Lilly Friedman doesn't remember the last name of the woman who designed and sewed the wedding gown she wore when she walked down the aisle over sixty years ago. But the grandmother of seven does recall that when she first told her fiancé Ludwig that she had always dreamed of being married in a white gown, he realized he had his work cut out for him.
For the tall, lanky twenty-one year old who had survived hunger, disease and torture this was a different kind of challenge. How was he ever going to find such a dress in the Bergen Belsen Displaced Person's camp, where they felt grateful for the clothes on their backs?
Fate would intervene in the guise of a former German pilot who walked into the food distribution center where Ludwig worked, eager to make a trade for his worthless parachute. In exchange for two pounds of coffee beans and a couple of packs of cigarettes Lilly would have her wedding gown.
For two weeks Miriam the seamstress worked under the curious eyes of her fellow DPs, carefully fashioning the six parachute panels into a simple, long sleeved gown with a rolled collar and a fitted waist that tied in the back with a bow. When the dress was completed she sewed the leftover material into a matching shirt for the groom.
A white wedding gown may have seemed like a frivolous request in the surreal environment of a Displaced Persons camp, but for Lilly the dress symbolized the innocent, normal life she and her family had once led- before the world descended into madness.
Lilly and her siblings were raised in a Torah observant home in the small town of Zarica, Czechoslovakia where her father was a teacher, respected and well-liked by the young yeshiva students he taught in nearby Irsheva.
He and his two sons were marked for extermination immediately upon arrival at Auschwitz. For Lilly and her sisters it was only the first stop on their long journey of persecution, which included Plashof, Neustadt, Gross Rosen and finally Bergen Belsen.
Four hundred people marched fifteen miles in the snow to the town of Celle on January 27, 1946 to attend Lilly and Ludwig's wedding. The town synagogue, damaged and desecrated, had been lovingly renovated by the DPs with the meager materials available to them. When a Sefer Torah arrived from England they converted an old kitchen cabinet into a makeshift Aron Kodesh.
"My sisters and I lost everything. Our parents. Our two brothers. Our homes. The most important thing was to build a new home." Six months later, Lilly's sister Ilona wore the dress when she married Max Traeger. After that came Cousin Rosie. How many brides wore Lilly's dress?
"I stopped counting after seventeen, " she recalls. With the camps experiencing the highest rate in the world, Lilly's gown was marriage in great demand.
In 1948, when President Harry Truman finally permitted 100,000 Jews who had been languishing in DP camps since the end of the war to emigrate, the gown accompanied Lilly across the ocean to America. Unable to part with her dress, it lay at the bottom of her bedroom closet for close to 50 years, "not even good enough for a garage sale."
"I was happy when it found such a good home."
Home is at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. When Lily's niece, a volunteer, told museum officials about her aunt's dress, they immediately recognized its historical significance and displayed the gown in a specially designed showcase, guaranteed to preserve it for 500 years.
But before being placed in its permanent quarters at the American museum, Lilly Friedman's dress had one more journey to make.
Bergen Belsen, the museum, opened its doors on October 28, 2007. The German government invited Lilly and her sisters to be their guests for the grand opening. They initially declined, but finally traveled to Hanover the following year with their children, their grandchildren and extended families to view the extraordinary exhibit created for the wedding dress made from a parachute.
Lilly's family, who were all familiar with the stories about the wedding in Celle, were eager to visit the synagogue. They found the building had been completely renovated and modernized. But when they pulled aside the handsome curtain they were astounded to find that the Aron Kodesh, made from a kitchen cabinet, had remained untouched- a testament to the profound faith of the survivors. As Lilly stood on the bima once again she beckoned to her granddaughter, Jackie, to stand beside her where she was once a kallah. "It was an emotional trip. We cried a lot."
Two weeks later, the woman who had once stood trembling before the selective eyes of the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele returned home and witnessed the marriage of her granddaughter.
The three Lax sisters, Lilly, Ilona and Eva, who together survived Auschwitz, a forced labor camp, death march and Bergen Belsen, have remained close and today live within walking distance of each other in Brooklyn. As mere teenagers they managed to outwit and outlive a monstrous killing machine, then went on to marry, have children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, and were ultimately honored by the country that had marked them for extinction.
As young brides, they had stood underneath the wedding canopy and recited the blessings that their ancestors had been saying for thousands of years. In doing so, they chose to honor the legacy of those who had perished by choosing life.