Maxi Librati, from Auschwitz to the heart of Parisian fashion

Unlike most of the survivors who had been deported to concentration camps, Maxi (Mordechai) Librati’s family originated in North Africa.

Maxi Liberati (photo credit: Courtesy)
Maxi Liberati
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As a 21-year-old studying in Paris, like most over-motivated students I preferred spending money on books rather than on clothing. But I would feel at a complete loss when I was invited to a restaurant or a theater performance on the Champs-Elysées. Little did I know then that Maxi Librati, the creator of the dress that saved my dignity on a few occasions, had survived dehumanized life in Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau.
Unlike most of the survivors who had been deported to concentration camps, Maxi (Mordechai) Librati’s family originated in North Africa. His father had come to Lyon from Morocco in 1914, where he met his future wife, also from Morocco. Born in Lyon on February 5, 1925, Maxi was the eldest of a family of thirteen brothers and sisters. The family received the “Prix Cognacq-Jay,” a grant which provided financial support annually to many large families.
At the age of 18, Maxi worked as a blacksmith and a locksmith to earn a living and help support the family. Well integrated into Saint-Fons, a small town near Lyon, he joined the local soccer club and helped his mother with the housework. He took no interest in politics, nor did his family, to such an extent that he was not aware of the risk of being arrested as a Jew. Following an identity check by German soldiers when asked if he was a Jew, Maxi was arrested in July 1943 and incarcerated in Fort Montluc, a prison where he spent four days without food or even water because he had tried to write a letter to his parents. The letter had been miraculously found in the street by a passerby who put it in an envelope, bought a stamp, and sent it to Maxi’s parents, a stroke of luck which was to be followed by others. He was deported to Drancy, and later had to face deportation by himself to Auschwitz on September 2, 1943.
In October, a selection process in Birkenau sent him to “clean” the Warsaw ghetto, together with about 2,000 other Jewish prisoners. He later joined the “Todkommando” charged with cremating the dead. Maxi then caught typhus and was sent to the “hospital.” There, the Kapo was impressed by his efficiency as he volunteered to help with various tasks. He survived the death march from Warsaw, ending up in Dachau. From there he was sent to Kaufering IV, and finally to the Allach camp where he was liberated by the American forces, but later quarantined like all the inmates who had survived.
In his autobiography, he expressed his feelings and undefeated optimism:  “The American soldiers start organizing our new lives. We had real showers. The kitchens have been reopened and the American Army provided for our three meals a day. Little by little, we regain courage and find strength again, ready to face our future. Not to fear anymore the next second, the next second of horror almost resembles retrieved happiness! We are very excited at the idea of finding again our families and friends. It is so incredible to be here, free and alive, alive and free.”
Though Nazi Germany had deprived him of two years of his life, he did not feel any urge for revenge. What mattered most to him was to find his large family again and to reconstruct his life. However, like the other liberated prisoners, for a month he was not allowed to leave the concentration camp for fear of contamination. American soldiers then gathered all the French prisoners and brought them to a train station to send them back to France, where Librati stayed for a month in the Hotel Lutétia in Paris. Librati explained what happened and how he reacted to what followed, somewhat unexpectedly: “During one month, I eat and sleep almost without doing anything else. I don’t even try to resume contact with my own family. I don’t know why, but I am afraid of not finding them. I am also afraid they would not recognize me: I am so different!” he wrote in French in his memoir. He weighed 29 kilos when he returned to France.
In his book, Librati noted that he could not call his parents immediately because there was no telephone in their house in the village of Saint-Fons. Since the Lutétia Hotel was the central place in Paris where live deportees could be found, he decided he would search for his parents only later if they did not find him first. Most people came to the Lutétia with pictures of their lost ones to learn if they were still alive and, too often, learned how they had died. One day, a woman approached Librati and his friend with a picture of her brother. The friend identified the brother and told the woman how he had died pressing himself against the electric barbed wire fence.
Mrs. Kimel invited them to her home, sharing her meals with them, along with her husband and three children. That woman, who had come from Lodz and had been a refugee in France in the 1920s, proposed that she be Librati’s godmother, a French and Christian concept, which meant that he would be guided and helped in the reconstruction of his destiny, even if his mother was still alive. Indeed, Librati did finally return to Saint-Fons where he found all his family alive, a fact probably unique in history.
Librati draws a clear connection between his hope and optimism in spite of the dreadful conditions of his deportation and the happy memories of a joyful family life that sustained his will to survive. His natural optimism had also been strongly comforted by the reunion with his entire family, even enlarged by the addition of a brother and a sister born during his deportation, while his family had been in hiding thanks to his father’s boss. Thus, Librati had the joy of finding fourteen brothers and sisters who rejoiced when he came back, an exceptional fact, which so contrasted with the majority of young survivors who found no living parents, brothers, or sisters.
After returning home, an uncle gave him a job selling bicycles in the marketplace. He accepted, only too happy to return to active life. But one day he received a letter from Mrs Kimel, his “godmother” or adoptive mother, who suggested that he come to Paris where he would have a better opportunity to find a good job. Confronted with his own mother’s objection, Maxi promised he would come to see her every fortnight and assured her that he could not get married if he were to continue at odd jobs or be a blacksmith again, the skill he had learned before being deported.
His life in death camps had trained him to overcome obstacles. Life in Paris presented opportunities that could not be found in a small suburb of the provincial city of Lyon. In 1948, he stayed in Paris, living at Mrs Kimel’s home and working with the family in a wholesale shop selling textiles. Instead of taking the lunch hour to rest, Librati left the shop every day to sell textile samples as a representative of another firm, a job he had accepted to earn extra money. But one day, since he was late for work in the shop after the lunch break, Mrs Kimel’s son told him he would no longer be allowed to leave the shop between twelve and two in the afternoon. “Take it or leave it” was the deal, and Librati chose to leave. It was another stroke of luck. Librati found someone to replace him in the shop and learned the trade of designing clothes in one of the ORT Jewish schools in Paris.
Some ten years later, on February 5, 1963 (his birthday) Librati opened his first shop in the Sentier District in Paris, on Aboukir Street. His brothers and sisters came to work with him. In 1967, his fashionable boutique, aptly named “La Gaminerie,” captured the spirit of Paris of the 1960s in the famous Saint-Germain-des-Prés. From the village of Saint-Fons to Saint Germain, the change had been drastic! Librati was to introduce a small revolution into the Parisian way of life: his shop was the first to remain open until midnight.
Librati’s life story was strewn with strokes of luck. In 1967, which prefigured the 1968 “student revolution” in Paris, a fashion designer named Paco Rabanne asked Librati if he could display his creations in his shop windows. Later on, a man happened to spot a very chic and unusual mink coat designed by Paco Rabanne and offered to provide the two fashion designers, Librati and Rabanne, with a budget to organize a fashion show in Dallas, Texas, in one of his shops. That man was Stanley Marcus, chairman of the board of the luxury retailer Neiman Marcus in Dallas. Librati and Rabanne held a successful fashion show and cocktail party in the presence of six hundred people, with a host of journalists writing about his shop, “La Gaminerie,” which became a very trendy fashion house in Paris, and was followed by other boutiques. In the meantime, Librati married and had two children and later grandchildren. Today, Librati’s trademark is internationally known and often equated with French fashion taste.
While he created a successful career in the clothing manufacturing industry, it was only some forty years after his liberation from the camp that he decided to dedicate himself to commemoration of the Holocaust. Why so late after the liberation? First of all, because until documentary films about the Holocaust appeared nobody believed what the survivors described. Second, even when they saw some of the horrors of life in concentration camps, the people he talked to encouraged him not to speak, so as not to revive cruel memories and relive the past. Third, he did not insist on speaking about the Holocaust as he was busy making a living and creating a business. Nevertheless, from the late 1970s and onwards, he committed himself to Holocaust remembrance and over the years has dedicated himself to organizing trips to Poland, accompanying French youth. He also sponsored many initiatives and commemorative events in Yad Vashem. To mention but one, Librati endowed one of the galleries in the new Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum.
Librati was an exception among deported young adults and children. His large family considerably helped his return to normal life after the concentration camps. His narrative nevertheless exemplifies features often found among survivors: optimism, determination, tenacity, assertiveness, and courage. More than distancing ability, his childish naiveté and original ignorance of the change in status of the Jews in France helped him maintain the hope of better days. As an adult, his work ethic and desire to ensure the well-being of his parents, siblings, and his own new family strengthened his determination to achieve professional success in the French capital. From his concentration camp experience, he retained the ability to analyze a situation promptly in order to turn it to his advantage. Such a quality may be observed in his bold initiative to leave his fashionable boutique open until midnight in the trendy Saint-Germain-des-Prés of the 1960s.
Designing becoming fashionable clothes was also a way to offer a form of regained dignity to people. In postwar France, wearing the wrong clothes or simply old clothes was humiliating. It meant running the risk of being looked down upon, or remaining a “nonentity,” as was the case in the death camps. It is therefore not by pure chance that Librati chose to become a clothes designer, although he originally benefited from the precious guidance of a maraine or godmother. Such a choice has endowed his life with meaning. The transmission of the memory of the Shoah also brought deep meaning to his life, as he grew older. Librati gained the status of a social actor, both in fashion design and in the commemoration of the memory of the Nazi genocide of the Jews. He was one of the biggest donors to Yad Vashem and the IDF.
The elegant Parisian fashion designer who passed away at the age of 94 in 2019 almost always saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Was it a sign that the dress he designed (seemingly for me) was tailored in black, sprinkled with dainty pink flowers?  
Dr. Françoise S. Ouzan’s latest book is entitled How Young Holocaust Survivors Rebuilt Their Lives, France, The United States, and Israel (Indiana University Press, 2018).