The Green Sweater: Knitting the history of the Holocaust

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A worn child's green cardigan.

Editor’s note: Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, known in Hebrew as Yom Hashoah. I asked Lea Stern, a knitter and longtime Indie Untangled follower, to write about her Green Sweater project to memorialize the Holocaust. You can purchase the pattern on Ravelry.

In 2003, I was invited by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to attend a preview of a new exhibit called The Hidden Children. As the name suggests, it was about those children who were hidden or removed from parts of Europe during World War II and the Holocaust. They were given up by parents who were desperate to preserve the lives of their children and too often, these were the only members of a family to survive. I attended this event with a friend and colleague of mine who had himself been a hidden child in Holland. There were many stories in this exhibit of fear and tragedy, but there were also stories of supreme sacrifice and bravery.

What caught my eye at the museum preview was a small green sweater knitted for a young girl by her paternal grandmother. The girl was Krystyna Chiger and she had lived in Lvov, Poland. Her family had a comfortable life there, with a large apartment and a busy and popular textile shop, across the street from another fabric and wool shop owned by her maternal grandparents. Krystyna was a bright and inquisitive child who, as she tells it, would do mischievous things. She would unravel the little green sweater that her grandmother was knitting for her when she set it down and went out. She would ultimately receive a scolding but she would persist in her tricks nonetheless.

An old black and white photo of a family of four.

When the war broke out, Lvov was occupied by the Russians under an agreement with the Germans. When the Germans reneged on this agreement and invaded this part of Poland, things went from bad to worse for the Chiger family and the Jewish community. They were forced to give up their home, business and nearly all their possessions and were moved into the Jewish ghetto. It was from a window there in their small living space that Krystyna saw her grandmother who had knitted her sweater being taken away on a cart to Janowska concentration camp where she perished.

After several years, on May 1943, the final liquidation of the ghetto began. All its inhabitants were to be transported to the Janowska camp and what would have been their certain death. Krystyna’s father, and several others, in anticipation of this event had already begun to prepare a place for them to hide in the sewers below Lvov. And so on that night, Krystyna, along with her mother, father and 3-year-old brother descended into the sewers. They were not able to take much with them, but Krystyna took her beloved little green sweater with her. What they all thought would be a short sojourn in the sewers turned out to be 14 months. While many who sought refuge there died, the Chigers, helped by three Catholic Polish sewer workers led by Leopold Socha, survived and — so did her sweater. After some time in Poland, she went to Israel where she became a dentist, married and had two sons. She is now Dr. Kristine Keren and she and her husband live on Long Island, New York.

While her sweater is nearly 75 years old and bears some stains and holes, it is remarkably well preserved considering its age and journey.

A green sweater hanging in a display.

Reengineering history

When I saw the sweater I felt that I had a duty to try to reengineer a pattern for it so its history would remain alive. After a bit of convincing, I was able to set up a time to come and directly examine the sweater with the museum exhibit curator, Suzy Snyder, and Cynthia Hughes, head of textiles. I determined gauge and took many measurements, notes, drawings and photos that would assist me in figuring out the stitch pattern. It was a simple knit and purl pattern and I spent many hours searching for it in every available stitch collection I knew of. I was unable to find a previously published form of the pattern in any collection. I thus assumed that it was something that Krystyna’s grandmother had made up or was a popular pattern commonly known but not written. Fortunately, I was able to reproduce it on my own after having been able to examine the sweater closely.

After many hours of test knitting swatches, I needed to choose a yarn for the project. I thought this would be quite easy as I know some very talented hand dyers. After some thought, I realized that while they may be able to more accurately reproduce the color as it is now, specifically hand-dyed yarn may be difficult for knitters to obtain.

A hand points to a diagram surrounded by items spread out on a table.

Since the sweater was knitted around 1939-1940 in Poland, I knew from my studies of historical knitting that we would need a very basic wool. A luxury yarn would not have been readily available in wartime, nor would it have been used for a child’s sweater. Considering the horrific environmental conditions it had been subjected to, wool was the obvious choice.

I chose Quince & Co. Finch, a fingering-weight 100% wool that had great stitch definition and the largest palette of greens. The original sweater is faded and stained, but many of Quince & Co. greens were quite close. Additionally, if one wanted to knit this sweater in something other than green, their broad color palette was excellent.

A woman sits next to a table filled with small green sweaters.

Dr. Kristine Keren with the test-knitted sweaters.

Once the sweater pattern was created, I had two sets of test knitters. One used the first draft to evaluate the pattern for errors, understanding of directions and readability. The second set of knitters used the final pattern to make sure there were no errors before publication. I donated the copyright for the pattern to the Holocaust museum where it is currently for sale in the museum bookstore as a hard copy along with a display of Krystyna’s book, The Girl In the Green Sweater, and one of the test-knitted sweaters. Since the museum does not have an online store, they have allowed me to sell copies of the sweater on Ravelry. All proceeds from the sale of the pattern are donated to the museum.

In December of 2014 I traveled to New York to meet Dr. Keren and tell her the story of recreating her sweater. Her husband, Mr. Marion Keren, is a mechanical and civil engineer and enjoyed the process of “reverse engineering” a sweater! He is also a Holocaust survivor and they were very open and kind in inviting me into their home. I brought her a timeline of my whole journey. I showed her my notes, early photos, drafts and swatches. I presented her with a finished copy of the pattern and let her choose one of the test-knitted sweaters that reminded her most closely of her original. The curator had told me that it had been difficult for her to give up her sweater but she had graciously donated it to the museum. When she chose one of the copies, she held it up and said, “Now I have my sweater back!” It was a very emotional and fulfilling moment.

A woman holds up a green sweater decorated with award ribbons.

Lea displaying the ribbons her Green Sweater earned at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival.

With this project largely completed, I have reflected on what this project has meant to me. This sweater represents triumph over prejudice and intolerance. It is a grandmother’s love for her granddaughter and the devotion the granddaughter felt in return. I am a physician and have been fortunate to have lived a wonderful life in the United States, mostly protected against the type of injustice that has too often pervaded the world. I had a brilliant mother raised in northern England  who taught me many types of needlework, but particularly knitting. I am fortunate to have been able to use these skills to do this project.

My hope is that this small green sweater will be knit again and again. I hope the story of Krystyna Chiger, her family and the brave men who helped them will be told over and over and as such the sweater will be a small piece of living history. The green sweater should be a reminder to generation after generation of what happens when intolerance is allowed to fester unchecked and as young people wear it, we can open a discussion about what it represents and why it is so important to never forget. Suzy Snyder commented in a television interview she and I did about this project that the survivors won’t always be with us, but the things they’ve left with us will continue to tell their story. My hope is that small things like this sweater will somehow make a difference.