Martin Greenfield sewed his first garment as a teen imprisoned at Auschwitz. After liberation, he parlayed those skills into a thriving men’s clothing company that has dressed top Hollywood stars and American presidents, from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama.
On May 11, he spoke at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick about his recent book, Measure of a Man: From Auschwitz Survivor to Presidents’ Tailor, detailing the 86-year-old’s tale of suffering and success.
Born in what is now part of Slovakia, Greenfield told the audience of an idyllic childhood. With the Nazis closing in, his engineer father sent his oldest son and a friend to Budapest to stay with relatives.
Insulted by how he was treated by those relatives, he and the friend set out on their own. Greenfield was taken in by a family and got a job working on cars. Already fluent in Czech, Yiddish, and Hebrew, he learned Hungarian.
While home for the first time in some years celebrating Passover with his family, there was a knock on the door. The 14-year-old and his family were told they had an hour before they would be rounded up and sent to the ghetto, and weeks later on to Auschwitz.
There they were greeted by the infamous Josef Mengele, the doctor known as the “Angel of Death.” Greenfield recalled being impressed by his sharp dress, including the shiniest black boots he had ever seen. Mengele motioned Greenfield, his parents, and one of his sisters to the right, but ordered his mother to first put down his five-year-old brother. His grandparents and other sister were immediately sent left.
“She refused so they went left and I never saw them again,” he said of his brother and mother.
Before he was separated from his father, the elder Greenfield told his son he believed they would both survive because they were strong and disciplined, but should the teen be the only survivor he was instructed to “go on living, create a family.”
By liberation, Greenfield had heard the stories of the chilling experiments Mengele performed on Jewish girls like his sister. “I knew she couldn’t have survived them,” he said.
He searched for his father for almost two years, before meeting a friend of his father who had been in Buchenwald with him. “‘I saw the Gestapo shoot him a week before liberation,’” he told Greenfield.
Despite his losses, Greenfield said he believed God was always looking after him. There was the Hungarian family that took him in, and the non-Jewish Czech inmates at the concentration camps who cared for him as one of their own.
Greenfield even believes there was divine intervention in his career choice, although it perhaps reflects God’s sense of humor. Assigned to laundry duty at Auschwitz, Greenfield accidentally tore the collar of a Nazi officer’s shirt while scrubbing it. After beating the boy, a guard threw the rolled-up shirt at him.
Given a needle and thread, another prisoner showed Greenfield how to mend the garment. Greenfield wore it under his striped uniform, bringing him respect from others who assumed it meant he was of some importance.
He never forgot the lesson that “clothes can make you important.”
Greenfield came to the United States at age 19 in 1947 to stay with relatives in Baltimore. He later moved to New York City to live with an aunt and was hired at GGG Clothing as a “floor boy,” earning $35 a week.
Greenfield, whose skills as a tailor and manager did not go unnoticed, began to move up the ranks and was eventually made a supervisor. In 1977, the former floor boy bought the company, which then had only had six employees, and changed its name.
Greenfield still oversees his Brooklyn-based company, Martin Greenfield Clothiers, which has designed men’s suits for clothing lines at DKNY and Rag & Bone, and the 1920s-era suits for the cast of the HBO show Boardwalk Empire. He designed custom suits for Paul Newman, Martin Scorsese, and Leonardo DiCaprio.
“Jimmy Fallon kisses my ring when he sees me,” said Greenfield of the Tonight Show host. “I tell him, ‘I’m not the Pope. You don’t have to kiss my ring.’”
Greenfield also recently appeared on the hit NBC show, The Blacklist, playing — what else — a tailor, adding, “It was filmed in my factory.”