Invisibilia: How A Shirt Collar Helped A Man Survive Auschwitz

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Clothes can make you feel confident, even powerful. But can a piece of clothing save your life? We are about to meet a man who dresses other people for a living. And then we'll hear NPR's Hanna Rosin turn the mirror on him and a specific shirt. This is from the latest episode of NPR's Invisibilia.

HANNA ROSIN, BYLINE: For 60 years, Martin Greenfield has been helping men look their best.

MARTIN GREENFIELD: The biggest smile you see - they never saw themselves look like this.

ROSIN: Not just any men - Martin has been tailor to the last three presidents.

GREENFIELD: Obama...

ROSIN: A bit of a bore.

ROSIN: ...He had two suits - a navy and a charcoal, navy and a charcoal, navy and a charcoal. That's all. I said, well, why don't you get a pinstripe or something else?

ROSIN: He really liked Bill Clinton but not so much a style.

GREENFIELD: It wasn't presidential.

ROSIN: The guy wore a leather jacket. The first time he met Clinton, he told the president...

GREENFIELD: You, Mr. President, look heavy person. You not heavy, but because of your skin - you're very light color. Everything has to be made the right way to you.

ROSIN: Martin has custom fit a lot of famous people.

GREENFIELD: Thousands and thousands of people...

ROSIN: ...Shaquille O'Neal...

GREENFIELD: He's such a big guy.

ROSIN: ...Patrick Ewing...

GREENFIELD: He buys like 12 suits at a time.

ROSIN: ...Michael Bloomberg...

GREENFIELD: He loves me.

ROSIN: ...Donald Trump...

GREENFIELD: He wears all my overcoats.

ROSIN: ...Steve Buscemi, Al Pacino, Ben Affleck, Michael Jackson...

GREENFIELD: I met his whole family.

ROSIN: Martin's association of powerful men and fine clothing - it began in a dark place.

GREENFIELD: He looked at me, and I looked at him because I looked in his boots. I could see my picture there. It was so shiny.

ROSIN: Those shiny boots belong to Josef Mengele, the sadistic Nazi physician known as the Angel of Death. Martin was 15, and he had just stepped off the train at Auschwitz, the concentration camp.

GREENFIELD: I saw prisoners all in stripes.

ROSIN: The new arrivals were ordered to line up. At the front, Mengele separated them.

GREENFIELD: To the left, to the right, to the left, the right.

ROSIN: Martin got sent to the right to the tailor shop where Jewish prisoners washed and mended Nazi uniforms. The head tailor gave him a job.

GREENFIELD: Gave me a dirty shirt, and he showed me how to take a brush and try and clean it and clean it.

GREENFIELD: It was a Nazi uniform shirt, solid white with a big, stiff collar and buttons.

GREENFIELD: I clean it. I clean it, but the damn thing ripped.

ROSIN: It ripped. He just ruined a Nazi's shirt. Jews in the camp were shot for the smallest offenses, for taking extra food, for falling out of line...

GREENFIELD: For nothing.

ROSIN: But Martin didn't know that yet. He was young, and he was new to the camps and all the brutality. So the next morning when the Nazis showed up, he was just honest.

GREENFIELD: I said it's - the collar is ripped.

ROSIN: The soldier lifted his baton and smashed it on Martin's back over and over.

GREENFIELD: I didn't cry or anything.

ROSIN: Instead, once the Nazi had left, Martin picked the shirt up off the floor and asked the tailor to fix it so that Martin could wear it.

GREENFIELD: And he said, nobody's going to let you wear a shirt. I says, but I always had a shirt.

ROSIN: The head tailor fixed the collar. Martin put it on under his uniform. He buttoned it all the way up and popped the collar out for everyone to see. That night when all the other Jews in the tailor shop walked out the back door, Martin went out the front where the guard was.

GREENFIELD: I said to myself, let me see if he let me get away with it. He just looked at me, and he let me walk. And that proved to me that he thought I was somebody special, and that was very important to me.

ROSIN: Why was that important to you?

GREENFIELD: It was important to me because I wanted to be somebody, you understand?

ROSIN: Martin wore the shirt day and night.

GREENFIELD: Sometimes I opened the collar.

ROSIN: He slept in it. He showered in it.

GREENFIELD: Sometimes I closed the collar.

ROSIN: He kept it on when he was transferred to another concentration camp.

GREENFIELD: I was different. I was different all the way through.

ROSIN: A Jewish prisoner wearing a Nazi shirt. Nobody said anything to you.

GREENFIELD: No.

ROSIN: Not even in the shower.

GREENFIELD: Never.

ROSIN: Martin has a theory about why he was allowed to keep wearing the shirt. He thinks maybe it made him look like one of the Jewish boys in the camp who were used for sex.

GREENFIELD: They had sex with men. It never happened to me. But I'll tell you the truth. They thought that somebody is behind all this dressing up with me.

ROSIN: He kept it on until April 11, 1945, the day Eisenhower liberated the camps.

GREENFIELD: I am going to live now. I survive.

ROSIN: Would you say that the shirt saved your life?

GREENFIELD: I don't know if the shirt saved my life, but I know that I felt better because I was cleaned. I was dressed like I used to be dressed.

ROSIN: When I was talking to Martin, I suddenly had this terrible thought.

Do you think you learned anything from the Nazis?

GREENFIELD: I learned nothing from the Nazis because I hated them.

ROSIN: So I still - I kept pressing him. Maybe it was somehow the Nazi power that had trickled into him through that shirt. Maybe that's what had made him invincible.

Given how much you said you - I hate the Nazis, you were wearing a Nazi shirt every day.

GREENFIELD: That's not a Nazi. I washed the Naziness (ph) out. It was done in the water, in the soap - finished. It was my shirt.

ROSIN: And you don't think it saved you?

GREENFIELD: The shirt (laughter) - it's too many questions about the shirt. The shirt was just a shirt to me. That's it.

ROSIN: Martin was adamant. The shirt held no secret power. It wasn't the shirt that got him through any of this. It was something else, something the writer Primo Levi has written about. Levi believed that the Nazis maintained their power by reducing unique individuals to anonymous things - one in a generic series, numbers, Jews. This is what allowed them to kill so easily. And yet there was Martin, collar flipped, defiantly asserting every single day. I am not a number.

GREENFIELD: I was somebody special in my heart.

ROSIN: Hanna Rosin, NPR News.

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MCEVERS: Invisibilia has many more stories about the secret emotional life of clothing. The newest episode is out this weekend.

 

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