Trudie Strobel stitching (Photo/Ann Elliott  Cutting);  Detail from “Four Embroideries of Trees in Four Seasons (Autumn)” by Trudie Strobel.
Trudie Strobel stitching (Photo/Ann Elliott  Cutting); Detail from “Four Embroideries of Trees in Four Seasons (Autumn)” by Trudie Strobel.

Threads of memory: Survivor embroiders pain into beauty

My Ukrainian grandmother came to the U.S. at 17, fleeing the early 20th-century pogroms, then toiled as a seamstress for all her working years. But even after long shifts at the factory, she loved to sew tiny, perfect dresses for my dolls. Growing up, I considered those dresses my most precious possession: they were stitched with love.

Perhaps that is why my heart leapt when I saw a copy of the new book “Stitched & Sewn: The Life-Saving Art of Holocaust Survivor Trudie Strobel.”

Author Jody Savin, a Princeton-educated screenwriter, brings uncanny insight to her description of Strobel’s heartbreaking childhood and late-life flowering as an artist using a needle and thread. Combined with photographs of Strobel and her needlework by Ann Elliott Cutting, the book tells an unforgettable story.

Born Gertrude Labuhn in 1938 on a kolkhoz (collective farm) in Ukraine, Strobel started life with an extreme emotional deficit: Before she was born, her father was taken away by Soviet authorities, never to be seen again. All he left for his unborn child was a beautiful doll, which she named “Papa Doll,” a totem in his absence.

Her mother, Masha, supported them by sewing and repairing the scarce garments owned by villagers. Yet the Nazi invasion overturned their precarious life when German soldiers came to their house and put them on a 750-mile march to a camp near Lodz.

En route, an SS officer callously ripped Papa Doll from Trudie’s arms. Even at 4, Trudie understood her sacrifice was a matter of life and death.

Trudie Strobel’s “Russia 1942” depicts the moment in her life when an SS officer confiscated her doll en route to a labor camp.
Trudie Strobel’s “Russia 1942” depicts the moment in her life when an SS officer confiscated her doll en route to a labor camp.

Ultimately, as Savin’s spare, emotional narrative recounts, in the labor camp and later in Auschwitz, it was Masha’s talent that saved them — for the Nazis valued her skills as a seamstress. And as Masha sewed, under unspeakably harsh conditions, her child was allowed to cling to her side. She lived for Trudie, and Trudie for her mama.

“Trudie had to learn … how to be quiet, how to be invisible. This was a hard lesson for a child to learn and one that would have repercussions throughout Trudie’s life,” Savin writes.

Reading these chapters — accompanied by photographs of the art in which Trudie  revisited these experiences years later — one wonders how Savin could have known what went on in Masha and Trudie’s minds.

In a recent Zoom interview from their homes in Pasadena (Savin) and San Marino (Strobel), we discussed their collaboration, which began about four years ago after Savin’s bat mitzvah-age daughter, Maya, became the keeper of the memory of a young girl who died in the Holocaust. She learned about that girl from Strobel.

“Trudie and her mother were alone together in a way that none of us will ever really be able to understand,” said Savin, a co-writer of the feature films “Bottle Shock” and “Nobel Son.”

“But after many, many conversations with Trudie, she felt I got pretty close to what transpired.”

“The Jewish Calendar” by Trudie Strobel.
“The Jewish Calendar” by Trudie Strobel.

As events turned out, both Trudie and her mother survived the Holocaust, spending a long time in a displaced persons camp and then making their way to America.

Trudie married at 18 and raised two sons in the Los Angeles area. Everything seemed normal — until in her 40s, she fell into a depression so severe that she lost her powers of speech. When she was unresponsive to treatment, her therapist grasped at the hope she might release her feelings through art. But she was not trained in drawing or painting. She only knew how to stitch.  So she picked up a needle and began to sew.

Her first project, while still in therapy, was to dress a doll. Then an idea took hold: She would dress dolls in costumes modeled on the clothes Jews were forced to wear to identify and shame them, in different times and places. She called the project “Badges of Shame: Eleven Centuries of Degradation.” They would become part of the permanent collection of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

Thus activated, Strobel went on to paint with thread, using all the techniques Masha taught her — and then some. She embroidered flowers and birds, popular in the traditional needlework of Eastern Europe. But she wanted to tell stories, as well. In the late 1980s, she created a large-scale work honoring Jewish women of achievement. Her massive 1992 work, “The Jewish Calendar,” inspiringly renders the richness of Jewish life across millennia.

She also completed a series of 12 large pieces, collectively titled “Moments in Jewish Time,” that included biblical scenes, landscapes of Israel, still lifes of Jewish customs, and depictions of the Holocaust. One panel, titled “The Holocaust— the Horrifying Years,” is a stark, semi-abstract study of the train tracks leading to the crematorium (in red and black), stamped with a bright yellow Star of David.

“Holocaust – The Horrifying Years,” a tapestry from Trudie Strobel’s series “Moments in Jewish Time.”
“Holocaust – The Horrifying Years,” a tapestry from Trudie Strobel’s series “Moments in Jewish Time.”

“I stitched day and night, sometimes more than eight, 10 hours a day,” said Strobel, 82, describing her decades of work. “I had to keep going. You want to accomplish what is in your head.”

That inclination to exorcise her worst memories also produced two massive Holocaust works: “Final Destination,” a collage-like tableau of concentration camp images, and “Russia 1942,” in which she recreates the scene at the railway station when the Nazi officer stole her Papa Doll.

How could she bear it, bending over her lap, fixing those memories into a tapestry, stitch by stitch?

“We can never forget our Holocaust,” Strobel said. “We cannot let this happen in the world again. And that’s why I speak … through my pictures, my embroidery.”

While she still takes medication, Strobel is functional now, and more than that. She has moved on to joyous Israeli landscapes, family portraits, and tableaus of Jewish life, many given away, others hanging in synagogues, or in galleries waiting to reopen after the pandemic.

“I am the most privileged person,” she concludes. “I can’t tell you how wonderful our community is to me. What else can one say except that I am blessed?”

Her aspect is soft, her voice humble and tender. Through the Zoom screen, she looked at me, the granddaughter of another Ukrainian immigrant, and said, “I feel I know you.”

And I believe she does.

“Stitched & Sewn: The Life-Saving Art of Holocaust Survivor Trudie Strobel” by Jody Savin, with photos by Ann Elliott  Cutting (Prospect Park Books, 193 pages). The Jewish Community Library will host a virtual talk with the artist and author on Aug. 23 at 2 p.m.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.