As he was being separated from his family by Nazis at Auschwitz, 15-year-old Martin Greenfield’s father made him promise to “honor us by living, by not feeling sorry for us. That is what you must do,” he recalls in his newly published memoir, Measure of a Man.
Greenfield kept his promise, surviving both Auschwitz and Buchenwald and going on to become personal tailor to four U.S. presidents, singer Frank Sinatra and, more recently, the cast of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.
Greenfield takes readers with him as he vividly details hunger marches in the cold, beatings by Nazis and whippings he was forced to administer to a fellow teenage Jewish inmate. He tells of his constant eye-balling of other concentration camp victims in hopes of finding any family members, only to learn that his parents, grandparents and three siblings all perished.
He describes being fed “some sort of soup that frequently had human hair, trash, or dead insects floating in it. Sundown brought black bread mixed with sawdust. Soup made you skinny. Bread made strength. So I ate as much bread as I could scavenge.”
Survival became his daily work.
“I realized I had no control over my fate. If a Nazi was angry, he might shoot you. If a Nazi was happy, he might shoot you. Made no difference. And you see the randomness was what Hitler and his henchmen used to control your soul, to harden your heart. So I unhinged my mind from my body as much as possible,” he said. (Due to hearing problems, Greenfield replied to questions submitted to him by email.)
While working in the camp’s laundry one day, he accidentally ripped an SS soldier’s shirt. That small mistake became his first sewing lesson. And it taught him something more: “Clothes possess power.”
Following liberation, he joined the Czechoslovakian army and then came to Baltimore in 1947, thanks to an invitation from an American relative he didn’t even know. He soon joined a friend and began living in Bronx, where he got a job sweeping floors at GGG Clothes. His curiosity about what was going on in that factory caused him to learn every aspect of the clothing business and won him the admiration of Morris Goldman, one of the owners.
Greenfield went on to buy the company 30 years after first working there. And to this day – Greenfield is now 86 – he continues to make suits for many of the people seen on television, from politicians to sports and entertainment figures. “You name them, we dress them,” he said.
As tailor to the cast of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire for all five seasons, Greenfield’s company hand-tailored more than 600 outfits designed to be worn in the 1920s. Greenfield didn’t need to do too much research on that period, having already dressed Jewish mobster Meyer Lansky – who always paid in cash and wore a size 40 short suit – and Jewish actor Eddie Cantor, both of whom are characters in the television show.
Greenfield also enjoyed stitching clothes for President Bill Clinton, who apparently needed his services. He recalls the first time he was shown into Clinton’s White House residence. “When I opened the [closet] door I thought I was going to have a heart attack, it was so awful. A couple [of] short leather jackets, more jogging suits than any man needs to own, a ratty old overcoat and a few average, off-the-rack suits.”
For President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s clothes, Greenfield added a special extra. Not pleased with Eisenhower’s “response to Egypt’s nationalization of the Suez Canal,” he inserted “a brief, anonymous note” in both the outer and inside pockets of the jacket he was stitching that read, “If you want to end the Suez Crisis, you’ll send [Secretary of State] John Dulles on a two-week vacation.”
Dressing Eisenhower was “the honor of a lifetime for me. He was 10-feet tall in my mind. He is still. Here’s a man who, as Allied commander, led our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines into battle and defeated Hitler’s death machine,” Greenfield said.
“I poured my heart and soul into every stitch. It was the least I could do to honor a man who led bravely and brilliantly.”