Book Review: Measure of a Man, A Memoir: From Auschwitz Survivor to Presidents’ Tailor by Martin Greenfield (with Wynton Hall)
Reviewed by Rebecca Klempner
Martin Greenfield’s recently-published book, Measure of a Man, A Memoir: From Auschwitz Survivor to Presidents’ Tailor, has been receiving a fair amount of press lately. An interview with him appeared in Tablet Magazine, and Aish.com published a selection from the book, which describes the author’s experiences during the Shoah and his life afterward. I wondered about the hype, but when I read Measure of a Man, I understood why people have found it so captivating.
The book starts off with the heavy subject of the Shoah. Greenfield’s matter-of-fact treatment of it is less literary than the approaches of Elie Wiesel or Primo Levi, yet, his straightforward account is no less affecting. Greenfield started life as Maximilian Grünfeld, born in 1928 in a small town in the Carpathian Mountains called Pavlovo. He grew up as Hitler rose to power but young Maxi experienced an idyllic childhood in a close, traditional Jewish community. His corner of Czechoslovakia was initially spared from deportations and concentration camps.
That security didn’t last, though, and the Nazis rounded up the entire populace of Pavlovo on the second day of Pesach in 1944. Pavlovo’s Jews first stopped in the ghetto in Mukačevo, but found themselves transported to Auschwitz just a month later. There, Grünfeld came face-to-face with Mengele and lost every member of his immediate family. Suffering daily violence, depravation, and humiliation, he also learned that an extra shirt could elevate a prisoner above his fellows and that the right pair of shoes could ensure his survival while on a death march.
At the war’s close, Grünfeld relates, “Physically, I was free. Emotionally, I was in chains.” He first attempted to avenge himself against the wife of Weimar’s mayor, who once had begrudged him a few bites of rabbit food when he rescued her beloved pet. Then, he joined the Czechoslovakian army’s efforts to polish off the Nazis. Neither effort released him from his torment.
When they had parted at Auschwitz, Grünfeld’s father had told him, “If you survive by yourself, you must honor us by living, by not feeling sorry for us.” Grünfeld came to realize that starting life over, pursuing happiness and success, would be the greatest way to fulfill his father’s wishes. In the second half of Measure of a Man, we learn how he carried out this goal, and it is this part of the book – which has received less media attention – that I think is the real gem.
Providentially, Grünfeld was located by long-lost uncles and aunts, and he relocated to the U.S. He recreated himself as Martin Greenfield and took a job with GGG, the premier maker of hand-tailored menswear in this country. Eventually, he married, established a family, and started his own firm, Martin Greenfield Clothiers. Today, that company dresses stars and presidents.
Greenfield’s list of accomplishments might have been tiresome to read. However, he avoids arrogance because he never attributes his success to his own efforts. Instead, Greenfield acknowledges the influence of his mentors, collaborators, and champions, as well as many moments of Heavenly assistance. It’s a resounding lesson in the trait of hakarat hatov (gratitude).
Greenfield offers additional character lessons throughout the book. Such proverbial declarations as, “Dressing powerful people has taught me that the greatest men take interest in the smallest people,” and “I was deeply moved by the way accomplished and successful people took time to help someone who could not help them,” become more than mere cliché when followed up with a story about Eddie Fisher or President Clinton or any of the other celebrities whom Martin Greenfield has dressed.
I was intrigued by Greenfield’s business practices. He explained that customers are willing to pay top-dollar for a Martin Greenfield suit because each is created by hand, according not only to individual measurements, but for how the customer plans to use the suit. This means that customer Senator Bob Dole, who has a paralyzed hand, receives a suit with the button closures made easier to handle. If the client is wheelchair-bound, the jacket will be made to drape properly even in the seated position.
Greenfield does pepper his book with a few very slightly risqué anecdotes, as well as pop-cultural references, so the book is not strictly-speaking a “frum book.” But it contains many moments that evoke parallels in Pirkei Avos, and for a reader looking for a relatively light, quick read with Jewish content, it will be a hit.