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  • Polish (Poland)
  • English (United Kingdom)
The story of Bernard Lichtenstein

The only thing I regret is that I'M NOT THE ONE WHO INVENTED JEANS
Yves Saint Laurent

It is 1937. Bernard Lichtenstein takes his first steps on the American land. He gets off the boat that transports the immigrants from the docks of the port in New York to Ellis Island. Like thousands of others, he dreams of America and a new life. Together with his family, the forty-three-year-old Jewish tailor, crossed the ocean on the board of the SS Kościuszko transatlantic liner. He was squeezed among other passengers, mostly poor Jews who had sold their possessions in order to buy the tickets.

The New World does not welcome new immigrants with open arms any more. After the years of the Great Depression, unemployment and inflation, the economic New Deal, introduced by the president Roosevelt, is still fragile. Every immigrant has to go through elaborate proceedings and answer many questions. Americans are afraid of diseases, as well as communist and German spies, so they thoroughly examine all the newcomers, who fear that they may not be accepted. Waiting is very hard, but finally an official announces who is allowed to stay in the USA. Bernard and his family step to the American ground. Neither Bernard nor his wife Róża and their daughters Sara and Miriam (their son, whose name is the same as his father's, stayed in Poland) can throw together a sentence in English. In Manhattan, they can count only on each other. In those difficult years, there are no touts on the shore, waiting for the passengers and offering them jobs, as it used to be in the past. Some immigrants are welcomed by their families – Jewish, Polish or Russian – Eastern European languages intermingle there as at the market in Lublin or Otwock. For a short while it is possible to feel like at home in this foreign land and obtain some invaluable information. All you have to do is to listen carefully. During the journey, Bernard observed who else among the passengers had portable sewing machines apart from suitcases and other bundles of luggage. Now he can hear that one word  – Philadelphia – is repeated again and again. It is there that the demand for the tailors is the biggest. It is only 200 kilometres south, and you can get there by rail that was electrified only a few years ago.

On the train that crosses the Delawere River, Bernard finally feels that he is in America, of which he was dreaming for so many years. It seems to him that the better future is at hand. While leaving Łódź, he told himself that he would not spare himself and would achieve something, as many lucky ones had done before. Now he strongly believes that he heads in the right direction. He thinks about his family home on the Krótka Street in the Bałuty district, where he was born in 1894. The family of the tailor Izaak Lichtenstein was not wealthy, but the birth of the first-born son Bernard was treated as the sign of the God's kindness by his father. In their cramped flat that neighbours a little room in which the tailor sees his clients (usually in delay with payments), three Bernard's sisters are born. Łódź is a large city but it has only been a few years since the electricity was installed there, there are still no trams running.

Since he was a child, Bernard had helped his father and learnt the trade. At the Talmud Torah School of Craft on the Średnia street, together with his peers from poor Jewish families, he learns about the secrets of weaving and engineering. He achieves competence in using a needle at the same time as the ability of reading and writing the Hebrew letters.

As time passes, the father's eyesight deteriorates, many years of working at the paraffin lamp make it impossible for him to run the workshop, so Bernard takes over his business in order to maintain the family. He is already an expert tailor, but he realizes that skilful hands are not enough to earn a living. He buys an expensive Swiss sewing machine made by Bernina – the name of the company sounds as if it was from some better distant world. The needle is inserted into the material one hundred times every minute, and such efficiency of the machine saves a lot of time. Outside the workshop, a lot of things change. Poland regains its independence, Łódź is no longer ruled by tsarist officials – the promised land struggles to revive after the years of postwar stagnation in business. Bernard marries Róża, becomes a father, and runs his workshop with changing fortunes. Thanks to the machine, he is now able to work faster, but it sometimes happens that the poor people from the Bałuty district do not visit his workshop for weeks – because of the lack of money they prefer to wear patched trousers and coats rather than spend  money on new clothes. Weeks with no orders run up Bernard's debts, which he manages to pay off when there are more clients. On the street you can see motorcars, resourceful businessmen build palaces. Bernard, like millions of others anonymous citizens, lives from day to day, with the fortune that once smiles upon him and then changes the direction. He stands out from people similar to them due to his passion for reading books different than holy scriptures. In his school years, pressing his nose against the window pane of the Gebethner and Wolff's bookshop, he used to look at the covers of the novels by Karol May picturing Native Americans. He bought sequels to the adventures of the Old Shatterhand and Winnetou for peanuts at the market and he devoured them avidly. Now, the books are read by his son, who – just as Bernard did before – dreams of an adventurous life of the westman, carefree work of a cowboy, and the distant world where a man feels free and happy. For Purim – the spring Jewish carnival – Bernard makes a cowboy outfit for David. From the beige linen made to resemble tawny leather, he cuts a waistcoat that looks like the clothes of some characters from his favourite novels. His relatives make fun of Bernard's eccentricity, but the ecstatic expression on his little son's face is worth these few biting comments made by his sisters and mother-in-law.

The Lichtensteins' neighbours leave Łódź – some of them go to Palestine, some to the USA. The Great Depression means poverty for craftsmen. Anti-Jewish slogans on the walls and more and more grim news from Germany do not bode well for the future. In a short time, Bernard's father and his mother die. Now he is the head of the family, and his teenage son helps him at work, just as he helped his own father who was losing his sight twenty years ago.

However, Bernard would like to change his fate. Boundless prairies, gold hidden in the mountains – this is his “promised land.” He is an expert tailor who is not afraid of hardship, so he can count on more than he could achieve in his homeland. The American dream haunts him all the time, so he persuades his wife to stake everything on one card. Bernard sells his workshop to the richer tailor Seidemann, who insists that he will not leave Łódź. Thus, he gains 5000 zlotys – which was 1000 dollars at the time. He pays off his debts, gets some cash for selling the equipment and furniture. He entrusts some of his property to his son, who has recently got married. Apart from his personal belongings, he takes a portable sewing machine with him, which is supposed to give him independence and money in America.

The cruise by the transatlantic liner of the Gdynia America Line lasts eight days. Putting his feet on the American ground, Bernard decides that from now on, he will use the name Ben. It will be easier this way. Everything will be easier in America.

Philadelphia, the former capital of the United States, resembles Łódź  – it is the biggest centre of the textile industry in America. But there are also differences, for example the skyscrapers that obscure the skyline view. One of them – the city hall – used to be the highest building in the world in the years 1901-1908.

Poverty in Philadelphia also looks different. The modest district where Bernard rents a room is completely different from Bałuty. Children do not run barefoot, adults do not go around in rags, sewage does not flow on the streets. Philadelphia – the trade and business centre –  was developed in the spirit of Protestant work ethics, and the traditional culture of the Wild West is treated as folklore here.

Bernard opens a small shop with the tailor's workshop, where his daughters help him. The worn out Bernina is still very useful, though in the first months there is much uncertainty and efforts to learn the foreign language without anybody's help. The tailor from Łódź makes trousers, shirts, coats. Fortune smiled on Bernard in less than a year after he had come to America. His shop was entered by an impresario of the rodeo roadshow, who was looking for material in lively colours. The whole cowboy's outfit that was necessary for the performances disappeared, because the car that was transporting it got burnt down in an accident. The word  ‘cowboys’ makes Bernard's heart beat faster. It reminds him of the long hours spent reading novels about conquering of the Wild West and dreams of becoming a part of this world. In broken English, using universal words that he knows from the books, he manages to make himself understood by the American. ‘I will make ten denim shirts for tomorrow. I know how to do it. I have got experience,’ he assures the client.

The manager agrees, and Ben finds the necessary fabrics in the nearby shops. The books of his youth turn out to be helpful. The tailor spends the whole night sewing, and in the morning everything is ready. Impresario smiles with contentment when he sees the shirts as they should be: colourful, with trimmings, pockets and folds. But something is wrong, one detail that distinguishes them from the traditional shirts. Snap fasteners! ‘What is that?’ ‘I read in the newspapers about cowboys losing their lives because of the ordinary buttons, when they came across the bull horns. If the button does not undo, it will act as gallows. A snap fastener is a better solution,’ Bernard answers.

The American man pays for the well done commission. And he does not hide from others the name of the tailor that made his clothes. There are more and more clients, attention to detail brings recognition to the craftsman. Soon after that, Ben is given the next offer – in order to accept it, he has to go to the longed-for West for the first time. In Kansas City, a rich rancher, satisfied with the denim shirts he bought in Philadelphia, recommends him to his friends. And thus, business trips to clients become a normal thing for Ben. Finally, he earns good money. America really offers everything that he could not expect in Europe. His shop on the East Coast is the favourite place of the rodeo shows' lovers from Colorado, Texas and California. Now, the sign on the shop that finally really belongs to the Jew from Łódź says “Rodeo Ben’s – the East’s Most Western Store.”

His shop is popular with pop culture stars of the West. Gene Autry – the singer who, apart from his passion for the country music, became known as the first performer of the Christmas hits such as “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” – also appears there. In 1945, Auntry, who lost 20 kilos, returns to the civilian life from the American Army. He visits the Ben Rodeo’s shop and makes a proposal: ‘I will hire you for a few months. Make me some new clothes.’

In the circle of regular customers, there is also Roy Rodges – an actor who is an archetypal cowboy. Ben enjoys such reputation that every year he can put his stand in the New York hotel Belvedere on the occasion of rodeo shows in the Madison Square Garden. Cowboys and cowgirls from the whole West arrive here to show the real American culture to the “East capital”. The rural folklore embodies the real American spirit: the land of freedom and courage in conquering hostile nature. Rodeo – the sport stemming from the cowboy tradition that includes such competitions as catching calves with a lasso, breaking in wild horses, getting on bulls – is truly exciting. Risky stunts require suitable clothes that are not only attractive but also comfortable, and do not restrict your movements. Such an outfit should be strong and durable, too. Ordinary jeans do not stand confrontation with the power of the animals. There is a demand and there is an idea to satisfy it. The Blue Bell Company, knowing that Ben has a good reputation among cowboys, turns to him. The fact that the Blue Bell Company invited the greatest rodeo stars – Jim Shoulders called "Babe’m Ruth’em Rodeo"(after the name of the most famous baseball player of all time) and no less famous Freckles Brown and Bill Linderman – to cooperate with him proves that the tailor already had the position similar to the fashion designers of today.

Cowboys test all versions of the trousers during the frantic duels with uncontrollable animals. Ben, a perfectionist when it comes to the western style, keeps on improving his work. Finally, the thirteenth version of the trousers turns out to be perfect! Five pockets, straight trouser legs, a watch pocket in a different place, double seams – those are novelties in the world of blue cotton trousers. The 13 MZW trousers (13 tries, man’s western zipper) are also the first zippered, not buttoned up, jeans. After consulting all of the Blue Bell's employees, it was decided that the name of the trousers would be Wrangler – the synonym of a cowboy.

Rodeo Ben, the star of American tailoring, dies in his new homeland in 1979. He was buried in his Texas-style white suit. He invented the type of trousers which is known to all of us. All over the world, they are a symbol of freedom and the Western ease of manner, they are the most popular outfit for informal occasions, an icon of the teenage culture and the fashion created by the most famous designers. The tailor from Łódź became the part of the American mass culture and his image, together with the images of the five rodeo stars, was printed on the paper insert that was factory-attached to the back pocket of every new pair of wrangler jeans. Can you imagine the more American happy end?

Kostek Lichtenstein

PS: Anyone who knows anything about the Ben Lichtenstein's notes, please contact me ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ). According to the family tradition, the last person that saw the sheets written in Yiddish was my uncle Bernard Junior, who had never joined the family on the other side of the ocean.


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