Institute News

Holocaust survivor who became a celebrity handbag designer passes away at 97

Judith Leiber, a Holocaust survivor whose talent for making whimsical handbags took both the fashion and art worlds by storm, died Sunday in her New York home. She was 97.

She died just hours after her husband, Gerson Leiber, an American serviceman whom she met on the streets of Hungary in the days after World War II.

Born Judith Marianne Peto in Budapest on Jan. 11, 1921, Leiber studied briefly in London before the war. In 1939, she studied science in England, but soon returned to Hungary, where she enrolled in an artisan guild and learned handbag manufacturing. Instead of being sent to a concentration camp like many of her fellow Jews in Hungary, Leiber was put to work sewing army uniforms.

After the war, she and her husband moved to New York, where she worked in several shops before opening her own line of handbags.

Her designs included tiny bejeweled purses shaped like dogs, fish, lipstick and cupcakes. Her creativity and sense of style brought her to the attention of the glitterati. Over the years, her customers included movie stars and society leaders. Her handbags were carried by the likes of Greta Garbo, Queen Elizabeth, Barbara Bush, Mamie Eisenhower, Octavia Spencer and Helen Mirren. She has also been the subject of shows at museums and galleries.

She gave her testimony to USC Shoah Foundation in 2013. Anne Bernard, who conducted the interview, recalled a serious-minded woman who broke many barriers in the fashion and business worlds.

“She was an icon,” Bernard said. “There was nobody like Judith Leiber. Everybody carried her handbags if you could afford it and if you cared for things like that. In the period she was successful, people cared about that.”

Interviewing Leiber presented challenges.

“She was very removed,” Bernard said. “She was very profession, very precise. The challenge of interviewing her wqs cutting through her serious demeanor. But she broke a barrier when she came to New York. She was a woman in charge of a business.”