When Allied bombers closed in on the notorious Buchenwald concentration camp in 1945, the Nazis pulled any able-bodied young men to go clean up the rubble. Martin Greenfield, a skinny teenager and Jewish prisoner, was yanked from the concentration camp.
He had just cleared smoking rubble out of a Nazi mayor’s home in Weimar, Germany, when he spotted the rabbits. Two bunnies in their cages, in the middle of the war zone. “I can’t tell you what it was like to see life again after experiencing so much death.” He reached his hands into the cage to pull them from danger. His skinny arm had been tattooed with A-4006—”A” for Auschwitz.
Just as he pulled the rabbits to safety, he spotted a scrap of food: a carrot, his first vegetable sighting since being separated away from his mother, father and sister. He eagerly reached for it and just as he did he heard, “Thief!”
From behind him he heard a young blonde woman with a baby in her arms. “I will call the guards!”
“No, I…I found your rabbits!”
The SS hauled him out of the basement, called him a dog, told him to get down on the ground. They beat him with their batons. His skin, weak from malnutrition, tore beneath every blow. He was made an example of, for taking garbage from an animal’s cage in a smoldering building. They beat him in front of the mayor’s brand-new black Mercedes.
“In that moment, my numbness to death melted,” said Martin. “In its place rose an alien bloodlust, a hunger for vengeance unlike any I had ever known. The surge of adrenaline and rush of rage felt good inside my withered frame. Then and there I made a vow to myself: If I survived Buchenwald, I would return and kill the mayor’s wife.”
This is a story about a tailor. The teenager who survived the beating. He did some really impressive things over the years. Made suits for everyone from Eisenhower to our current president. Have you noticed a suit in recent years: and said, man, why don’t men wear suits like that? Name one. And we’ll get back to the Nazi story.
Greenfield with President Obama, whose suits he has created
Great Gatsby, Blacklist, Gotham and those little numbers on Boardwalk Empire. The 86-year-old made the suits for every character, from Nucky Thompson to Meyer Lansky. And he knew just how. (He’d also made suits for the real Meyer Lansky).
Greenfield’s recent work (clockwise from left): Boardwalk Empire, The Great Gatsby, Gotham
Now, back to the Mayor of Weimar.
Eisenhower and the allies came through Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, at 3:15 p.m. Nazi guards shot prisoners for their uniforms to escape in striped pajamas. Physically, Martin Greenfield was free, but emotionally he was in chains with anger.
Greenfield’s friends, noticing a new cache of discarded Nazi weapons surrounded him. “We going to kill that blonde bitch?” Three Jewish boys in striped pajamas—teenagers all—set out to do just that. They kept an eye out for the black Mercedes.
“My heartbeat quickened the closer we got to the mayor’s house. Pent-up rage from all I had seen and experienced surged through me,” said Martin. “Killing the mayor’s wife could not repay the Nazis for the terror they had inflicted on us. But it was a start.”
When they came to the house, he told his makeshift platoon, “the plan is we take our guns and go in through the side door. Then we hide and wait.”
They stepped softly through the house. Their wooden prisoner’s clogs clacked softly against the floor.
The woman shrieked in horror when she saw them.
“So you don’t remember me? You don’t remember that you had me beaten.”
Cornered, she raised her hands in front of her face as if looking into a bright sunlight.
“I’m here to shoot you,” Martin could feel, for the first time, a tinge of SS in his deepening voice. The anger and the hate.
Just then the baby began to wail.
The boys shouted, “Shoot her!” “What did we come for? Do it!” “You think they showed any mercy to your mother and sister?”
At that moment Martin got a feeling down the back of his neck, “That was the moment I became human again. All the old teachings came rushing back. I had been raised to believe that life was a precious gift from God, that women and children must be protected.”
He smiles now in the office of his Brooklyn suit factory. Autographed photos of Paul Newman, Michael Bloomberg and Bill Clinton smile back at him. “With my finger on the trigger, I knew that with one squeeze I would be no better than them.”
Martin called off the hit. And he left the woman in her house with the baby.
Years later, free, American, watching the Yankees in the Bronx. Seeing Jackie Robinson in Brooklyn, he came across an article in the April 30, 1945 of Time magazine:
In the last days of the war the overwhelming realization of utter defeat was too much for many Germans. Stripped of the bayonets and bombast which had given them power, they could not face a reckoning with either their conquerors or their consciences. These found the quickest and surest escape in what Germans call Selbstmord, self-murder … In Hitler’s Reich, Germans stopped killing others and began killing themselves. In Weimar, the mayor and his wife, after seeing Buchenwald atrocities, slashed their wrists.
Back in Brooklyn now, his eyes from out the windowsill to a photo of his two sons and grandchildren.
“That was the day that God pricked my conscience. In so doing, He spared me the guilt and shame of killing the mayor of Weimar’s wife. I didn’t need to kill her. She did it for me.”
A young Greenfield (front)
When people speak of Martin now—widely regarded as the best tailor in the world—they speak of his accomplishments after that. But it is the conscience of the teenager inside that makes him so wonderful to be around. He began working at his current office in 1947. After 30 years on the job, when others would think of retiring, he doubled down and bought the company. You can still find him there six days a week.
I spent a week at Martin’s factory. I watched every step it takes to make a suit. Weddings, presidential dinners, TV shows. And the thing that struck me most was the materials and craftsmanship. The things you can’t fake, even on TV. It’s like the people he’s outfitted, and even Martin himself: What makes them great is not what they’re made for, but what they’re made of.
Martin Greenfield’s new memoir, The Measure of a Man, is out now.