Paul Strnad and his wife Hedvika desperately wanted to leave Czechoslovakia in 1939, the year Adolf Hitler threatened Jews in his speech to the Nazi Reichstag.
He wrote to his cousin Alvin Strnad in Milwaukee, hoping he could help get his wife a job as a dress designer. He also sent colorful drawings of her designs.
"You may imagine that we have a great interest in leaving Europe as soon as possible because there is no possibility of getting a position in this country," Strnad wrote.
The Strnads eventually were separated. Paul died in the Nazi camp Treblinka and his wife died in Warsaw, Poland, although it is unclear why she was taken there or if she was in a camp.
The letter and drawings as well as numerous other local stories, Jewish traditions and around 200 donated artifacts are featured at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, which opened Monday.
The museum is divided into six themes: "Immigration," "A Community Within," "Earning a Living," "Intolerance and Holocaust," "Israel and After" and "Tikkun Olam &
Repairing the World." It also features a display of Golda Meir, who grew up in Milwaukee and went on to become the fourth prime minister of Israel.
In 1984, the women's division of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation started an archives committee, collecting artifacts from local residents and other places. The committee became the Milwaukee Jewish Historical Society in 1997, which expanded to become Jewish Museum Milwaukee.
Joanne Marks Kauvar, executive director of the Council of American Jewish Museums, said the Milwaukee museum is part of a national trend of smaller groups expanding to play a larger role in their communities.
"They are dealing with culture in a very rich and varied way," she said. "They have become central sites of engagement for Jews to explore and claim their Jewish identity and for non-Jews to learn about Jewish cultural heritage."
She said the group's membership has grown over the last 30 years to 80, with most of them new starts. Groups in Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York, Miami and Boston have recently expanded or created new Jewish institutions, she said.
Kathie Bernstein, executive director of the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, said everyone will find relevance in the local stories and artifacts &
Jews, non-Jews and people in other states.
"Milwaukee is a microcosm of America," Bernstein said. "Everything that goes on in America goes on here and we are a part of America and our experience is American. ... The Jewish story is interesting and people have to understand who we are just like we have to understand other immigrant/ethnic groups."
Museum president Marianne Lubar said they haven't thought much about opening a museum during an economic downturn, when many museums are experiencing financial pressures.
"This is part of life and life goes on and the economic downturn, we'll handle that if we need to," she said.
Alvin Strnad's son, Burton Strnad, 78, still lives in Milwaukee. He said his grandfather immigrated to Milwaukee at the age of 20 from Bohemia and left behind four brothers. Burton Strnad didn't even know the letter existed until after his mother died in 2000, when he and his wife were going through her belongings. They found the envelope, which on the back has an eagle holding a swastika and a phrase in German saying the letter was read by a German officer.
"I thought (it was) chilling and something that should be preserved and we thought this was the best way to preserve it," he said.
Jews first came to Milwaukee in the 1840s from Germany and Central Europe to escape prejudicial laws and pursue economic opportunities. Family and friends followed them.
Goldie Mabowehz, who became Israel's prime minister under her chosen Hebrew name Golda Meir, immigrated with her family from Russia to Milwaukee in 1906 and was part of Milwaukee's Zionist Movement. She and her husband Morris Meyerson immigrated to Israel in 1921. She helped form the Labor Party and signed Israel's Proclamation of Independence.
The museum features photos of her signing the proclamation, Meir as a seventh-grader at Milwaukee's Fourth Street School in 1912, a photo of her and a friend in 1914, and a hand-drawn portrait donated by a local family.
The museum is in the Helfaer Community Service Building, designed by architect Edward Durell Stone. He also helped design Radio City Music Hall and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
The museum's main artifact "The Prophet Jeremiah" is a 14-foot-by-19-foot tapestry created by Russian artist Marc Chagall. He was asked to create it to mark the building's opening in 1973 for the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
Outside, a holocaust memorial built in 1983 is made up of 24 cascading steel sheets &
in two sets &
with names of the European concentration camps on top of 22. A granite obelisk symbolizes the chimneys used in the crematories.
There is also a scroll that contains the text of the Torah, and photos and biographies of famous Jews from Milwaukee. Those include baseball commissioner Bud Selig, U.S. Sen. Herbert Kohl, who owns the Milwaukee Bucks and whose family started the Kohl's Department Store chain and the now-closed Kohl's Food stores, and Edna Ferber, the first Jew to win a Pulitzer for her book "So Big" in 1925.
Milwaukee native Lizzie Kander wrote The Settlement Cook Book, which went on to be a profitable fundraising cookbook, selling more than 2 million copies. The museum has an original copy.
Jewish museum opens