MAITLAND — History can be vividly recreated for younger generations, through literature, live theater, and paintings that capture everything from the joys and triumphs to the horrific traumas of the past.
Literature, theater and art all came together on Sunday at the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center in Maitland, principally through the artwork of Nadia Werbitzky and the writings of her mother, Teodora Verbitskya.
Just as remarkable as the history that Nadia and her mother endured, though, was the story behind the exhibition at the Holocaust Center, and how the center was able to find, and restore, some of Nadia’s key paintings that were close to being lost forever.
On Sunday, the Holocaust Center presented a special Readers Theater called “Two Regimes,” as four actors read from the manuscript that became the book “Two Regimes -A Mother’s Memoir of Wartime Survival”. The book is the memoirs of Teodora Verbitskya and her young daughters, Nadia and Lucy, and their lives in Russia from the 1920s, as the Bolshevik Revolution was becoming an iron-grip dictatorship under Joseph Stalin, through the 1940s, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in an attempt to make it part of Hitler’s Nazi regime.
The occasion was the Holocaust Center’s annual commemoration of Kristallnacht, the Nazi pogrom in Germany on Nov. 9-10, 1938.
Also referred to as the Night of Broken Glass, Kristallnacht was a vicious pogrom against Jews throughout Nazi Germany, carried out by SA paramilitary forces and German civilians, who destroyed Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues and killed an estimated 91 Jewish people. In addition, 30,000 Jews were arrested and incarcerated in Nazi concentration camps like Dachau.
Terrance Hunter, the Holocaust Center’s program director, said they wanted to take advantage of their current “Two Regimes” exhibition of works by Nadia Werbitzky to allow those paintings to become a visual guide to the story that the “Two Regimes” book provides — of a Russian family struggling to survive both Stalin and Hitler.
“This work is based entirely on her memory,” Hunter said. “We hope this is a meaningful experience for you.”
The reading was performed by Christie Duffer, who played Teodora; Bed Ludwig as her husband Dimitri; and Mark Davids and Jacqueline Levine as the narrators.
Teodora was living in a small town in what is now Ukraine with her husband and two small children. Their lives were made perilous because of Stalin’s oppressive policies. There are moments that are both terrifying to listen to — Stalin’s decision to seize the grain made by local farmers, and banish them to Siberia while leaving others to starve — and very poignant, such as the peasant couple living near Teodora who were about to have their cow confiscated by Soviet authorities, and swore they could see the cow crying as it was being taken away.
As Teodora continued to move her daughters to protect them, they suffered first under Stalin, and then under Hitler after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. At that point, they became witnesses to the brutalities of war. In fact, Teodora and her daughters were witnesses to the slaughter of 7,500 Jews in their town of Mariupol, Russia in October 1941.
Just as remarkable, though, is the behind-the-scenes story of how this exhibit came about. Kelly Bowen, the co-curator of the exhibit, noted that she and a friend, Mimi Shaw, had almost accidentally discovered these paintings while searching for antiques — and found them in a home in North Florida, many in very poor condition. One of the paintings, Bowen noted, had been partially eaten away by termites.
Bowen decided to invest in the restoration of these paintings, which took several years to complete, and then to share them with the public, covering the Verbitskya family’s entire story.
Many of the paintings, she noted, required extraordinarily detailed work to restore. That included placing many on new canvas boards, and delicately cleaning others with cotton swabs and Q-tips. One of the paintings, done in shades of green, was so dirty that the color was entirely masked, Bowen said.
“I thought the painting was brown,” she said.
Their work paid off, she added, in the “Two Regimes” exhibition that opened at the Holocaust Center at 851 N. Maitland Ave. on Oct. 16 and will continue through December.
Bowen said the Holocaust Center is also trying to learn much more about Nadia Werbitzky. It’s known that she may have created and exhibited many of her works from the 1960s through the 1980s, Bowen said, but it remains a mystery what happened to the works from the 1990s on and how they ended up, in such poor condition, in the private collection in a North Florida home.
This particular Kristallnacht community commemoration, Bowen said, was the first to use this kind of theatrical method of reflecting on that period of the Holocaust.
“This is the first time we’ve done a Readers Theater,” Bowen said.
The Holocaust Center will also host an Education Forum at 6 p.m. on Thursday, titled “Hitler’s Gift: Jews Who Fled the Nazis and Enriched The World.”
To learn more, call 407-628-0555.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..