Her name could quite easily have been on display at Yad Vashem. Instead it appeared on “Sex and the City.” This is the story of Judith Leiber, a story that was almost written very differently.
Judith Peto was born in Budapest in 1921. At the time one in every four of the city’s residents was Jewish. While Hungarian Jews faced some discrimination, most of Budapest’s doctors, lawyers, musicians, journalists and writers were Jews. In total there were about 600,000 Jews in Hungary, which was equivalent to 7 percent of the country’s population.
In March 1944, when Judith was 22 years old, however, her life and that of many other Hungarian Jews changed forever: German troops invaded Hungary. As a Jewish young woman, of course, she was at great risk when Nazi tanks rolled into her hometown.
World War II was a terrifying experience for many people, across much of the globe, for many reasons. But in few places did Nazi occupation have as immediate, devastating results as it did in Hungary. So Judith was in great danger.
Jews in the Hungarian provinces were ghettoized in April and May of 1944. Between May 15 and July 8, more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews from outside of Budapest were sent to concentration camps (primarily Auschwitz). Nowhere was the pace of the destruction of Jewry as quick as in Hungary.
Meanwhile, Jews like Judith in Budapest faced severe anti-Semitism. And in June 1944, the Hungarian authorities ordered the city’s Jews into over 2,000 designated buildings marked with Stars of David scattered throughout Budapest. Still, for a short time they were insulated from ghettoization and systematic deportations afflicting other Hungarian Jews.
In October 1944, it appeared that the war was almost over. Germany was close to defeat and Hungary looked set to proclaim peace with allies. But then the Arrow Cross, a pro-Nazi Hungarian fascist party, staged a coup d’état. In November 1944, the Arrow Cross forced the Jews of Budapest into a ghetto around the Dohány Street Synagogue.
Deportations started almost immediately after the establishment of the ghetto. In less than three months of existence, over half of the ghetto’s inhabitants were sent to concentration camps. All this time, Judith was in hiding.
As Judith lay low, the Hungarian fascists perpetrated a bloodbath in Budapest itself. Between December 1944 and the end of January 1945, they took as many as 20,000 Jews from the ghetto, shot them along the banks of the Danube and threw their bodies into the river. To save bullets, the Arrow Cross only shot every other Jew; the others they threw in alive.
From German occupation in March 1944 to Hungary’s liberation in January 1945, the Jewish population of Budapest was reduced from approximately 200,000 to 100,000. Yet compared to other European towns and cities, the community had got off lightly.
After Judith came out of hiding, she met a young American soldier in the streets of Budapest. Gerson Leiber, born in Brooklyn in 1922, was part of the allied troops in the city after the city was liberated from the Nazis and their collaborators. Despite their different experiences, the two soon fell in love and after a whirlwind romance Judith Peto became Judith Leiber and moved to America as a GI bride.
The young couple arrived in New York City with big dreams. Gerson was a painter looking to live off his work. And Judith had already established herself as a talented designer having become the first female apprentice and master in the Hungarian handbag guild. In her new country, she took a job working for Nettie Rosenstein, the fashion designer famous for creating the little black dress.
In time, Judith’s designs for other labels became rather well known and her handbags appeared in prominent fashion magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. In 1953, Judith designed a glittering pink bag for American first lady Mamie Eisenhower to wear at her husband Dwight’s inaugural ball. Thereafter, Judith has sent every first lady a handbag. For Bill Clinton’s inaugurations, she made Hillary Clinton a bag in the shape of the White House cat, Socks.
By 1963 it was time to go it alone. Judith founded her own label, Judith Leiber, where she worked alongside Gerson. At first the husband and wife team were the company’s sole employees. Judith was responsible for all the design work and production of the bags, while Gerson delivered the merchandise to major department stores. When the couple used a factory with four employees, Judith worked alongside them and taught them her expertise.
“There was such a sense of camaraderie,” Judith recalled, “with all of us working together, producing these handbags. I made my first line in a gray-green calf which was not that well received. Nevertheless, I was determined to make my bags as beautiful and as well as I could and not to compromise. I have never swerved from that goal. Never.”
With an uncompromising approach, soon the name Judith Leiber became an iconic American luxury brand synonymous with opulent style and high-end sophistication. As well as first ladies, many prominent arbiters of fashion became devoted collectors of Judith Leiber bags.
In addition to celebrity clients, many prestigious museums began to collect Judith Leiber designs and to exhibit the bags as part of their permanent collections. Among such museums are The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Smithsonian, The Corcoran Gallery and The Victoria and Albert Museum.
Success begat success and in time the Hungarian immigrant who escaped the Nazis and her Brooklyn-born husband were living on Park Avenue. She had lived in hiding in Budapest. Now to escape the city heat, they would summer in the Hamptons.
By 1993, the brand had become so well respected and profitable that the Leibers received an offer to buy the brand that they couldn’t refuse from a British company. Judith’s name had once been on a Nazi list of Jews to be exterminated; now it was worth millions of dollars.
Although new Judith Leiber bags continued to be sold after the company’s sale in 1993, they are no longer her personal designs. Judith and Gerson—who still paints and exhibits his work—established a museum, the Leiber Museum, in the East Hampton farmhouse they bought in 1956 (the year, coincidentally, of the Hungarian revolution against the Soviet Union). There, at the Leiber Museum, they exhibit her designs and his paintings. Entry is free of charge to the public.
The couple just wants to share their work—their shared life’s work. The couple had no children but their name lives on in their work. Showing how invested she remains in her designs, Judith now spends much of her time buying back her bags for display at their museum. “They [the bags] are my children,” Judith Leiber told a reporter, “and there is no college tuition and nobody talks back.”