What goes through a young woman’s mind when she sews her own dress? For 27-year-old Frania Bratt in early May 1945, in a satellite of Dachau Concentration Camp, near Munich, Germany, we may guess: a sense of freedom and a renewal of her life as a human being, a Jew, and a woman.
On April 29, the camp had finally been liberated by the Seventh Army of the United States Armed Forces. Like many of the 67,000 inmates packed into Dachau’s barracks by hastily retreating Nazis in the last days of the war, Frania Bratt had survived several other camps. For more than sixteen months, she had worn only the standard inmate uniform, but now, slowly, her sense of individuality was beginning to return as she sat thinking about sewing a dress. She had before her bolts of cheerful blue-and-white-checked fabric that had been provided by the U.S. liberators.
A close friend of Frania’s cut the cloth, and Frania began. She knew how to sew, and along with professional seamstresses who had survived, she helped others who were too dazed or weak to complete the project on their own. Such mutual support and acts of caring had, in no small measure, been responsible for the survival, both physical and emotional, of many of the women. When Bratt completed her dress, all the work done by hand, she sewed another one for her sister, Helen, who was too sick to make one herself. Imagine what the moment was like when the sisters first put them on together.
Frania Bratt fashioned the dress in the peasant style, which she had admired as a young girl growing up in southern Poland before the war. But there was much in Polish life—in particular the frequent outbreaks of antisemitic violence—that was far from admirable. Frania was born into a large Orthodox family in a rural community, where her father owned a lumberyard near the city of Czestochowa. In 1921, after he was murdered by an antisemite, the family’s economic condition declined.
With their occupation in September 1939, the Nazis implemented a strategy of terror followed by public humiliation, isolation, and dehumanization. Massive restrictions were imposed on the Jews of Czestochowa and the neighboring towns.
Then a ghetto was established. Sensing that worse was coming, some members of Bratt’s family—including a brother, a sister, and a niece—went into hiding in 1940. They were soon found, taken to the nearby forest by the Nazis, and shot.
In September 1942, roundups and selections for transport from the ghetto began. Bratt remembers the precise morning hour—5:00 AM—when three of her sisters were seized . During this period, Frania’s mother had a stroke, and Bratt tried desperately to stay close to her and nurse her. She and her mother were hiding in a bunker when her mother died. In 1943, the ghetto was liquidated, and Frania Bratt began her horrific odyssey through Bergen-Belsen and a network of Nazi camps that led her finally to Dachau.
But now, after liberation, she had the dress, and that was only the beginning of her new life. At the Landsberg Displaced Persons (DP) Camp she met Boris (Borys) Blum. Also a Holocaust survivor, he was now an officer with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). His job was to distribute supplies to the scores of thousands of displaced persons whose ranks were growing at Landsberg and the other camps. Many Jewish survivors had found, on returning to their homes in Eastern Europe, that antisemitism still remained strong. Many survivors felt they could not renew their life in their hometowns. At the DP camps, particularly those in the American occupation zone of Germany, there was at least hope of immigration to Palestine, the United States, or Canada.
Under Boris’s supervision, Bratt worked as a member of the UNRRA team to help set up a kosher communal kitchen. She took particular pleasure in setting out clean napkins and silverware at each meal, so that diners might feel that they were eating, once again, like human beings.
She also happened to fall in love with Boris Blum. They had a small marriage ceremony in September 1945 and then a large celebration in January 1946. The invitation to their wedding states with proud irony not only their birthplaces but also one of the concentration camps they each had survived. When their daughter, Towa, was born, the Blums took many photographs with her and the many other new Jewish mothers and their babies born at Landsberg and the other DP camps.
In 1950, Frania Bratt Blum, Boris Blum, and Towa (later Toby) were able to immigrate to the United States. Settling in Brooklyn and raising her family, Bratt, over the years, often took her dress out of the closet and examined it and mended it. She wore her blue-and-white-checked dress to mark the anniversary of her liberation day and other happy occasions, such as her children’s birthdays.