Dressing the president

The incredible story of the man who survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald and reinvented himself as master tailor to the most important people in the world.

January 10, 2015 22:13

MARTIN GREENFIELD holds a copy of his autobiography ‘Measure of a Man’: ‘God has a brilliant sense of humor.’. (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI)

In March, Martin Greenfield will be the guest of Limmud FSU in a conference in New Jersey when he will be presented with a special award marking his extraordinary life.

Greenfield left notes with suggestions in the suit pockets of Eisenhower, sewed a bulletproof vest for Gerald Ford, searched through the private wardrobe of Clinton and prevented the Obama girls from making jokes at the expense of their father.

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NEW YORK – The 14-year-old stood in the laundry and brushed the shirt of the SS officer; brushed it so frantically that he tore the collar. He can’t remember the exact words, only the beating. After his back had been flogged to a bleeding pulp, the officer flung the torn shirt in his face. Another prisoner taught him to sew up the shirt and he wore it under his striped prison uniform. From that day the SS treated him differently. He had become “someone” who should not be killed. After all one of them had “donated” his shirt.

“From that day I learned that clothing is power,” says Martin Greenfield, “clothes not only make the man but can also save his life.”

This is the story of the turning upside down of a life, the story of a person who for the first time ever held a needle in Auschwitz and became tailor to presidents of the United States. Maximilian Grunfeld, as he was then, would surely have preferred to serve an apprenticeship in Milan or Paris and not between the crematoria and railheads.

Nevertheless he feels some sort of gratitude to Auschwitz. The death camp marked the beginning of the rest of his life.

The torn shirt of a pitiless SS officer helped “this Jew” as he describes himself, to create the best-known atelier of men’s tailoring in the United States.

Everyone has revealed the secrets of their figure to Martin Greenfield, hoping that he will be able to rectify minor faults of creation.

Not only presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, but also Vice-President Joe Biden, secretary of state Colin Powell, secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg, basketball stars Lebron James, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neill, world champion heavyweight boxer Evander Holyfield and businessman Donald Trump. Among the estimated 130 movie stars who have been dressed by him are Paul Newman, Edward G. Robinson, Sammy Davis Junior, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio, Al Pacino and Ben Affleck. His suits have featured in such movies as Arthur, The Great Gatsby, Argo and Scent of a Woman. In addition he has made suits for Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu and former Israel ambassador to the US, Michael Oren.

“I make sure that all Israel’s ambassadors to the US look their best,” he tells me.

But Martin Greenfield Clothiers is not to be found among the glitterati of Manhattan.

Brooklyn was once one of the most highly desired neighborhoods of New York, but in the mid-1970s, businesses began to move out. In their place, cheap and crowded housing began to be built, and violence was not slow to follow. Shops were set alight, houses robbed, banks closed down and urban blight fell upon the area. Even though his premises were broken into several times, Greenfield decided to stay on, driven by a social conscience as much as anything. It was best that his employees most of them locals, should get a salary rather than live off welfare payments.

120 people work in a tailoring empire that looks like a sweat shop at the turn of the last century. Greenfield wears an old shabby working coat as if to emphasize that here, all the work is as it was once – all made by hand. The wooden floor are marked by the soles of shoes, the doors to the toilet squeak, clouds of steam arise from the irons and float above the workers as it did 100 years ago, Now, as then, this is work for immigrants. There are 16 countries of origin represented here; most of the workers are from Eastern Europe or Central America, with metal thimbles on their fingers. Along the walls are flags of the nations from where they came, among them the stars and stripes of their new homeland. Every Marcello from Guatemala, every Fernandez from Haiti, every Pavel from Poland, will not forget the country where they found refuge.

On the refugee’s scale of respectability, working in a tailoring shop is one rung above working in a fast food joint and it is not something they would wish to pass on to their children. On the contrary, the sewers aspire to sew a better future for their offspring, for example, a college education – in just the same way that Martin Greenfield worked hard to provide his children with an education.

Jay and Tod work in their father’s business.

They are the ones who give him energy and they are proud of the rare fact that all the suits here are handmade. The same striving for high quality that marks the wine makers of Bordeaux. If there is a machine it is only to make the hand work easier. Some of the sewing machines are worked by pedals so that the hands are free for stitching. Martin Greenfield makes stylish clothes but not flashy. Elegant but not shocking – neither in appearance nor to the pocket. The average suit here costs between $2,000 and 3,000. Not exactly cheap but well within reason for a product of this quality.

Greenfield, 85, is remarkable not just for his success and the remarkable clientele he has gathered. Chaim Chesler, founder of Limmud FSU (former Soviet Union,) and co-founder Sandra Cahn from New York, explain that Greenfield “is at the culmination of a heroic and inspiring journey: a journey of a Holocaust survivor who gathered the broken pieces together and built a new life for himself and his family – a life crowned with success.”

In March, Greenfield will be the guest of Limmud FSU in their annual conference in New Jersey where he will be presented with a special award marking his life achievement.

Does this coming event give him cause for any special reflection? Greenfield chooses not to unravel the stitches of his inner thoughts. During his first 40 years in the United States, he did not talk about his experiences or his survival. “I thought nobody would believe me: they would laugh in my face.”

To such an extent, I ask him? “Listen, I wouldn’t have believed it myself!” He quotes from his newly-published autobiography, Measure of a Man.

“God has a brilliant sense of humor.”

Meeting Mengele In April, 1944, the celestial sense of humor took a break for Passover. The Germans surrounded the Jewish quarter of the village of Pavlovo in Czechoslovakia, (now in Ukraine) rounded up the Jews and loaded them into cattle wagons on trains bound for Auschwitz. There on the platform stood the Angel of Death in his polished boots.

Dr. Joseph Mengele generated an aura of calm. In order to save his 14 year-old son, Grunfeld’s father said to Mengele, “Prisoner A4406 is a skilled mechanic.”

Actually Grunfeld received his mechanical training at a brothel in Budapest. When the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia, he fled with a friend to the Hungarian capital. For lack of an income, he began to work on cars belonging to girls working in a brothel.

One day his hand got caught in a machine and he was injured. His father came to take him home. “I tried to tell my father that things were not exactly as they seemed; that the girls were very kind and like sisters to me and helped me a lot. After he had recommended me to Mengele he whispered one sentence that was his last testament to me: ‘Keep on living with no pangs of conscience. Create a family and remember us.’” Two soldiers forcibly separated him from his father and he never saw him again.

Death had several faces in Auschwitz. On one hand the industrialized and organized crematoria and on the other, unplanned fate. He was working on a wall with a friend when a shot rang out. He continued talking to him but when there was no answer, turned around and found his friend shot to death on the ground beside him.

But in the turbulent horror there were moments of mercy. “Dr. Musselman” was the nickname bestowed on the doctor who decided who would continue to work and who would be killed immediately. The doctor determined that Grunfeld would be transferred to the Buna forced labor camp, and thus saved his life. Later he was forced to join the infamous Death March to Gleiwitz. He remembers marching with an open mouth to catch snowflakes to assuage his thirst, with the sound of the SS guards shouting “schnell, schnell.” As the march continued, shooting became more and more persistent, especially in the back of the necks of those who could not keep up.

Deep in the darkness he took out a piece of bread he had secreted in his coat.

“The best thing I ever ate in my life,” he remembers.

The wind changed direction and blew directly in their faces; anyone who fell was covered in eternal snow. He asked two friends to leave him in the snow and he drew up his knees and pulled his clothing over his head. The marchers went on without him but after a few hours he gave himself up so as not to die of cold. At Gleiwitz the prisoners were loaded on to a train to an unknown destination.

The new destination was called Buchenwald.

One morning the prisoners were taken to the nearby town of Weimar to repair damage caused by allied bombing.

The prisoners stopped by the house of the town’s mayor. Outside was a black Mercedes.

In the basement they discovered a hutch with two rabbits happily chewing on a lettuce and carrots. The mayor’s wife, an attractive blonde woman appeared and yelled at them, “why are you stealing the rabbit’s food – you are animals!” The guards’ batons rained on his back causing rivulets of blood. He promised himself that he was going to return and kill the woman.

What do you remember of the day of liberation from Buchenwald? “An American soldier came into our hut and said ‘Ich bin a Yid – I am looking for Jews.’” After a brief talk, the American soldier said that he was a rabbi. “So where was God?” Maximilian asked him. “Why did he kill my whole family?” What did he answer you? “That he had no answer.”

“At 11 that morning we heard the sweet sound of General Patton’s tanks. The next day, 12 April, 1945, he saw in person General Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of the allied forces and his future customer.

“My hero forever,” Greenfield calls him.

A day later, and faithful to his vow for revenge, he went looking for the mayor’s wife. He found her holding a baby in her arms and pleading for her life. “Shoot her” said his friends. He took up a pistol that had been abandoned by the guards who had fled, took aim at the woman… but could not pull the trigger. “In front of my eyes I saw my mother holding my small brother, and I didn’t want to be another Mengele.”

Just before he left Buchenwald, he learned that his father was also in the camp and had been shot just a week before liberation.

Letter from Baltimore Immediately following his liberation, Grunfeld joined the Aliya Bet, the “illegal” underground organization for immigration to Palestine. He aided in transferring 12 shipments of refugees to Italy on their way to Palestine. He was arrested twice and spent the nights in prison. “I didn’t see it as a punishment but as a hotel behind bars.”

He believed in the Zionist idea and thought it would surely not be long before he would find himself on a tractor plowing the fields of Galilee.

But a letter from Baltimore consigned the tractor to a garage for ever. The letter was from one Irving Berger, his dead mother’s well-off uncle. He had never heard of him before but the newly-found uncle urged him to come to the United States for which he would send him the ticket. He thought, “Why should I search for possible relatives in Palestine when there are people in Baltimore and New York waiting for me?” In September 1947, he embarked on the steam ship “Ernie Pyle” from Bremerhaven to New York. As the ship left behind the shores of Germany, the thought of New York sparkled before him as a pile of diamonds.

“I laughed and I cried.”

With its funnels belching smoke into the sky, the Ernie Pyle entered New York harbor. Unlike Jews at the beginning of the century, who jettisoned their tefillin into the sea when they saw the Statue of Liberty, Maximilian held onto his identity.

“I felt as if I had been newly born,” he says.

He felt young, strong and confident and ready to devour the New World. His uncle bought him a suit from GGG, a well-known outfitter so he would look respectable in job interviews. The tailoring company of William, Manny and Morris Goldman was considered a good label in men’s wear. It was clear to him that a good jacket could make all the difference. “Even if I don’t know English,” he thought to himself, “the suit will speak for me.”

Maximilian Grunfeld become Martin Greenfield and got a job at GGG. William Goldman insisted that he begin work from the bottom. He slowly learned all the tailoring professions: cutting, sewing, making pockets, facings, button holes, pressing.

His life in the camps had taught him that the more you know, the better the chances of survival. William Goldman began to involve him in dealing with some of the company’s star clients such as Edward G. Robinson, Sammy Davis Junior, Glenn Ford, Martin Scorsese and Eddie Kantor.

In the mid-1970s, like many other firms in Brooklyn, the Goldman Brothers decided to close down. “My father borrowed money at the crazy rate of interest of 17 percent,” his son Tod tells me, and Martin Greenfield decided to reopen the business.

“I remember difficult conversations among the family but father decided to begin, even if it was in a small way. At the beginning, he would make suits for other outfitters and only then begin to develop his own brand.”

I ask Tod what is so special about their brand. He gives me a short course in haute couture bespoke tailoring. “A jacket has three layers of material, all stitched by hand. The middle layer gives the suit its special character. In cheap suits, the middle layer is glued to the outer and looks awful.

When I come across such creations, I pass along the other side of the street so as not to see it.”

At the heart of the work of Martin Greenfield is a humanistic outlook on people.

He does not believe that in our world there are two people with identical proportions.

Each person is different. And his role is to correct any omissions of nature. A client whose arms are not the same length? He will compensate for it in the sleeves.

The torso is longer than normal? He will change the positioning of the buttons. A dropped shoulder? He will redesign the shoulders of the jacket so that they are symmetrical.

A Pathetic Wardrobe Greenfield does not only talk to his customers: he also studies their life-style, each with his own special needs. He will never outfit a television presenter like Walter Cronkite or Conan O’Brian, with the same cloth as basketball stars such as Lebron, Ewing or Shaquille O’Neal (“the biggest person I ever measured”). Evidently there are cloths that cameras hate; there are seams that don’t look good on broadcasters and there are those on whom everything looks good – like Paul Newman.

There are stars who insist that they be measured in their own home. Newman likes to come by himself to the Greenfield atelier. He stops by each sewer, puts a hand on the shoulder of each ironer. Tod says that when the eyes of the girls would encounter Paul Newman’s blue ones, “they would lose their heads and lose control of their needles.”

Ever since his days at GGG, Greenfield has done his best that the leaders of the country should not look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. The first such leader was president Eisenhower, who had given him a fresh lease on life in Buchenwald.

Greenfield decided to “repay” Ike, not just with his new suit but he would also give him some unsolicited advice on the Suez Affair of 1956. He wrote a message on a piece of paper and slipped it into the jacket pocket and to be sure the president got the message, he put copies into five different pockets.

“Dear Mr. President. Do me and yourself a favor and send your Secretary of State [ed.

John Foster Dulles] for a week’s vacation.

The war will be over without one single American being hurt and the canal will be open to everyone. I am a Jew but my religion has no connection to the advice I am giving you.”

Didn’t you worry that he might not find the message? “An aide of his told me that Eisenhower had said, ‘There is a tailor in Brooklyn who presumes to tell me how to conduct foreign relations.’” In 1974 the White House requested a suit for the incoming president Gerald Ford.

The new president had a very impressive physique but his long years in Congress had made him a sloppy dresser. So, still working for GGG, Greenfield took up his needles. One evening, two heavily-built men appeared in the workshop. They directed him to a side room and he remonstrated with them.

“Leave me alone. I am a Holocaust survivor.”

The men said they were from the Secret Service. “But you are acting like the SS!” he told them. They apologized and then produced two disks of unidentifiable material and said they had to be sewn into the vest of the president’s three-piece suit, thus making it bullet-proof.

Ford survived two attempts on his life.

Had the bullets actually hit him the result could have been fatal. The president never wore the bullet-proof vest that Greenfield had so carefully sewn.

Donna Karan was the outfitter to Hilary Clinton. When her husband Bill entered the White House, she asked Karan if she could recommend a tailor and Karan remembered Greenfield. “Bill Clinton was the first president I actually measured in the White House,” Greenfield recalls.

A survivor of the death camps finds himself in the bedroom of the most powerful person in the world… “I was extremely nervous. I didn’t sleep a wink the night before.”

But that day, an army plane had crashed and Clinton was delayed for hours. In order to understand what he was expected to make for the president, Greenfield began looking through the clothes hanging in the presidential wardrobe.

“I didn’t believe what I found. A few short leather jackets, some sports jackets.

In short, the most pathetic wardrobe that had ever been possessed by an American president.”

Clinton duly arrived and turned on all the presidential charm. He slapped the tailor on the shoulder and asked him how he was doing, apologizing for the long wait, saying “Donna tells me you are the best tailor around.”

The president then showed him his wardrobe and Martin tried not to laugh.

“The time has come to build you a suitable presidential wardrobe and I will start work immediately.” Martin promised, “I will give you comfort in the style of Donna Karan but with a presidential look.”

It took about half an hour to complete the 27 essential measurements and Clinton admitted that he had no idea it would take so long, and then he asked, “What is the story about the notes in Eisenhower’s pockets?” Greenfield repeated the story and the president laughed, “If you want to tell me something you don’t need to plant notes: here is my fax number.”

A meeting with George W. Bush was canceled by history. On a day that became known as 9/11, Greenfield was waiting for the president to return from Florida. When it became known that the meeting would not be taking place he asked to leave Washington.

But the skies were closed to all air traffic. He decided to proceed with a fitting session planned to take place at the premises of the prestigious men’s outfitters, Brooks Brothers. To his surprise, there was a long line of people and he measured each one. “I never felt more proud to be an American as then.”

And Who Looks the Best? The Obama administration neither confirmed nor denied that the president’s suits had been made by Martin Greenfield. Only when The Washington Post revealed that the names “Jay and Todd Greenfield” appeared in the White House guest book, did they admit it. Greenfield has sewn all President Obama’s suits since February 2011.

But it all began four months earlier.

Michelle Obama was looking for a tailor suitable for her husband and her fashion consultant recommended Greenfield. But the White House had a condition: the tailor from Brooklyn would never actually measure the president. Instead, they suggested, Greenfield should simply copy the measurements from one of his existing suits. Maestro Greenfield boiled over.

“Please inform the White House,” he told his son Jay, “that Martin Greenfield never copies anyone else: everyone else copies Martin Greenfield.”

Jay, ever the diplomat, reworded the message in diplomatic language and the response duly came from the White House.

“On 2 November 2010, the President will be happy to receive Martin Greenfield and his son in his home.”

They met for the first time in the White House in the private office of the president on the third floor. Obama showed him an Italian-made suit and said, “this is what I would like.” Greenfield replied, “You won’t get that, but one that will be far better.”

The clothes were duly delivered a few months later and his aides confirmed, “The boss likes them.”

Obama ordered another one to wear for his visit to Buckingham Palace and four more later on. The work resulted in a certain intimacy between the president and the tailor. “My daughters Sasha and Malia make fun of my suit trousers – they say the cuffs make me look old, Can you do something about it?” Greenfield provided the President with fashionable pants with no cuffs.

What do you think about Obama’s light colored suit? “We made it and the president has worn it many times. The criticism stemmed from the fact that it was were not deemed appropriate for the occasion.” [The presidential press conference on the subject of Islamic State.] Is Michelle present during the measurements? Advising? “Certainly not, and that proves that the president is independent and serious.”

Of all the presidents, who looked best in your suits? “Barack Obama. He has an excellent figure and he has the measurements of a model. (Waist 33.5 inches) But Clinton also looks good.”

I thought you would say that he looked the best.

“The suits we made during the Clinton era were different. Longer and looser around the shoulders. That was the style then and Clinton looked wonderful. But my eyes have got used to the current styles and to me Obama simply looks perfect.

In one measurement session you become for a short moment the commander of the supreme commander of the US. You say, ‘’take a step forward, backward, turn round.”’ You touch him. To what extent does the president take your orders? “They need clothes and understand that they need to cooperate with the procedure.

The fact is that it is in no way an invasive process. They have all been measured before they were presidents – it all goes easily.”

Is there any small talk? Do you speak about politics? “I do not speak to presidents about politics.

I dress people on both sides of the divide – Democrats and Republicans. What I feel inside is my own secret business, but as a tailor I am completely independent.”

The subject of Israel never arises? “About Israel I only emphasize that if it had existed then, Hitler would not have murdered my family.”

In your opinion, how do we Israelis dress? “Very casual. Too casual for my taste.

Before I visited Israel, people told me to bring jeans, but I don’t wear jeans. Not my style. The dress code there is different. But I can understand it.”

Martin Greenfield has visited Israel four or five times. In his opinion, the country is changing all the time and for the better. At the same time he understands the dangers.

“We have to fight in order to survive,” he says. His links to the country are deeply emotional and with no conditions. The symbolism of its existence is important to him. His two granddaughters celebrated their bat mitzvah at the Western Wall.

He himself celebrated his bar mitzvah at the age of 80. When he was 13, he had to flee from his village of Pavlovo. In New York, he learned the parsha and haftora and celebrated it in a synagogue. A bar mitzvah boy of 80 for whom the death of his parents, his brothers, his sisters, passed before his eyes. But it is not sorry but joy that suffuses him.

“I survived,” he said in his bar mitzvah speech, “because God wished me to survive and maybe just because I am lucky.”

When he sat back in his seat, he adjusted his pin-striped gray suit, straightened his pale blue tie and understood that sometimes life is larger than all the measurements of man.

Translated by Asher Weill

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