. By 1939, historian Irene Guenther tells us here, the German fashion industry had been made Judenrein, free of Jews, “through a combination of massive pressure, hateful propaganda, direct intervention, blacklists, sanctions, boycotts, and firings, as well as illegal takeovers, buy-outs, and liquidations.” Gloria Sultano, a Viennese historian, describes much the same thing happening in Vienna, but much more quickly: within a year after the Anschluss in 1938, all the Jewish-owned textile and clothing businesses had been “Aryanized.”

The irony, as Sultano and Guenther note, is that the Nazis, by “cleansing” the fashion industry of Jews, destroyed it altogether. “Along with the Jews, elegance disappeared from Berlin,” announced Magda Goebbels, the wife of Hitler’s propaganda minister after the deportations to ghettos and concentration camps began. She knew what she was talking about: during the 1930s, she and Emmy Göring had refused to stop patronizing their favorite Jewish designers, despite the racial laws. Apparently even for the wives of Hitler’s closest henchmen, fashion could trump Nazi ideology.

While Jews in Germany were establishing clothing businesses, Lithuanian Jews who had immigrated to South Africa at the start of the 20th century were carving out a lucrative niche for themselves in the harvesting and trading of ostrich feathers. Who knew? In Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce (Yale University Press, $30), UCLA history professor Sarah Abrevaya Stein describes how Jews dominated the worldwide trade of that then-hot commodity. Yiddish-speaking feather buyers traveled around the Cape, purchasing feathers from Boer ostrich farmers to auction off to the wholesalers, who in turn shipped them to Jewish middlemen in London, the hub of the global feather market. There the plumes were once again sold at auction, this time to be sent to Paris and New York, where they were resold, processed, made into boas and sewn onto hats by Jewish and Italian immigrant women working in sweatshops devoted solely to ostrich plumes.

Though Stein sometimes buries the narrative in academic jargon, the story itself is fascinating. The most interesting sections of her book concern the little town of Oudtshoorn, near Capetown, whose economy was based on ostrich feathers. Until the beginning of World War I, the global feather market boomed, and many Jewish Oudtshoorn feather merchants grew rich. But in 1914, a change in fashion, and the beginning of the war in Europe, caused the market to crash. Stein quotes from Oudtshoorn, Yerushalayim d’Afrike, a book published in Johannesburg in 1940. It was written in Yiddish by one Leybl Feldman, who describes the aftermath of the crash: “The ostrich feather dealers, speculators, and exporters were reduced to poverty, feeling as hard done by as the ostriches had formerly felt after being plucked. … Jews no longer went out to buy feathers. Instead they wandered the streets of Oudtshoorn in dire straits like victims of fire, dejected and desperate.”

Alice Sparberg Alexiou, a contributing editor to Lilith, is the author of Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary (2006). Her new book, Flatiron, about the New York City landmark building, will be published in June 2010 by St. Martin’s Press.