Some people may already know Tanya Singer as a prodigious knitting enthusiast and popular knitting teacher in the Scarsdale community. But her fascination with this centuries-old craft took a deep dive into the realm of Jewish material culture when she came across a story about Ann and her friend Helena, Holocaust survivors both convalescing in a hospital in Sweden. Ann had knit a blue sweater for Helena that she has worn every year during Passover for 75 years. Ann’s skillful knitting had “kept her alive” because she had knitted for the Nazis and their families.
“You would do whatever you had to do, to survive,” said Singer.
And so, Singer set out to research more stories about generational connection, survival and remembrance from women — both Jewish, and not — linked with other handmade pieces created from yarn.
“We know about the music played in the camps. We know about the recipes. We know about the sewing and the couture gowns made for Nazi wives. We know those things. But no one’s talked about the knitting. Nobody’s looked at this aspect of Jewish material culture. Not only is the knitting important, but the women who did this work are important. That story needs to be told.”
An intern from Singer’s alma mater, Wellesley College, began working with Singer on her initiative, known as “Knitting Hope” and discovered a compelling exhibit at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.
“She called and said, ‘We have this red dress!’” said Singer.
The dress, displayed among a trunkful of personal objects and letters from survivors of the Nazi era, led Singer to its donor, Judy Fleischer Kolb, whose family was among the more than 20,000 refugees who escaped persecution and fled to Shanghai. The little red dress was knitted for Judy by her grandmother while they lived there.
“The Nazis wanted to liquidate the Jews in Shanghai when the Japanese took control,” said Singer. “But they didn’t understand the notion of anti-Semitism.” The Kolb family survived under deplorable conditions, but ultimately immigrated to San Francisco.
The little red dress, and other stories like it, was the impetus for Singer’s project, “Knitting Hope” — which shares the ways knitting helped women to resist, remember and renew their lives after World War II. The article debuted in Modern Daily Knitting on Feb. 8, in recognition of the 78th anniversary of the Japanese seizing control of the Shanghai Ghetto in February 1943.
“Many aspects of Jewish material culture have been recognized for their sustaining power: art, writing, music and recipes. It’s time to recognize the significance of knitting in our history,” Singer said.
“The purpose of the initiative is to give voice to makers and objects history has overlooked. Handmade objects, or even the memory of one,” she said, “can spark a powerful emotional response even decades later.”
To foster community around the 80-year-old dress, made of a bright, saturated shade of red and somewhat reminiscent of the red coat worn by the wandering little girl depicted in the movie, “Schindler’s List,” Singer hosts Facebook Knit Along, a series accessible via her webpage. The group, comprised of women who have been touched by the moving story, will have the opportunity to meet Kolb, Singer, and knitting pattern designer Melissa Shinsato, as they knit the little red dress step by step.
Kolb, a former nurse and museum volunteer, uses her dress to urge children to have courage and to “realize their heroes are right in front of them.”
Singer has always loved textiles and comes from a long line of knitters and tailors. During a stressful career as the general manager of politics at Bloomberg News during the 2016 election and a health scare with her son, she would find solace at the former Stix and Strings store on Spencer Place and from lessons she learned about knitting. Participating in a Knit Along last summer during the pandemic, she said, helped when people felt isolated.
“It was a life saver for me. Knitting is a form of therapy, a form of expression and can be a community builder,” Singer said.
The idea of a Knit Along, where a designer launches a pattern that knitters can follow, is not new, but it is the first time it has been inspired by a historical piece. Nonknitters are welcome to visit with guests like Kolb.
“I’m so happy my dress can bring hope to others. I only wish I could have shared its impact with my family,” said Kolb.
“This dress just has a life,” added Singer. “There is so much it has motivated in others. As survivors reach old age, we won’t always have access to people who have lived this part of history. I hope to share more stories like Judy’s, in collaboration with contemporary knit and crochet designers, in the years to come.”