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Silver Spring woman inspired by Holocaust survivor's knitted sweater

A green sweater. (Photo: WJLA)

WASHINGTON (WJLA) -- During a visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) a few years ago, Lea Stern, a Silver Spring anesthesiologist and lifelong knitter, was inspired after seeing an exhibit featuring a little girl’s green sweater and learning the story behind it.

The owner of the sweater, Krystyna Chiger, was just 7-years-old when her Jewish family escaped the Nazis in Lvov, Poland by hiding underground in sewers. A detailed account of her story can be found on the museum’s website.

During the 14 month ordeal, Chiger salvaged the cherished green sweater, knitted by her grandmother, who did not survive the Holocaust.

According to the museum, Chiger watched her grandmother knit the sweater in the home they shared before the German invasion of Poland in 1939. After the Germans occupied their town in June 1941, Chiger watched from hiding as her grandmother and her young cousin were loaded into a truck for deportation. Her grandma waved in her direction; a guard hit her in the head with his rifle. She was presumably headed for the Belzec extermination camp.

In a recorded interview with museum curators, Chiger said, “Wherever I went from place to place, I had one thing I wanted to wear. It was my sweater that my grandmother knitted for me before the war… This is the sweater that I cherished the most.”

“I saw my grandmother knitting this for me,” she added. “And when I look at the sweater, I see her face. I almost see her sitting and knitting.”

Chiger – now 79-years-old and living in New York – changed her name to Kristine Keren after immigrating to the United States.

After loaning the sweater to curators for a traveling exhibit, Chiger donated it to the USHMM in 2004. It is not currently on public display.

Curator Suzy Snyder said the museum strives to protect and preserve all of its artifacts, rotating them in and out for public viewing.

“We won't always have survivors. So the object tells the story where they won't be able to.”

After reaching out to curators and receiving permission to access the artifact in the museum’s archives, Stern measured and studied the sweater to identify and replicate its stitch pattern.

“It was a very breathtaking and humbling experience to actually handle this sweater,” Stern said.

Last year, Stern traveled to New York to meet Chiger and presented her with a gift: her own replica sweater.

“She held it up and said, ‘Now I have my sweater back.’ And it was a very moving moment for everyone,” Stern said.

Stern also donated a copyright for the pattern to the museum. She said, “[Knitters can use the pattern] for their daughters or their granddaughters or their nieces and, in doing so, my hope was that they would tell [Chiger’s] story.”

Instructions for the pattern are now available for sale in the museum gift shop and can also be bought at Ravelry.com - a popular knitting website. They cost $7 and Stern gives all proceeds to the museum; she recently sent the first check of $220.

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