In Trudie Strobel’s colorful embroidered artwork “Marriage,” a wedding chuppah sits between two large and impressive columns. The columns are Jachin and Boaz, the pillars that flanked the entrance to the Temple in ancient Israel. The arrangement emphasizes the strength of Jewish heritage and turns a moment in time into a celebration of Jewish continuity, a major theme of Strobel’s art and life.
“Marriage” is one of nearly one hundred artworks included in a new book about Strobel’s life and work, Stitched & Sewn: The Life Saving Art of Holocaust Survivor Trudie Strobel, by Jody Savin.
The book is generously illustrated with color photographs of Strobel’s art, much of which is part of the permanent collection at The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Photographer Anne Elliott Cutting expertly captures the minute details of Strobel’s stitching. If you want to learn about painting with needle and thread, the photographs alone offer a masterclass.
Strobel was born in 1938 to parents Masha and Vasilley, on a forced farm collective in a part of the Soviet Union that is now part of Ukraine. A few weeks before Trudie was born her father was abducted from their home by soldiers in the middle of the night. He left behind a doll he had bought for his unborn daughter, a doll that the young Trudie would cling to as she and her mother endured their own ordeal of being deported, sent on forced marches, and sent to Nazi work camps. As an adult, Strobel’s memories of the doll would provide a door to healing and the inspiration for her first piece of art.
The book details how mother and daughter survived the Holocaust largely on the strength of her mother’s sewing skills, which provided income in her father’s absence and saved them in the camps.
Healing through Sewing
After the war, Strobel moved to the United States, married, and raised two sons, seemingly putting her childhood traumas behind her, but when her sons became adults began building their own lives, the traumas caught up with her. She found herself unable to speak.
A therapist recommended writing about her childhood experiences. She couldn’t write about them, but the doll her father had bought for her came back to her mind, and she remembered the sewing skills her mother had taught her, and she thought that that could be the beginning of the road back for her.
Working from a book of Jewish historical dress, she created clothes for eleven dolls, each representing a different time and place in history, beginning with fourteenth century Spain.
In this first piece she created, a doll wears a long hooded cloak with a round yellow badge that identifies the wearer as Jewish.
“I must create eleven centuries of degradation to show what women have experienced through history,” she told me when we spoke by phone earlier this year. “I decided that has to be the thing for me to do. I cried many tears. I imagined myself in Spain wearing this yellow badge. I thought of myself going to market in these clothes. I felt this bad for every costume I made. It took a year of tears.”
She kept working, expanding into embroidered pieces. Though she had not done a lot of embroidery up to that point, she discovered that she had a natural talent for what she calls “painting with thread.” While her doll series has become the most popular exhibit at The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, Trudie has gone on to develop a substantial body of artwork, including a number of large pieces, many of which are also on display at the museum.
Painting with Thread
She possesses a particular talent for portraiture, a talent seen most notably in “Distinguished Jewish Women of Achievement” (click the image to see a larger version and more detail). The piece features twelve Jewish women including biblical figures, such as Deborah the prophetess, and historical figures, such as poet Emma Lazarus and Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold. World War II martyr Hannah Senesh is shown parachuting into Nazi-occupied Europe.
Although Strobel is now an accomplished artist, the dehumanizing and degrading treatment Nazi soldiers inflicted on her when she was a child is still etched in her psyche. She says she doesn’t understand a museum wanting to show her work or even now having her work collected in a book. “Inside, I still feel like a bug.”
A number of her works confront her memories of the Holocaust directly. While creating the pieces has been part of a painful healing process, Strobel’s pieces comes across as fearless, not only because they confront their subjects so directly but also because of their large size -some of her pieces are three feet square or more- and her incisive technique. I asked her if when she’s working on these projects she feels fearless, and her voice is clear and quick, “Oh, yes!”
Strobel spends many hours a week volunteering and speaking to student groups at The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, where you can often find her stitching as she sits among her art works and the museum’s roaming visitors, ready to answer questions.
Her continuing messages to students and other visitors: “This must never happen again.” It’s a theme she returned to repeatedly during our conversation. “We’re a small group of people and we lost six million,” she says, “Never again must this happen to any group.”
Trudie Shares Her Process
When we spoke, Trudie generously offered to share her creative process. Like many needle artists, her projects begin on the dining room table. She begins by drawing the design on paper. When she’s satisfied with the drawing, she darkens the outlines with felt pen. Then she places the fabric on top of the paper and traces the pen lines onto the fabric with pencil. Then the stitching begins. She stitches over the pencil lines with black floss, using an outline stitch or backstitch. When the outlines are done, she’s ready to fill them in with stitches of colored threads. “I have many colors after all these years and add others as I need them,” she explains. After each section of the work is completed, she covers it with light paper to protect the threads, especially their sheen, while she works on other sections.
Sewing to Preserve Jewish Tradition
To Strobel’s mind, sewing traditions are an integral part of Jewish traditions, and preserving them is an important part of preserving Jewish life and the heritage of Jewish communities, especially in the face of the Holocaust and other historical traumas. When she discovered samples of Jewish Yemenite embroidery at the museum, she became inspired to research the techniques and give them life in her own work. You can see traditional Yemenite stitching patterns in “Marriage”, in the area along the bottom of the work between the two pillars (click the image below for a larger version that shows the stitching in more detail).
True to Strobel’s goal of preserving traditional Jewish needle crafts, Stitched & Sewn includes a diagram showing how to create Yemenite embroidery patterns from basic embroidery stitches, such as the backstitch and blanket stitch. You’ll even find a charming Hebrew sampler based on Jewish Yemenite stitching.
Strobel continues to stretch her needle crafting skills into new areas. Her current project is a scene of Jerusalem during the Crusades, and it’s her first scene to include horses. “I’ve never done horses. Oh, wow, was I excited to do that.”
During our conversation, Trudie kept coming back to the importance of continually expanding one’s skills. “Anyone who has interest in working with their hands, they must keep working,” she says, “They must continue, to be better in everything they do.”
Stitched & Sewn is available from Amazon.
[Photo Credit: All photos by Ann Elliott Cutting except photo of book cover.]