Lore Marie Wiener oral history 1998
Date of Recording09 June 1998
Synopsis[Synopsis created in support of the development of the VHEC's Broken Threads exhibition. See also interview transcription linked below.]
I was born in Hannover, Germany on the 31st of March, 1920. I was one year old when we moved to Bremen in 1921. I went to primary school on Oderstrasse (Oder Street). Because we lived on the Isarstrasse in the Neustadt I could walk to school. Then I went to the Oberlycium Kippenberg. My Daddy found the education better there, he was an engineer interested in construction and architecture and he favored an education where the emphasis was on Mathematics, Science and English.
I went by bus on my own at a very early age, compared to now. Then you started school at age six, finished primary school at age ten, and from ages ten to sixteen you went to high school. If you didn’t want to go to university, you could leave school at sixteen. I was sixteen in 1936. I never suffered antisemitism in school. Nobody asked anything. Hitler and Hess passed our school once. Since the school wasam Wall (along the Wall) we had to come out of the school and stand there. None of the kids were terribly enthusiastic about greeting these men. Bremen in 1936 wasn’t so oriented towards the Nazis. But other people tell me there were some very rabid Nazis there. I wasn’t aware of it at all.
I started my apprenticeship when I was sixteen. It was difficult to find a place because 1936 was not a good time economically, but I had no difficulty. I had made my own suit, went to see a woman and said, “I need an apprenticeship.” She became very intrigued and said, ”Don’t go anywhere else, you are here, that’s it.” Her name was Miss Vogelsang, she was a Catholic. I had one more place that I wanted to go to, but I didn’t. She was the first one I went to. It was a small place, maybe that’s what I liked. She had a Masters degree and made custom clothes.
The apprenticeship was normally three years but she let me do the exam after two-and-a-half years which was very generous because we were cheap labor for the shop. To let me finish half a year earlier was quite generous but she thought she couldn't hold me back. You got paid during the apprenticeship one mark a week. I brought that money home and I said, “What shall I do with this? I think I’ll give it to the Red Cross.“ It was so little.
In the second year, you earned two marks, and in third year, three marks a week. But a mark bought more than what you imagine now. I was eighteen and a half in 1938. I joined her in 1936. We started at seven in the morning, can you imagine? We worked forty-eight hours in five days. On Saturdays, my dad would come and pick me up because we wanted to do something over the weekend and I would say, “Don’t park in front of the place, park at the corner,” because I was too embarrassed to be picked up by my dad in a car!
I don't think my dad was ever caught driving by the Nazis because he left in 1939. I can’t remember a time that he didn’t drive the car. I learned to drive too and drove the car while studying in Vienna, I was told I had to come back to Bremen and see the Gestapo. They asked me, ”Were you driving a car?” I think we sold the car when we left. There’s a picture somewhere where I’m washing the car.
There were Jewish department stores in Bremen, maybe Brenningmeyer store was Jewish, but I’m not sure they are still there. They sold men’s clothes and children’s clothes at reasonable prices. I should try to remember which windows were broken during Kristallnacht. I never really saw the downtown after Kristallnacht, or if I did, I can’t remember it. I didn’t see it and wasn't there but I heard and knew about it.
I must have applied to the Michelbeuernschule before my dad left Germany. We took my dad to Genoa and then we came back through Italy. I started at the Michelbeuernschulei n 1939. I must have only gone one year, because we left in 1940, so less than a year! It loomed so big to me but it was actually such a short time, just one winter season. I had to sign a piece of paper that I belonged to something like the BDM (Bund Deutsche Mädchen, the Union of German Girls, the female version of the Hitler Youth) or the Arbeitsfront (the Workers Front). You had to be a member of the Arbeitsfront. I wasn’t but I just said, “Yes.”
There were not many Nazis supervising at that time. I was so young and so foolish, they could have checked it out quite quickly and easily, but obviously they didn’t. I can’t remember other Jewish students at the Michelbeuernschule; I remember some Austrian girls, but not Jewish. I liked that school. I think the reason partly was because I could live with my grandmother in Vienna, so that tilted my choice. I think I wanted to see where my mother had lived. I had been in Vienna only once when I was seven and we were visiting my grandfather. Now I was eighteen, or nineteen. Vienna was the drawing card.
They taught pattern-making, techniques like pin-tucking, and practical things like bookkeeping, and then sketching. I wanted to get the diploma and even diddled around as to whether I should stay in Vienna. I don’t know how long I would have had to stay to finish school. I’m sure--two years for sure, and so I was only there three quarters of a year. I would have had to stay another year and a quarter to make the Master's papers. I even wanted them to let me do the exams earlier but they wouldn’t let me. It took a long time until it sunk in that we’d better go. I didn't finish. I don’t remember buying clothes. I wasn’t oriented to buying clothes. We made everything there. It was Wiener Werkstätte oriented. Lots of jersey was produced in Austria and they would let us go to places where they had accumulated materials so that we could see what type of materials were available.
The salon in Bremen I used to look at, was Renate Bracksieck's where I also worked--that’s the time I filled in before going to fashion school. When I was finished with my apprenticeship I worked for a few months. I have a recommendation from Renate Bracksieck saying that I spent some journeyman’s time at her place and that I copied a Chanel dress. So there must have been an interest in Chanel. Renate was very artistic, but she couldn’t make clothes. She just had an affinity, she bought models of designs in Paris and would bring them home and let me copy them. She was always of the opinion, ”When you make it, it feels different on my body than when somebody else makes it,” so anyway, that was nice.
When I went to Shanghai at first I didn’t do anything. I think my starting to work again was partly because of my husband who said, “Look, you have this wonderful profession, why don’t you do something with it.” I kept my interest going. I had a subscription to a fashion magazine, Die Dame, which I thought I couldn't live without. I always looked at fashion magazines; I always read whatever I could read on fashion. Once my Daddy took me to the best place, an Italian fabric store where I bought some linen-type fabric and made clothes.
All the clothes I had brought from Europe were all wrong because they were too heavy. It was so hot in Shanghai and I didn’t have any cottony things so I bought fabric and made things for myself. After I met my future husband, I made myself a wonderful bathing suit of printed cotton. He said, “Oh, that looks good.” And later I made myself a dress for a New Year’s party in taffeta and velvet. It was very low cut, and my Daddy said, “Das sieht aber gut aus.” (translation: That sure looks good.")
When I was in Shanghai after 1940, I didn’t have any tailors. I was married in 1941. I didn’t work until my husband said, “Look, you have this wonderful profession, why don’t you work? We have a cook, we have someone to do everything. Why don’t you use it?” First I had a few tailors...maybe in our apartment, one or two and a sewing machine...but I had no customers. So then I went to Mrs. Stein who had a store called My Lady.
I had one or two tailors in the apartment and then I took the whole group and we began working in the apartment of Mrs. Stein which was in the Normandy Apartments--across from Prosper Paris. I would go there to work with the tailors, to make clothes for stock and then she would take orders. I got the tailors by asking the cook. One tailor I had from beginning to end. He would see if we needed more tailors - there was no trouble finding them. He would bring more and he was probably getting some commission from them. We continued in 1943, until we had to leave for Hongkew.
Mrs. Stein was of Jewish decent, and her husband too. They didn't have to leave for Hongkew because they had come earlier than I, but I was considered stateless. Mr. Stein came from Poland. Mrs. Stein was Czechoslovakian.
I continued to work with the tailors in her apartment. I came from Hongkew to work in the Normandy and sometimes in her shop in the Picardie. In the beginning, we used Chinese silk--even during the war, lots of silk. I also I remember in the summer -- cotton dresses. I got a permit to leave Hongkew because I worked for Mrs. Stein. She would sign for me and I could get the pink card needed to get out each day. The business must have been all right because there were Germans, Italians, and French customers. I remember making things for Madame Bouffanais, who was the wife of the French Consul.
I remember when the war was finished, my husband and I said to Mr. Stein, “We are going to start our own business.” He said, “You want to do a business? You have no experience." We said, “Never mind, we’ll do it.” Then we moved into Aja which was a notions store in the Picardie. I think the owner was an Eastern European Jew. Aja, that was the name of the store.
Anyway, that was only for a very short period because then opposite the Picardie was another apartment house with stores. One became empty. We rented that store and there was enough room for the tailors to be there. We moved the whole business there and strangely enough we trusted that we would have enough work. The people I had gotten to know at My Lady came to me then. My Lady also sold gift items oriented towards women so she didn’t depend solely on the clothes that I made. My emphasis was on custom-made clothes.
Eventually we had seven tailors, I think. I bought one machine and then some of the tailors brought their own machines. They had tables that they brought in, and at night they folded everything up and slept right on the table in the workshop. They only went home for weekends. Only the Number One Tailor went home, he lived very near the Normandy Apartments in a little village where a number of cooks and tailors and tradesman lived quite close. It was a small Chinese village within the French Concession. The 50th birthday in Chinese is a very important date. I remember there was a celebration when our tailor turned 50, like a potlatch. The celebration lasted a week. You came and visited and ate with them, went home and came again.
We continued with our own business until the Communists came. We were forced to pay our workers off. It was terribly expensive. We had to pay the tailor, that was the law by the Communists. In order for us to leave we had to pay them and they signed for us that we were released. I can’t tell you how much but it took a chunk of the little money we had. We felt that since the tailors got all this money, we had to give the cook something too. I think all we had left was a hoarded little gold bar, and that we gave to the cook. There was another Jewish business in Shanghai that I remember, Speiser Furs, who also came to Vancouver. I don’t know where he would have come from, but he was a trained furrier from Poland.
I bought fabrics wholesale and silks from the Chinese people. There were lots of silk stores. La Donna was the first fabric store where I shopped. I think the only time in Shanghai that being Jewish came up was when we would talk about the Kadouries. They were early people who came from India or from Russia. They were these old, strong Jewish families. Shanghai didn’t have such a big fashion industry but it had many tailors. My Number One Tailor's father was trained by a Russian woman. I think the knowledge of making Western clothes came to the Chinese from White Russians who had left Russia in 1917. In Shanghai...you know when you’re young you don’t take an interest in so many details. All you do is pay your tailors and pay your bills and make a life. Only in old age do you have the luxury of thinking in historic terms.
When we came to Vancouver first we came on a visitor’s visa. We had left Shanghai on September 25th and arrived in Vancouver on October the 16th. By March, 1950, about five months later , we were living with the Everetts. It was very hard to find a place to live, especially with a kid. They lived near Main Street on one of the side streets, they took us in. While we were eating in their restaurant my child was probably crying which brought her to our table. She came to our table and she was very nice to us. She said, “Well, I have a room, you can come.”
We paid maybe thirty dollars a month and then she heard what I could do. She wanted very much to open a business with me on Main Street. I decided that was not right--very quickly I learned where the right situation was. I didn’t want to start a business on Main Street as I wouldn’t get customers with enough money there. In the meantime, my husband found somebody who would loan us two thousand dollars, somebody on the Vancouver Stock Exchange. I don’t know how he got to know the man but he told them what I could do and this man thought, “Oh, there is some knowledge that isn’t in Vancouver, we can make lots of money with them fast!” They loaned us two thousand dollars and we had to furnish a studio which we rented on West Boulevard.
The building was fixed up for a lady who was a music teacher and she had a studio. There was a store created beside it so that she would have a little income. We paid ninety dollars rent at that time and the front was the studio in gray and yellow. We lived in a little room behind and then rented another, that's how we started. These people from the Stock Exchange gave us a mailing list and on that mailing list were the Bentleys. We sent a letter out that we were opening and people came very quickly. We had a certain turnover and then the next month we doubled it and then we tripled it. You can't do that now. My husband must have done the right thing to send out letters to people saying we had opened. He must have had an instinct for what publicity needs to be done.
He wrote an article for Saturday Night about me with a picture. Eddington, a photographer, took the picture, and that was accepted and got in. After a year we had little fashion shows. I remember Mrs. King, and all the old Shaughnessy guard came. It's not such a big deal anymore, but at that time that was Vancouver society and they were written up in the paper. It worked. I’m sure, it was not so easy to begin with, even by doubling the business. I very quickly hired people, I was so used to that from Shanghai. I wouldn’t sit down and make it myself, I know during the time I thought sometimes, “Why do I pay out all these wages? Why don’t I take the orders and make them? We would make much more money." But the other route was better.
We were on a visitor’s visa and then that was converted. We didn’t have landed immigrant status in 1950. That year, around Christmas time, or in the Fall there was a deportation order. Then they gave us a little longer since we proved ourselves with the business, that we could keep ourselves going. I think they didn’t want to accumulate too many people who then would have to go on welfare, though it never entered our heads that one could go to the government - that there was such a thing as that. We knew we had to make some money. The business proved itself quite quickly viable. Towards the end of that year they gave us the status of landed immigrants. They converted the visitor’s visa to landed immigrants status and then after five years we could become citizens. We had to learn all the provinces and the capital cities.
When my daughter was about thirteen, we moved to the store on 41st Avenue. We thought with that store we would get more customers, and I'm sure it was right. 41st was busier than the Boulevard, so we moved there. We must have simultaneously bought the house here. I remember when we moved, the Puddifoots, who also had a store on 41st, said, “Why don’t you ask Arthur Erickson?” I said, “My G-d, I can’t ask...” And they said, “What do you mean? He needs work!” And he was not so terribly established then. He had done the Puddifoot’s store. We contacted him and he charged seven percent of the cost of re-doing the store, which wasn’t a big percentage. He came with an old Volkswagen and I felt ok. He liked doing it, and I think he did a good job. That was in 1961 or 1962. I stayed there for thirty years, and twelve to thirteen years on the Boulevard makes it altogether forty years in the business--that doesn’t sound so long either!
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NoteOral history was recorded on audio cassette; digitized surrogate available on request.
Funding NoteCataloguing and digitization of this testimony was supported by funding from the Government of Canada.