At first, the Peto family stayed in the Jewish Community house, where the two daughters mended underpants for Jewish men, a job that was considered important enough to keep the Peto girls from being deported. Through a friend in the Swiss legation, Mr. Peto acquired a Swiss schutzpass, a document that gave the bearer safe passage. Soon the family moved to the Swiss house. Unfortunately, the pass was only for Mr. Peto.
"The son of a neighbor found that my father’s pass was written on an Olympia typewriter, and he went around the building and another person had such a typewriter," Leiber recalls. "He added ‘and family,’ which saved our lives." But as Russian troops pounded Budapest, the Nazis became determined to eliminate the remaining Jews.
"When we were marched to the ghetto from the Swiss house where we were protected, we were not sure what our fate would be," Leiber says. "The Russians were shelling the city from the east, and the Germans knew they would have to retreat across the Danube toward the west and that their commander was going to kill all the Jews in the ghetto. [Swedish diplomat Raoul] Wallenberg went to see him and told him, ‘You kill the Jews and you will be hanged.’ So he desisted, but the Russians hanged him anyway."
After the war, Judith Peto started making handbags from her home and later at a little factory belonging to a friend. "I did all the work myself," she says. "Cutting the parts, paring the leather, putting all the sections that went into a bag together, sewing, turning if needed, filling out the interior after turning, framing, packing and sometimes even delivering it to the customer." She worked with limited materials, but eventually a couple of secretaries at the American legation helped her to sell her handbags to their coworkers. Women at the legation became important clients and the source of valuable American dollars. Her father taught her the essentials of business and later worked for her company until he was in his 80s.
In 1946 Judith Peto married American G.I. Gerson Leiber. She came to the United States with him the following year. Mrs. Leiber retired three years ago after selling her company. She estimates that she has created more than 3,000 different designs over 30 years. She is thankful for the good fortune that spared her immediate family during the horrors of World War II and has tried to put that part of her life behind her. "You know it happened, but you move on," she says. "In the end, I am here in America and it is wonderful."
Judith Leiber met Mamie Eisenhower once. The future First Lady was touring Nettie Rosenstein’s showroom. Mrs. Eisenhower would never know that she had met the creator of the evening bag that would help her sparkle under the soft lights of her first inaugural ball. She also did not realize that the evening bag, which now rests in an octagonal, smoked-glass case in the First Ladies Hall of the National Museum of American History, represented much more than just a permanent accessory to a historic moment.
by Christian Harlan Moen