Stitching for Survival: the Story of Holocaust Survivor Trudie Strobel

Yona Zeldis McDonough: How did you first learn about Strobel’s work?

Jody Savin: When my daughter Maya was preparing for her bat-mitzvah, Rabbi Arielle Hanien introduced her to Remember Us: The B’nai Mitzvah Project, which pairs teens with Holocaust survivors so that memories of the murdered and can be shared and thus preserved, passed on to a new generation to be carried forward in a living act of communal hope. I drove Maya to Trudie’s house, where we were introduced to a quiet woman and a stunning wealth of breathtaking tapestries.

Trudie shared the memory of Chana Zgierski, the child of Trudie’s friend Leo Egan (né Zgierski), now deceased. Chana had been murdered in Auschwitz; Leo had survived. But before he passed on, Leo had bequeathed the memory of Chana to Trudie, and now Trudie would share it with Maya.

Perhaps it was the power of this shared hope of remembering, but Maya and Trudie became quite close. And over time, Trudie shared her story with Maya and with me. It was Maya who first wrote about Trudie in a short story called “Trudie’s Goose” which gave me the idea to write a book.

YZM: Did your responses change as you came to know her? 

JS: Seeing the work for the first time is overwhelming. These are large pieces, each executed with single thread stitches. The stitches are like fine paint strokes, which ultimately work together to depict textured scenes that are exquisite representations of a reality lived or extremely well-researched. Each piece tells a story– some are the cold, stark reality of what Trudie survived, but some are historical and celebratory; still, others are depictions of fables or portraits, and a few of the most haunting are abstract interpretations.

When I first met Trudie, she was pretty quiet. And so it took me a while to understand that the work hanging in her house was only a portion of the huge amount of work Trudie has done—and thus to grasp the magnitude of her oeuvre. Trudie had given away, lent, or donated many large and intricate pieces. And I realized that this work had to be cataloged, photographed, preserved and most of all, shared with the public.

YZM: Some of the material must have been painful for her to recount; what was it like interviewing her?

JS: It was, and is, painful. Our interviews were mostly informal.  We would sit and talk and I would take notes, or record and take notes, but no session was long. Indeed, Trudie told me her stories in fits and spurts. Bits and pieces. And over a long period of time. Our time together allowed me to get to know Trudie and allowed Trudie to get to know me in ways that touch the narrative gently because getting to know someone is much more than hearing a recounting of scenes from a life.
YZM: How long did this go on? Did you communicate in person, over the phone or via e-mail? 

JS: When I first met Trudie she did not use email. She still does not have a computer, but she uses an iPad now and is a prolific emailer. But our emails are mostly perfunctory. I might have called Trudie now and then for clarification of a point, but mostly we just hung out together, surrounded by the art and sharing stories. This part of the process took probably a couple of years, certainly well over a year.  But I am not sure when the project went from a vague notion to the determination that I would write a book. There was a fluidity to the whole process. When we got the grant from the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, we suddenly had the funding to travel to the work that could not be shot in Los Angeles. That was enormously helpful and set us right on a path to completion. The work was shot by Los Angeles photographer and artist Ann Elliott Cutting.

YZM: Sewing—both as a way of creating something new and mending something torn or worn—has been so important in Trudie’s life. Care to elaborate? 

JS: Stitching and sewing saved Trudie’s life twice. Masha, Trudie’s truly heroic mother, was a masterful seamstress and her ability to “turn a coat” (literally take it apart, flip it around so the protected inside of the fabric would replace the war-ravaged outside of the fabric), made her necessary in war times when there was no fabric to be had. Ah, the vanity of humans. Trudie learned to be her mother’s assistant, sewing buttonholes and the like, eternally useful, quiet, and as invisible as she could make herself.

Later in life, after finally making it to the United States, getting married and raising two children, the horrors of Trudie’s past caught up with her and sent her into a devastating depression. She stopped talking altogether; she was nearly catatonic. A doctor searching for some way to access her, suggested she dress a doll like the one the Nazis had taken from her. Trudie took his advice, and she began to stitch first clothes for a doll, then more dolls, and then tapestries. She has not stopped stitching since.

YZM: Let’s talk about the dolls—what special meaning do you feel they have? 

JS: The Stalinist forces had seized Trudie’s father before she was born. The only thing Trudie had of her father was a doll he had bought to give her at birth. Her Papa Doll was Trudie’s prized possession, her only link to a father she would never meet.

One day in the course of their long, forced exodus, a Nazi guard tore the doll from Trudie’s clutch; it was a moment that would haunt Trudie for the rest of her life. A cleaving. A loss that would follow her forever.

Soon after [her therapist] Dr. Solow suggested that Trudie dress a doll, she embarked upon the project she calls “Badges of Shame,” eleven dolls dressed in the attire of ostracization that Jews were forced to wear to identify themselves as social pariahs over eleven centuries (on permanent display at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust). We think of the Nazi-mandated yellow stars that Jews were forced to wear in the Holocaust, but this was far from the first time that Jews were forced to visually herald their “otherness” with their attire.

YZM: How do these dolls relate to the rest of Strobel’s work?

JS: Clearly the costumes of the dolls and even some of the dolls themselves are the result of the masterful skills of Trudie Strobel. Stitching, beading, researching, and even hunting down the necessary materials, colors and fabrics are among Trudie’s incomparable gifts. And while none of the myriad dolls Trudie has fabricated and/or outfitted could ever replace her Papa Doll, she now has many wonderful dolls in her life and each one tells a story of its own. Because Trudie’s art is fundamentally narrative.  

YZM: What do you hope readers take away from this book? 

JS: Only by a string of miracles did Trudie Strobel and her mother, Masha Labuhn, survive the Nazi hate machine. So many millions did not survive. Look what Trudie has given us: an amazing body of exquisite work and a living testament to the power of art to heal. She has shared with us her horrors and her courage; she has told us her stories. It is incumbent upon us to listen and to act so that we can prevent what happened from happening again. The Holocaust might have been the biggest and most well-recorded genocide in history, but it was not the last—and that is unacceptable.

From the Pages of Lilith
In the fall of 1989, Lilith published Susan Schnur’s Badges of Shame, an article about this singular group of dolls. 

From the article, I learned the outlines of Trudie Strobel’s story and how she came to make the dolls.  As a doll lover and collector, I was struck by an important addition she made to the first doll: she gave her a yellow armband, just the like the ones she and her mother had been forced to wear.  The image of a doll wearing a yellow star stayed with me; its juxtaposition of innocence and horror was both memorable and compelling.

Since this was before the digital age, I tore the article out and saved it in a folder, for what purpose I didn’t yet know. And then I did. That image Strobel had created inspired me to write a middle-grade novel that was not literally based on Strobel’s story, but on that haunting symbol. The Doll With the Yellow Star was published by Henry Holt in 2005 and the following year, it won the Once Upon a World prize awarded by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.  It was at that point that I contacted Strobel and sent her a copy. I felt some trepidation; how would she react to the way I’d used her story? Would she feel insulted? Usurped even? But to my amazement and delight, she loved the book.  And when I flew to LA to accept the award, I invited Strobel to join me on the stage; it was one of the most memorable and meaningful moments in my life as a writer.

We stayed in touch after that, and she gave me a gift—a small doll with a yellow scarf attached to her headdress, something that was mandatory in mid-19th century Poland.  I remembered something I’d read in Schnur’s article—Strobel said that as she sewed the costumes, she knew full well that they had been intended to segregate, humiliate and denigrate their wearers but that in her hands, these hateful vestments were transformed. She would talk to the doll as she worked, telling her that she was beautiful and that she loved her.  And looking at the little doll she gave me, I knew exactly what she meant.  She was beautiful, and all the hatred in the world can’t destroy her beauty.