Ilyse Muser Shainbrown

‘Say Yes to the Dress’ – and helping others always

With roots in Brooklyn, I naturally bought my wedding dress at Hedda Kleinfeld's bridal empire. What I hadn't known was the shop's place in Jewish history

When I was a toddler, my parents left Brooklyn for the nearby suburbs, but Brooklyn never really left them. As a child, my family would often venture back to the borough to visit older family members and roam around the neighborhoods of my parents’ idyllic childhood. My brothers and I grew up riding the rides at Coney Island, eating Nathan’s hot dogs and french fries, and spending hours at the Sheepshead Bay Diner, where my father would recount tales of his beloved Dodgers. My eyes marveled at the old apartment buildings with people outside on the stoops and I cherished those days of what to me, felt like visiting “the old country.”

Besides tasting the foods and relishing in my parents’ memories, many of those trips were for shopping, mostly for special clothes for the High Holy Days or family simchas (special events). Given all my memories of the old storefronts of Brooklyn and special occasion shopping there, I always knew that I would head with my mother and grandmother — to their cherished Brooklyn — to get my wedding dress. And in the spring of 2001, a year before my March 2002 wedding and prior to the show that made it a household name, I did just that, and “Said Yes to the Dress,” at Kleinfeld on Flatbush Ave.

I returned several times that year for fittings, with one very long one just days before my wedding, as the seamstress tirelessly made it exactly perfect for me. I remember hearing about the move to Manhattan only a few short years later and I was very grateful that I was able to have the experience in Brooklyn. I had not thought of Kleinfeld in years, until I was scrolling this morning and came across an article about the founder of the bridal empire, Hedda Kleinfeld Schacter. Hedda passed away last week at the age of 99. And to my amazement, Hedda was a Holocaust survivor.

Born in Vienna, Austria in 1924 to a Jewish family, Hedda and her family lived a comfortable life. Right after the annexation of Austria, Hedda’s father, a furrier, was caught trying to cross over the Belgian border and imprisoned in Dachau. After he was released, the family, recognizing the danger they were in, decided to secure passage out of Nazi-occupied Europe. As we know, this was no easy decision or accessible to everyone. Even if, like the Kleinfelds, German and Austrian Jews had the desire to leave, they needed the means to do so, and most importantly a destination that would permit their entry.

Fortunately, Hedda and her family wound up seeking refuge in Havana, Cuba, where she and her sister spent part of their childhood before emigrating to the United States. Her father eventually started a fur store in the US, and it was Hedda who later expanded the store to evening dresses and designer wedding gowns. Over time, she decided to sell only the latter, and brought smiles to blushing brides for decades and decades.

As I learned all of this, just a few days before Yom HaShoah, and as we approach the 78th anniversary of the end of World War II and the Holocaust, so much struck me. First of course, sadly, another survivor has passed. The numbers are dwindling rapidly, as survivors are now well into their 80s and 90s. I try not to dwell on the few years that are left and focus instead on thinking of all the ways in which we can ensure that the stories are heard repeatedly for as long as we have survivors to share them.

Next, I thought, how remarkable that after such a tumultuous start in life, Hedda Kleinfeld dedicated her life to celebrations, joy, and simchas. Despite all of the hardships, we as Jews are always commanded to celebrate. Countless grooms, with brides dressed from Kleinfeld, stamped on the glass to shouts of “Mazel tov” — never knowing the history behind the famed name of the store.

Finally, though, I thought of the incredible stories I have heard over the years about others like the Kleinfelds who somehow managed to escape in time. How horrible it is that there were not more. What might the world have been if all of the Jews living under Nazi control had been able to flee Europe to build new lives, businesses, and families. It is these stories that are so important to continue to share, as we hope that future generations will seek to help and assist those that are in need, bringing true meaning to “Never Again.”

Many Holocaust survivors reestablished their lives on the same streets of Brooklyn as my parents in the 1950s. Several of the famed shopping spots of Brooklyn hailed from connections to the Holocaust and World War II. Martin Greenfield’s tailor shop, which for years has outfitted grooms and others, began with a survivor and my own childhood stomping ground on Avenue U — Lester’s was founded by Lester Greenfeld, who fought in the US army and landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. Today, I add Hedda Kleinfeld to that list and will always remember her and her family when I look at my wedding pictures.

About the Author
Ilyse Muser Shainbrown was a former Middle and High School History teacher who now holds a master’s degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Over the years she has done extensive research on various portions of the Holocaust and other acts of genocide including, Rwanda, the Belgian Congo and Bosnia. Currently, Ilyse Muser Shainbrown is the Director of Holocaust Education at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest. Through both programs, Ilyse works to ensure that Holocaust education is taught broadly in public, private and parochial schools throughout Essex, Union, Morris and Sussex counties.
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