The Brilliance of the Jews: Judith Leiber Luxury Handbags, End of Austro Hungarian Empire and Hitler


So much of post-war and modern American culture is beholden to the brilliant Eastern European Jews in science, arts, industry and intellectual work that blossomed in Viennia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, before WWI, when ethnic laws and restrictions on Jews were lifted for a brief period. Then Hitler came – the Austrian and German public and many voters adored Hitler. America was gifted with brilliant and accomplished immigrants from Eastern Europe, especially the Jewish ones.

“Immigrants” an insult now in the USA – a nation of immigrants. Anti-semantic attacks on Jewish communities have started since after the election and the era of “walls.” Human nature doesn’t change.

This is s good immigrant story.  There are so many. Here are highlights from a recent article:

“Is it possible to think of Leiber handbags as miniature memory palaces validating the existence of an orderly and prosperous Austro-Hungarian Empire, its Jews held in fragile and impermanent balance? Aren’t they also carriers of postwar frivolity, silence, privilege, and even blindness? A handbag specialist said to me, “Leiber always kept in mind that you need to put things inside an evening bag. These days, cellphones are necessary. In the past, you only needed a handkerchief, your credit card, keys, and maybe a little mad money. But that was it. Even 20 or 30 years ago, her bags had the capacity to carry something extra if necessary.” What was the something extra? Was it possibly a cinder of homelessness, I wonder, a record of humiliation and instability tucked between the glitter and the memory center of a life?

Judith Pető was born in 1921, into an assimilated, well-to-do Jewish family that had lived for three generations in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She began apprenticing her trade in Budapest in 1939, when she was 18 years old. In careful and uninflected syllables, she has said in many interviews, “Hitler put me in the handbag business.” Among her family’s documents donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, you can find a ticket to the 1916 coronation of the Emperor Karl IV. In Vienna, her maternal grandmother owned a women’s hat factory. Her father, Emil Pető, worked in the grain department of the Commercial Kereskedelmi Bank and the family acquired a vineyard in the countryside.

The Petős were accomplished businesspeople, not moguls; appreciators of fashion, not socialites…When their father traveled to Vienna where her grandparents lived or to Western Europe for business, he brought back finely made handbags for his wife. The family belonged to what Stefan Zweig refers to as the “good Jewish bourgeoisie,” and if they didn’t feel entirely comfortable with the incrementally growing anti-Semitism in Budapest, like other Jewish families that had risen up the ladder, their prosperity provided the illusion of insulation.

Since there was a “numerus clausus” law at the universities, Leiber’s parents decided she should go to England to study chemistry. Her uncles from Vienna had recently emigrated there and a distant relative had developed a successful cosmetics company after studying chemistry. It was possible she would follow in those footsteps. In 1938, she went to King’s College to prepare for the matriculation exam, which she took in the spring and passed. While she was home for the summer, war broke out and she didn’t want to leave the family to go back to school. As edicts against Jews had started coming down, it became evident her father would lose his job at the bank and it would be necessary for Leiber and her sister to find work and contribute to the family income.
With the help of a government minister who was a family friend, Leiber got a position at a prestigious handbag factory owned by another Jewish family and she learned the trade from the ground up, from sweeping the floors to making patterns and piecing. In Budapest in the early 1940s, it was still possible to have access to quality textiles and there were even wealthy patrons to purchase luxury products. Leiber rose from being a journeyman to an apprentice. Eventually, she became the first master craftswoman in the Hungarian Handbag Guild.
What about the reversal in social roles? How did it feel to become a maker of goods rather than a consumer of them? Leiber has always discounted the incongruity, saying she was interested in fashion; handbags, in particular, had a special meaning in her family. She was proud of her grandmother’s business sense and creativity as well as her contribution to Viennese society. Undoubtedly, work diverted her mind during the early, frightening years of war, and mastery of a craft can be empowering. As was the case for many other Jews, there was also the dream that, if she survived the nightmare, she would emigrate and it would be useful to leverage work experience when it was time to become a refugee.

Everything changed during the terror of 1944 when it was illegal for Jews even to leave their buildings. The handbag factory was shut down and the owners were deported to the east. Two of Leiber’s uncles, venturing out without the yellow star, were shot and their bodies thrown into the Danube. Her father was arrested while walking in the neighborhood and sent to a work camp where he dug anti-tank trenches until Leiber and her sister were able to obtain a Swiss “schutzpass” that permitted him (and, with some added forgery, this extended to the rest of his family) to live in a Swiss protected house. But the move was temporary. Late in November, they were forced into the freezing, cramped, and overcrowded cellars of the Budapest ghetto. The mind does strange things in response to trauma. In what must have been half-hallucination, she designed handbags in her head.

The family remained in the ghetto for about a month as the Soviets encircled the capital. When news of the Soviet advances spread in the last days of December, they ventured out to the streets and made their way through the rubble of buildings and corpses, returning to the cellar of their old building. While the battle for Budapest continued for many weeks, it was almost impossible to find food. Leiber’s mother and an Italian friend went onto the street to cut flesh off a dead horse to make goulash. Through the cracks of a basement wall and from the courtyard, Leiber watched a procession of retreating German soldiers and civilians mowed down by Soviet artillery and rockets and, after that, saw feral dogs fight over the dead bodies.

Miraculously, when the fighting came to an end and the war was over, Leiber went back to work making bags. She rented factory space and cultivated customers from the American diplomatic corps and their support staff who paid her in dollars. The money was useful but there was also something salutary in the simple activity of making an object from beginning to end. This was the tradition of artisanship that Leiber learned in the European guild system and the high standards carried over into the bags she designed when she came to the United States. The clutches and purses are luxury items that sell for thousands of dollars. Put one of her bags on its side and look at the way the material aligns, lying flat and smooth along the frame. Even after years of use, the lining will fit snuggly across the interior. Her beads are hand placed and arranged for uniformity so that different size stones fill in the gaps at different angles. Experts will tell you that, over time, no matter what the manufacturer does, beadwork is going to loosen, but Leiber’s takes a lot longer, 20 to 30 years, before something’s going to fall off.

In 1945 she met Gerson Leiber, a radio operator in the Signal Corps and an aspiring artist. They fell in love and, bucking resistance from her family, they got married. In 1947, they sailed to the United States on a bride ship and settled in the Bronx. Gerson went to art school while Judith pursued her trade. It took only a few years for her to establish herself in the industry, cutting patterns for top-of-the-line manufacturer Nettie Rosenstein. When Mamie Eisenhower “carried” Leiber’s glittering evening clutch embroidered with rhinestones to the 1953 inaugural ball, her reputation was secured. Eventually, the Leibers came to own their own company, which they built up over 30 years. Leiber made bags for almost every first lady. Hillary Clinton’s sleeping tuxedo cat[6] minaudière with rhinestone collar was a whimsical bookend to Barbara Bush’s black and silver Millie the dog[7], which is in the show.


April 4, 2017


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