Martin Greenfield was born Maximilian Grünfeld in Pavlovo, then part of Czechoslovakia and now in Ukraine. At age fifteen, he and his family were deported to Auschwitz, like so many other Jewish families in this part of the world during WWII. The infamous Dr. Mengele separated him and his father from his mother and siblings. Martin would be the only survivor from his family.
I was fascinated at his father’s heartbreaking insistence that they separate in order to survive. Maybe because I read this around the same time as A Train in Winter, where the survivors of a group of female Communists deported from France credited their intense friendships and refusal to separate within the camps for their survival against overwhelming odds. Regardless, the separation threw him into survival mode and miraculously, he made it, and eventually he was able to immigrate to America.
If I’d learned anything in the camps, I’d learned that what you wore could change your life.
It was in Auschwitz that he quickly learned the importance of dress. This lesson was to stay with him for the rest of his life, influencing not only the care he would put into presenting himself, but his choice of profession. Martin had torn an SS officer’s shirt but was able to keep it after his punishment for the offense. He learned to sew, and then in a very bold act, he’d wear the shirt with his striped prisoner’s uniform. It bought him a certain respect from the violent prisoner supervisors, teaching him that clothes really can both make and save a man.
Greenfield imparts some simple yet deep wisdoms and life lessons, and actually I found the first portion of the book, which briefly outlines his childhood before moving on to his harrowing experience in Auschwitz, to be an excellently written, evocative portrayal of a point in history and a camp experience. I’m not sure if it was because the depth of emotions inspired richer writing, or maybe because he’d had more years to reflect on these experiences, and polish their telling in his mind before committing them to a paper narrative. Either way, his story from the camp is one of the better written and more affecting that I’ve read. It contrasted a bit with the parts of his life that he wrote about after, in America, which felt more rushed over and somewhat simplistically told in comparison.
In the book’s second half, Greenfield details the growth of his men’s tailoring business. It really is an incredible arc – from a Czechoslovakian village to Auschwitz to tailoring suits for stars and presidents and Boardwalk Empire. We learn some interesting insider tidbits about those many celebrities and major politicians he’s dressed, and he’s always respectful and gracious in his storytelling. Presidentially, he began by dressing Dwight Eisenhower, who he revered for his role in liberating the camps. He reflects on his sweet naiveté of that time, when he slipped notes into Eisenhower’s suit pockets containing his thoughts on foreign policy. He also dressed Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton, and Obama. Unfortunately, he dressed Trump pre-presidency, so I’d assume the trend continues, but this was published in 2014.
He has a charming way of relating his later experiences to his upbringing and what he endured in the Holocaust, contrasting American openness and generosity with the suspicion and selfishness he’d encountered in Europe. And he stays grounded despite his incredible achievements. A lovely example of this kind of storytelling comes when meeting the “gracious” Lana Turner: “I was starstruck. But it was more than that. I was deeply moved by the way accomplished and successful people took time to help someone who could not help them. This uniquely American sensibility of selflessness endeared my adopted homeland to me. I had traveled all over Europe. I’d seen and met all kinds of people. Americans were different. I had never encountered a people so intent on lifting up individuals. They cared. Best of all, they didn’t think it was such a big deal.”
He also has a sweet, happy sense of humor, which helped in some of the more celebrity-centric chapters, which, although celebrating his remarkable work accomplishments, weren’t always that interesting to read. But I liked lines like, “Michael doesn’t do Brooklyn,” about Michael Jackson. His company, Martin Greenfield Clothiers, which he now runs with his sons, is Brooklyn-based.
It’s not a perfect book, but even when they’re less than perfect I always find something special and meaningful in WWII or Holocaust survivor memoirs. For as many similarities as the stories sometimes have, each one is incredibly unique and revealing in its own way.
My life has been filled with far more light than darkness. America can do that – flood you with more blessings than you could ever deserve.
I loved his thoughtful, joyful observations of life in America, how much it’s meant to him, and the obvious delight and passion he has for his work. And the idea of clothing and how much it meant to his life, both as he struggled to survive the concentration camp and then as he made his name in New York, was such an interesting lens through which to view his life experience. Sweet, uplifting stories of success and triumph over the tragedy and discrimination that shadowed his early life.
Measure of a Man: From Auschwitz Survivor to Presidents’ Tailor
by Martin Greenfield with Wynton Hall
published November 10, 2014 by Regnery