How Clothes Can Save Your Life

Sarah Jean Seman
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Posted: Jan 18, 2015 3:19 PM
How Clothes Can Save Your Life

Editor's note: This interview first appeared in the January issue of Townhall Magazine. 

World famous New York tailor Martin Greenfield talks about his new book, Measure of a Man: From Auschwitz Survivor to Presidents Tailor.

Townhall: Why did you decide to share your memoir in this stage of your life?

Greenfield: I felt the need to thank America for saving my life, honor my family members who were murdered, and to help our young people to know and remember what Hitler and his henchmen did during the Holocaust. I’m now 86, and I have to say that the resurgence of anti-Semitism troubles me. As a survivor, I feel a unique duty to make sure we never forget.

Townhall: During your internment in both Auschwitz and Buchenwald, you talk about turning on a survival switch, about detaching your mind from your physical form. Do you think this ability played a role in your survival?

Greenfield: I do. I was 15 years old and trapped in that hell. So the only way to survive was to empty your mind, to realize that your fate was no longer in your own hands or under the care of your parents. For whatever reason, God spared my life. My father told me that when, not if, but when, I survived, I must honor our family by living, not by feeling guilt or crippling sadness. Had he not given me that permission to feel joy again and to live a life full of meaning, I’m not sure I would have ever been able to push past survivor’s guilt or sorrow.

Townhall: From the time that you put on the collared shirt of a Nazi underneath your uniform inside Auschwitz, to the moment you strode into a room of Hollywood stars in a GGG suit, you speak of how clothes helped shape how you feel and how you are perceived. How have these realizations influenced your work?

Greenfield: Clothes saved my life. When I slipped that Nazi shirt on under my striped prisoner uniform, I instantly noticed that inmates and Nazi soldiers treated me differently. They figured I might be somebody or someone not to be messed with. It didn’t always work, because I was later brutally beaten and had to go to the hospital for my wounds. But many times that shirt kept me shielded from even more harm.

Later, I wore my Czech army uniform. Once again, different treatment by people. And then, even though I was poor and just a floor boy at the GGG suit factory, I noticed that when I wore my tailored GGG suit, people thought I was special, wealthy, someone to be respected.

So I think these lessons really made me work hard to master my craft, to give each client, whether a Hollywood celebrity or a young man buying his first real hand-tailored suit, the very best my hands can make.

Townhall: You asked a rabbi who performed a ceremony inside the liberated Buchenwald “Where was God?” Years later, you saw the same rabbi at the groundbreaking for the U.S. Holocaust Museum. Did you revisit the question? Did you feel you had the answer?

Greenfield: You know, I think by that point I had found the answer. God was in my heart. He was also in the hearts of millions who died. Why I was spared and others perished I do not know. But God doesn’t owe me answers. Many individuals, young children even, endure horrific suffering. So I just remain grateful for each day I’m blessed with. My sons, Jay and Tod, who now run my company, my wife, Arlene, and our many beautiful and brilliant grandchildren are the greatest gifts I have ever known. If I am proud of anything, it’s of them. And I thank God they did not have to endure the things we did during the Shoah.

Townhall: When creating your handcrafted suits, you’ve told your clients (who have ranged from former presidents such as Dwight D. Eisenhower and Bill Clinton to movies stars such as Jimmy Fallon and Leonardo DiCaprio), that the suit should reflect the person. What do you think your suits say about who you are today?

Greenfield: Smart question. I think my suits say I am a suit-maker who believes in creating quality with intrinsic value. My suits also say I’m a man who believes in creating beauty through the painstaking craft of hand-tailored perfection. Every client deserves to feel a deep sense of pride and worth, to look in the mirror and see the best version of themselves. That’s what we strive to create: the strongest version of you.