NEW YORK – Like many men, Martin Greenfield ordered a new suit when his life was about to change: He placed his order just after he was liberated from a concentration camp.
In 1945, he left Buchenwald and arrived at a German warehouse, where Allied soldiers let Greenfield pilfer four cuts of English wool. The freed captive carried the fabric to a Prague tailor, who made a suit for Greenfield from two of the cuts, with the other two as payment.
Two years later, an uncle helped Greenfield cross the Atlantic, and a fellow Czech immigrant guided him to a job as a floor boy in a Brooklyn garment factory. Within a few years, Greenfield became a tailor, assigned to the factorys famous clients – actors, athletes, politicians. By the 1970s, he amassed enough skill and capital to buy the factory. And today, at 84, among the tens of thousands of men he has dressed, Greenfield can count three presidents, a vice president, Cabinet secretaries and countless senators and representatives.
Through the decades, Greenfield constructed made-to-measure suits that customers ordered at special sales at Brooks Brothers and Neiman Marcus stores nationwide. Such trunk shows brought him often to the capital of the country that saved his life, where he suited up many of the men who run it.
There appears to be a fourth president among his clients. In February 2011 and then again one year later, Greenfield and his two sons – now his business partners – made trips to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The White House logs reveal that the Greenfields visited a personal aide in the official residence. The tailor doesnt talk about any well-known client, until the client talks about him first.
Greenfields bespoke suits fit the bill for White House wear. They can range from $1,800 to $2,700, depending on fabric and features. The tailor works simply, as he always has and in a way that few competitors still do, showing up six days a week in a union shop that employs more than 100. The plant has stayed open in a rough neighborhood during bleak decades. Greenfields factory has been burglarized 11 times.
His first sewing job
At Auschwitz, the prisoners were sorted by gender, and Martins 5-year-old brother, who had been hanging on him like I was a hero, went with his father. His younger sister was pulled away from his mother and other sister and sent in another direction because she had blond hair and blue eyes. When the registrars asked if anyone knew a trade, his father offered up Martin as a skilled mechanic.
The teenage boy seethed. The father and son had been at odds for days. His father had just traveled to retrieve Martin from Budapest, where he had been sent to live with relatives.
Father and son returned home to their remote, idyllic town of Pavlovo. Once reunited with his family, Martin could finally plan his bar mitzvah, which was deferred throughout his exile in Budapest. But two days after his return, the Nazis knocked on the familys door, ordered them to pack up and hustled them off to Auschwitz.
As a boy in the camp, Greenfield was given the chore of washing the Auschwitz guards clothes by hand. I didnt know how to wash shirts – we had a maid. And I ripped his collar, he recalled. The shirts owner was incensed. First he whipped me, then he gave me the shirt, throwing it at the boy.
Greenfield learned to sew, and tailored the discarded shirts collar to fit his own neck. Then he dared to wear the shirt under his striped uniform, and noticed the reactions from guards and prisoners alike. They thought I was somebody, he said, noting that the new outfit allowed him into barracks and hospital hallways where he could sneak food to the famished. I ripped a couple of others then. I was smart enough to do that. Then I had already a wardrobe!
For more than three decades, Gen. Colin Powell bought his clothes from a PX. A dozen years ago, at a cousins party in the Hamptons, Powell was approached by an assertive and friendly gentleman who said he had dressed generals before and would dress him, too.
Powell was preparing to be a civilian in political life, and he showed up for his Greenfield appointment in Brooklyns Bushwick neighborhood. I got out of the car and looked at this factory and thought I was somewhere back in the 19th century, Powell said of the four-story plant, which stands in what had been a crime-infested part of town.
Powell learned how clothing constructed just for him made him look and feel different. Greenfield came to the Powell residence to meet his wife, Alma, and go over more swatches. The tailor routinely second-guessed the couples choices. He explained how tie colors shouldnt fight the camera, in Greenfields terms.
Now for a guy who wore black ties for 35 years, this was all extremely revealing, Powell recalled. Over the years, this loyal customer referred others to Greenfield, warning his reluctant deputy at the State Department, Richard Armitage, that once he got his wide frame fitted in a just-for-him suit, he wouldnt buy just one. Donald Rumsfeld became a client. The fitting sessions are always discreet, intimate, with shared confidences. Martin became one of my mentors, Powell said.
Shirts on his back
In January 1945, Greenfield and the other prisoners could hear gunfire outside the camp. The German guards rounded up the thousands of prisoners and marched them out of the camp.
A Gestapo agent made Greenfield carry his pack. Greenfield managed to snoop through it, injesting some vitamins and discarding the ammunition. There was some salami and bread, which he distributed to other prisoners.
The guard was livid and searched for the boy who swiped his supplies. The boy had made friends, however, who hid him inside a snowdrift. Greenfield survived, in part, because he was wearing extra thermal layers: the three Gestapo shirts he had torn.
Bill Clinton was the first president to welcome Greenfield inside the White House and to be personally measured by him.
Greenfields clientele is bipartisan. He once assembled a three-piece suit for President Gerald Ford, and Secret Service agents stood over him while he fashioned a bulletproof version of the vest. Greenfield had measured Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan. for suits and compensated for Doles war-wound-withered arm and sloping shoulder.
After a forced march, the surviving prisoners boarded a train headed south. They arrived in Buchenwald, and with its big flag and big gate, the camp seemed grander than those in Poland.
Inside, many of the tens of thousands of prisoners proved savvy and scheming. Greenfield was assigned a job in the munitions factory. At night, the barracks was filled with whispered instructions to bring back parts of weapons. A Russian officer with no legs was masterminding an uprising.
Before the inside job could come together, gunfire erupted outside the gate. It was April 1945. Americans were storming the camp. Emaciated and tired, Greenfield dodged bullets and the falling, burning pieces of barracks. He watched as Gestapo officers grabbed prisoners, killed them and donned their uniforms to masquerade as innocents.
Americans overtook the camp and in the aftermath, Greenfield rested at a dig site where Nazis had buried stolen valuables – jewelry, diamonds, precious metals. American soldiers hacked at the dirt with shovels, and one of them tossed to Greenfield a Schaffhausen watch.
Inside the camp, the boy confronted a young rabbi, a U.S. Army chaplain: Where was God? he asked; the rabbi could not answer.
Before he left Buchenwald, the boy cheered the arrival of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, who ordered Germans from the town to be ushered into the camp to see for themselves the stacks of corpses and the living skeletons. One boy, two years younger than Greenfield, watched alongside him and seemed the skinniest kid that ever survived, he recalled; he was Elie Wiesel.
At 19, after failing to find his parents and siblings, Greenfield reached the United States on a ship called the Ernie Pyle.
At the factory, Greenfield excelled, and his bosses assigned him the companys most important customer – Eisenhower. Years after their handshake in Buchenwald, Greenfield was making clothes for the general, who was shedding his uniform for the outfits of a statesman.
Greenfield kept in touch with many customers. Robert Strauss, the Democratic Party chairman, became an intimate, and when President Ronald Reagan broke ground on the U.S. Holocaust Museum, Strauss ordered a limo to ferry the Greenfields around town. From his front-row seat, Greenfield saw a familiar face onstage – the rabbi whom he had met in Buchenwald. After the ceremony, Greenfield approached Rabbi Hershel Schaecter, who said he had never forgotten Greenfield or his unanswerable question. The two men spent decades of friendship discussing it.
Fawning over Arlene, his wife of 56 years, in the company of sons Jay and Tod and all the grandchildren, the patriarch was dressed colorfully as ever, in a purple-and-white seersucker suit. Under his vest, he wore braces, and always his breast pocket burst with a silk square.
Arlene Greenfield had invited a few of her husbands clients to join them for a special event: Martin Greenfields long-postponed bar mitzvah.
The service was nearly 70 years late, but his whole family was there.