NEW YORK (JTA) — Diane von Furstenberg takes a seat at her long, farm table-inspired desk inside her office on the fifth floor in the Meatpacking District here. The studio is so vividly colored, so overly patterned and so decked out in exotic tchotchkes, von Furstenberg is one of the few people who could possibly occupy it.
Seated across from her is Sara Bloomfield, the executive director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the outfits of the two women could not be more different. Bloomfield is sporting a conservative blazer and pencil skirt, her hair combed into a neat bob, while von Furstenberg is draped in a green fur vest and moves her right arm carefully under the weight of an enormous gold bangle. Her hair is endearingly wild, and she smells incredible.
The two giggle at each other like old friends, the 66-year-old Jewish fashion designer complimenting Bloomfield on how “cute” she looks before rising to grab her camera and snap some photos. Bloomfield nervously sets her glass of Prosecco on the desk as von Furstenberg stifles a dirty look and rushes to grab a coaster.
They seem like an odd pair: Bloomfield, a pioneer of genocide awareness and adviser to numerous museums around the world, and von Furstenberg, one of the most successful women in fashion who rose to fame in 1974 with the debut of her iconic wrap dress and since has created a robust empire in women’s clothing and housewares.
But the two women have a bond some 20 years in the making — a bond that has nothing to do with fashion and everything to do with von Furstenberg’s Jewish heritage.
Von Furstenberg, host of a special event to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, has invited a select 70 people to her studio — including “Sex and the City” star Sarah Jessica Parker and television host Andy Cohen — so she can explain her unlikely friendship with Bloomfield and her longtime commitment to preserving the memory of the Holocaust.
“I’m involved with the Holocaust museum because I firmly believe in its importance, and there’s no one else doing work like this,” she tells JTA. “Last month they did something amazing for me. Without telling me, they mailed me this giant box of all the details of my mother and father during the Holocaust that the Germans and Swiss kept. They had photos and documentation of everything, and it was so special to me.”
Her Jewish heritage might be important, but it’s something von Furstenberg has taken an interest in only later in life.
Born Diane Simone Michelle Halfin, von Furstenberg is the child of a Holocaust survivor, Lily Nahmias. A blond Greek Jew, Lily was involved in resistance efforts against the Nazis, helping deliver counterfeit papers to other Jews. She was caught in 1944 and sent to Auschwitz. By the time the war ended, she weighed just 49 pounds.
But Lily survived and went on to marry a Romanian Jew, Leon Halfin, who hid in Switzerland during the war. A doctor warned her not to get pregnant, as her body would not be able to handle the trauma. But Diane was born in late 1946, and believes she is a testament to the Jewish will to live.
“I was born on New Year’s, and every year my mother would say, ‘God saved me so that I could give you life. You are my flag of freedom,’ ” von Furstenberg recalls, making eye contact with the few Holocaust survivors in the room invited by Bloomfield. “This is the heritage I carry, and this is very strong to me.”
Early on, Von Furstenberg felt no particular connection to her Jewishness. Her mother neither avoided nor elaborated on her experiences during the war, although von Furstenberg recalls the two tattoos she had on her arms. Lily would mention things here and there, like how she longed for freedom and a plate of spaghetti during those dark days, but never burdened her daughter with all the details. Lily showed no apparent disdain when von Furstenberg married a German prince, Egon von Furstenberg, in 1969.
But von Furstenberg found her way back to her Jewish roots after she was honored by the Anti-Defamation League with its Women of Achievement Award in 1981.
“I don’t really think they knew anything about me, they probably just gave me the award because they knew I would bring a large group,” she tells the crowd sitting around her desk. “But when I got up that day to speak, I heard the words of my mother being a Holocaust survivor come out of my mouth, and these were words that I never said and that I never actually thought, and I started to shake. It was a major revelation because I realized that it was my heritage and I hadn’t realized how deeply connected I really felt.”
Von Furstenberg was one of the first people approached by Bloomfield when plans to build the Holocaust museum in Washington were first discussed. Von Furstenberg, who insists she is horrible at raising money and would “rather give you a check and just leave me alone,” agreed to help fundraise for the museum. She says she believes it is her duty to talk about the Holocaust and spread awareness because few expect these kinds of sentiments from her.
The fundraisers in the 1990s for the fashion industry on behalf of the Holocaust museum were incredibly emotional and sometimes uncomfortable, von Furstenberg says, but she forced herself into the events at the Upper East Side’s Carlyle Hotel on New York City’s Upper East Side.
“Celebrating freedom through the museum is the most important thing in the world,” she says. “It is not just to remember the Holocaust but to talk about tolerance, and of course never to forget the 6 million Jews who were killed, as the last survivors are around.”
She recalled the museum’s inauguration in April 1993, where she stood next to then-President Clinton and was showered in hail, despite the predicted warm weather.
“God wanted everyone out there to know and to feel how cold [Holocaust survivors] were,” she said.
Von Furstenberg says she is “incredibly proud” of her involvement with the museum from the beginning.
“I know I’ve honored my mother through it, and I will continue to honor her,” she says. “Everything I have is because of her.”