Ms. Strobel Weaves History-Transcript

This is the episode transcript. You can listen to the episode here.

In this episode I talk to a Holocaust survivor about her story and her experiences as an educator and artist. There is going to be some disturbing content and listener discretion is advised. 

(Intro) Welcome to American Rabbi Project. The podcast about American Judaism from the perspective of Rabbis across the country. I’m Justin Regan. 

(Justin Regan) This is the start of a special mini series where I interview Holocaust educators-including survivors-about the state of Holocaust Education and remembrance in America today. At the time of this publishing, we are approaching January 27th, the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwtiz death camp. This date has since been designated by the United Nations as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Holocaust was the methodical and brutal genocide of six million Jews and many others by the Nazis, and their collaborators. It continues to be a challenge to calculate the exact number of millions of other peoples who perished in the Holocaust, a number that includes Slavic and Roma peoples, handicapped individuals, homosexuals, political dissenters and other peoples deemed physically, racially or ideologically inferior by the Nazis. Another term used for this tragedy is ‘the Shoah’, the Hebrew word for destruction, and I will use these words interchangeably. On January 27th, and other Holocaust commemoration days throughout the year, personal narratives are shared, memorials are held, calls are made to end the continuing plague of hatred, and data is brought to the public eye about how the knowledge of the Shoah seems to fade more and more. A 2018 survey commissioned by the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found eleven percent of U.S. adults have not heard of or are unsure if they have heard about the Holocaust. That number is doubled when it comes to millennials. 31% of U.S. Adults, and 41% of U.S. millennials, think two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Shoah. Again, the real number is six million. A 2014 survey by the Anti-Defamation League found a little over half the world’s population has heard of the Shoah and a third say it has not been accurately portrayed by history. In addition blatant Holocaust denial and neo-Nazism seems more emboldened then ever. And there are cases where you can find an ignorance or even a belittling of the Holocaust all over the world from Japan to Poland to the United States. This is why I chose to do this mini series. To ask those who educate the world about the Shoah on how we can reach people with the right messages to counter ignorance, hatred, fading memories and apathy. To help newer generations stay firmly connected to the horrors, and lessons, of the past. Today we’ll hear from a lady who has made these connections through her personal narrative and her personal art.

Ms. Strobel Weaves History

(Trudie Strobel) I’m Trudie Strobel. A child survivor of the Holocaust. An embroiderer and an artist of Judaic art.

(Regan) Trudie Strobel is one of those people who lights up whenever she greets anybody, be it a long time friend, a student in a classroom, or a stranger with a recorder. It’s like she sees the beautiful energy in each person and it brings out hers. That’s the feeling I got when I met her at her house in San Marino, California. Her living room and dinning room is filled with SoCal sunshine, friendly blue colors and some of her art. This artwork has been gaining more and more exposure as she has recently been the subject of various writings and even a short movie. She has a traveling exhibit, currently on display and a book about her life is coming out in April called Stitched and Sewn: The Life Saving Art of Holocaust Survivor Trudie Strobel by Jody Savin.

(Strobel) Right now I’m busy working on a piece on Jerusalem. I was there two years ago. Came back and said ‘Oh I must do a piece on Jerusalem.’ Now I’m home. And I think how can you make another piece of Jerusalem? Thousands of pictures have been taken and paintings drawn throughout the centuries. I did come up with an idea and I’m working on it and I’m very pleased about it.

(Regan) Strobel’s craft is embroidery, sewing various materials onto fabric. And her work is stunning. She’s done portraits and images of smiling family members, serious music composers and charismatic Jewish women form the bible and modern day history. There’s Judaica art with chirping birds, flowing hebrew letters and plenty of pomegranates. Much of her art tells a story, and there are some very dark moments. In one piece Nazis burn books outside of a vandalized storefront, a reference to krystalnacht or the night of broken glass – often referred to as the prelude or even the start of the Holocaust – in November 1938. Another tapestry shows Jews being loaded onto train cars and another has, among other things, a skeleton staring at you from inside an oven. For Strobel, her story of horror and survival is fundamental to her sewing, and sewing was, and is, fundamental to her survival. 

(Strobel) The Nazis came in 1942. And knocked on the door and said ‘Whatever you have you take with you food and clothing’. And I myself was only worried about one thing and that was my Papa doll.

(Regan) Strobel was four when the Nazis came for her and her mother. She grew up in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, and her dad was sent to Siberia before she was born. But before he was detained, he bought a doll for his unborn daughter. And for Strobel it was her connection to the father she never knew. 

(Strobel) We were told to go on a wagon, these wagons were pulled by horses and the Nazis also had trucks and jeeps and their military whatever. But our things were put on this wagon. It took a very long time for us. We didn’t know where we were going until towards the end which was Lodz, Poland. One of the Nazis, he tore my doll away from me. I was very affected by that. I cried. Mamma said ‘Tra! Quiet. Don’t cry.’ She was worried something else would happen to me. I still think about that when I say it.

(Regan) Many victims of the Holocaust were killed as soon as the Nazis invaded an area. Others were forced to a camp or a ghetto. These were parts of cities that were walled off and used as a method of seclusion and detainment. Not only for the Jewish population of the host city, but Jews from other areas were also funneled in. Strobel and her mother were sent to the ghetto in Lodz, Poland. 

(Strobel) So we get to Lodz. And there we had to go through a ‘taking off the lice’ that’s what it was. And we were herded into a large room mother’s and children. I don’t know what happened to us. I just held on. The terror of being naked with mothers and children in a large room. And then we were given our dirty clothes again and we left. Mamma and I were ordered to go to the Jewish ghetto the Lodz Ghetto. And there times were so hard there. Many families in a room. The houses were full of Jewish people. There was no room, and very little food.

(Regan) The Nazis intentionally overcrowded and underfed the ghetto inhabitants while using them for forced labor. A Jewish Council oversaw internal matters including the horrifying task of filling out deportation quotas demanded by the Nazis. Because if they didn’t decide who would be sent to the camps the Germans would. The head of the Lodz Jewish Council felt the best way to maintain survival for his people was to be as productive as possible. Forced labor in Lodz was mostly in the textile field, tasks like making German uniforms. It’s here that Strobel’s mother went to work. She was trained as a tailor and her skill made her deemed useful. 

(Strobel) I stayed with her all the time. This is a wondrous thing in my life that I’m still here. And one day we were told to go to the train station. Whatever we had we took with us. And train station. You would think a train station. But what it was a station of cattle wagons. Cattle wagons. And there was a plank. We went up on the plank. I was on the outside. I never forget because there was a big dog and soldiers standing. But what I really saw were the boots a really shiny pair of boots. I still was only four at that time. And the dog had it’s teeth opened and snarled. I was very afraid. We get into the wagon and they had a pail in the corner. But it was so full because the Nazis ‘dreckig Juden’ they pushed us with the buts of the rifles. We were pushed in and there wasn’t any room for any grownup to sit down. It’s just me I was between the legs of people standing. And a lot of them got sick. They vomited. Can you imagine the stench? There were other bodily accidents. It’s impossible to describe the way things were how it smelled. We had no food and no water. Nothing to drink.

(Regan) Lodz suffered the same fate many other ghettos did. Complete liquidation despite the attempts of the Jewish Councils to preserve a population. Many, many, countless many would be sent to their death. Strobel and her mother were sent to a labor camp. 

(Strobel) Then we received a bed and they said this would be our sleeping area. And the bed was made of wood. Wooden planks and the mattresses were filled with straw at one time. But by then it was just mushy it was very dirty. And the pillow case dirty. We had one blanket. What is one blanket in the very cold? And there Mamma was told where she would be going to be going to sew. They had another barrack where there was just sewing machines. And I still stayed with her. This is the unbelievable thing that I am here that I could stay with my sweet mamma. And the Nazis didn’t check every minute as to who was in the barrack. So whenever a Nazi came to check I would hide behind Mamma. I was just afraid of them because they knew I was there. They counted us. So from that camp we were moved to another and then another. It was three total 

(Regan) As the war was reaching its end, the Nazi death machine kept churning. As opposed to letting their captives go or leaving them to be liberated, in many cases the Nazis used up resources and man power to bring them further in to Germany’s core. Whether it was by rail, truck or death marches. They did not let up. Finally, on one spring day, American soldiers liberated Strobel’s camp. 

(Strobel) And they said ‘The war is over you’re free’. Now you look around we were all emaciated. Like this you know, emaciated without strength. But my sweet mother she says ‘Trudela get up. We’re going to America.’ And there I am of course I follow mamma. And we get up and leave. And now we were in Germany and it was green this time of the year and grass and in the tiny marguerites grew that were maybe three inches tall. And I picked some and gave them to mamma two or three just something. 

(Regan) They were sent to a displaced persons camp where they received, food, clean clothes, medical care, and a real bed. But for Strobel, the thing that truly brought her joy were beads she received from a Red Cross care package. 

(Strobel) And I put them in my hands and I said Mamma look at what I got. And it was so beautiful and all colors. They were jewels to me. And she saw a spark in me she hadn’t seen in years. And she said ‘Trudela, we’ll make something of this.’ I said ‘mamma could it be a goose?’ So she found a picture of a flying goose and she traced it on parchment paper and then she took a piece of her skirt from Russia and tore it off then taught me how to attach beads so everything cold be done in a strong way so you can’t suddenly a bead would come off. And she says, ‘Trudela you have to put the beads very close together on the neck because the goose needs a stiff neck in order to fly.’ Of course over many years I know it was a very clever way of me doing a good job. She was so wise and wonderful.

(Regan) Strobel didn’t have enough beads at the time to finish the goose. So her mother said they’d finish it when they got to America. But that trek would take several years. First, they were sent to live in a small house near Wurzurg in Bavaria. It was a region where a lot of displaced Jews were sent to live after the war. 

(Strobel) The government gave us some money like a stipend some money every month and food stamps. But you know Justin, that’s never enough. It was very little money. So mamma went and she offered to some of the farmers-because this was in Bavaria, a very Nazi town you could feel all of it- but my courageous mother asked one of the farm ladies if she could turn a coat around as she did in the camps also. There by earn extra money. 

(Regan) Soon Strobel’s mom earned a reputation for this work in the town. Strobel honed her craft working with her mom and in some cases learning from other women in the houses they worked at. But it was still anything but a friendly environment. Bavaria was the original home of the Nazi Party. And it’s presence was not gone. 

(Strobel) And I started school. And I was by then 8 years old. As we were going into the classroom I heard ‘dreckig Jude’ behind me ‘dirty Jew’. I came home. I didn’t cry because that’s how it is. And I came home and told mamma and she always said ‘Mein kind’ you say this in yiddish if a child doesn’t have a father. ‘My poor, poor child’.

(Regan) When Strobel was 13, she and her mother managed to board a ship and sail to the United States. 

(Strobel) One day the captain says ‘Statue of Liberty!’. Oh Justin, we ran up on deck just to see it and mamma cried. This is how I know how people who want to come here how they feel. I don’t know if an American that has lived here all their life would understand that. And this is why I am so much to help the newcomers to our America 

(Regan) They would settle in Chicago where Strobel’s mother would once again work as a seamstress. Strobel says the pay wasn’t a lot so she also went to work at the age of 13. Her first jobs were at hotels and restaurants. 

(Strobel)And their I learned how to peel potatoes. Sacks of them Justin. Sacks for a restaurant. And washing dishes washing floors. I was so proud when I came home with money to give Mamma. That I could do something to help. That’s why I always think of other people that come from another country. They don’t speak the language they do this menial labor. We must respect these people, they’re working. That’s what’s so wonderful and they know how to get along by doing this. That’s why all of us, I especially say to my students, I say respect these wonderful people.

(Regan) Strobel would eventually marry a German Jew who also came to Chicago after the war. They spent over 55 years together. They had two children and moved out to California. Her husband was also a survivor of the Shoah. They never talked about it and their kids were unaware. 

(Strobel) John was ready, my oldest son, to go to University. ‘Hans we have to talk about this and tell them’. My husband  and I we never talked about it either to each other. There is very little I know. He lived in hiding in Northern Germany. So one day here at this table we talked about it. And they said ‘Why didn’t you tell us earlier?’ And you know sometimes we don’t know as grown us if we are doing the right thing. I think parents also navigate what is right and what should be best.

(Regan) This is not an uncommon phenomenon amongst survivors. Many did not speak about their experience or at least waited to do so until later in life, and many still don’t talk about it to this day. The trauma of the past could manifest in many ways. For Strobel, she had a complete breakdown in her mid forties. 

(Strobel) And I all of a sudden became very ill. Very sick. I did not want to move, I didn’t want to get up, I didn’t want to speak. My husband and I said we have to go and see a doctor. And I went to see a psychiatrist. And even with him it took a while before I ever spoke. And then he knew about the doll. I told him. And he says ‘Trudie wouldn’t you like to dress a doll like your doll was dressed?’ And I thought ‘oh’ suddenly it was such a great idea.

(Regan) With this project, Strobel began to heal. She used her sewing skills to dress dolls for an art piece that connected with her own trauma of being othered and her Jewish identity. 

(Strobel) I found there were 11 centuries of degradation against Jewish women. They had to dress at times, dress differently, when they went out. They wore badges. They also had to wear different head dresses when they went out. Just to show ‘This is a Jewess’ I then decided that time that I would create 11 costumes of degradation. It took a year to do this, and a year of tears Justin.

(Regan) When she finished, she took the dolls to the L.A. Museum of the Holocaust and they instantly accepted them and they remain on exhibit to this day. Strobel is pleased thousands upon thousands of children each year who go to the museum see her artwork. A visual aid to the history of anti-Semitism. As many people, myself included, can attest, her art is amazing, yet, at the time, Strobel was shocked the museum wanted her work. 

(Strobel) You see, that feeling of being nothing was still in me. Because this was in my life for so many years. You could just step on me and I would be gone. The fear that you live through every day of ‘something will happen to you’ that somehow never left you. You were always watchful as to happening.

(Regan) And it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that she started to make more of her artwork public. Thanks to the encouragement of a young girl, Maya Savin-Miller, who met Strobel during a Bat Mitzvah project. Savin-Miller applied for some grants and got the funds and space for Strobel to have her own exhibit. It contains much of Strobel’s work including the goose she started making at the displaced persons camp. It’s not just an exhibit of art, but a visual teaching tool for the Holocaust. She has several pieces in that style, including one mural depicting the Shoah in all its horror. 

(Strobel) And there I show the movement of our people going in  and ending up in the picture of being just bones. Then I included rabbis digging their own graves-Now I did not witness this but this is historically that has to be in there. Everything else is my memory- Then I show the furnace in it. And bodies and the smoke. Six smoking clouds of six million that were killed. And in the center I have a Jewess and she has hope. She says ‘Under your white stars stretch to me your pure hand so my tears can rest in your hand.’ How beautiful is that? And that is the hope in that picture.

(Regan) Embroidery is remarkable because designs are done one stitch at a time. There is no such thing as a broad brushstroke or molding chunks of clay. Every action is minute. So I asked Strobel how was she able to spend many years constantly focusing on a tapestry that illustrated such slaughter. 

(Strobel) I had to do this. I didn’t know why. I worked many many hours a day just to do the stitchery because I do such fine stitchery. Justin, I had to complete this to show what happened to me, what should never happen again and that’s why. I was pushed. Somebody pushed me my dear. I don’t know.

(Regan) Strobel once waited until her children were nearing adulthood to privately share with them her story. Now she tells it to the world. Especially students.

(Strobel) But when I talk to students who come to the museum they sit there and listen to every word and they’re so touched and they’re learning and I teach them that six million people of such a small population of Jews. It was devastating this must never happen again. This is my message to these wonderful students. When they see the museum and listen to my story they connect with the things that are happening. As we do this these are students that never hear a Jewish word in their life. And they are now learning about it. They’ll never forget it. I don’t care how old they’ll be something will stick in their mind. I always tell them to be watchful. Someday you’ll vote. Use your mind. Use the right direction because you don’t want any kind of dictatorship that somebody tells you ‘You can’t be a Catholic, you can’t be a Jew any more’. That’s what follows, you get the things with Hitler happen. 

(Regan) As Strobel’s artwork tours around the country acts of anti-Semitism and racism in the United States continue to climb. When it comes to dealing with the persistent plague that is hatred Strobel says it’s important people exercise respect. 

(Strobel) If we have respect and feeling for another human being, nothing can happen like this again. And yet even today our country is so divided with so much hate. Because there is always going to be hate coming up and where are they going to get it to blame? Is the Jews. It is happening today again. We are murdered and our synagogues get burned in the world. Do you know I’m very afraid? And I’ve talked to other survivors that are my age. We’re all that age. And we are very concerned. Somehow America I don’t think is that involved that  much. Really, the average person they can’t even think. I think the average person especially the students I speak with their families they haven’t heard of it before, and other have you know. But it still is there they don’t even know about it. And that’s why we must continue to write, talk and advance the idea not to hate and to respect. 

(Regan) Trudie Strobel certainly does her part to advance these ideas. She enlightens through her words, her sewing and her kind energy. She’s a survivor and an educator and like all other educators I talked to for this project I asked Strobel if there’s only one thing people take away from your lesson what do you want it to be? 

(Strobel) Never again, never again should this happen to anyone of us. Because of ethnicity or religion. To be incarcerated, murdered for years. Never again. Because what you believe you have a perfect right as a human being to believe it. And there I include all religions 

(Regan) Strobel’s art it is currently on display at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, California through March 1st 2020. Her book Stitched and Sewn: The Life Saving Art of Holocaust Survivor Trudie Strobel by Jody Savin is coming out this April. In the next episode we’re going to hear from the next generation of Shoah educators. Voices include a rabbi with survivor parents, a professor who grew up in post-war Germany and a couple of screenwriters who use a cat to introduce children to Holocaust education. 

(Regan) American Rabbi Project Ms. Strobel Weaves History is written and produced by me Justin Regan. Derek Povah handles the web stuff. I also want to thank Sarit Rathbone, Jeremy Krones, Beth Vander Stoep, Dylan Abrams and my parents for the assistance. Feel free to reach out to me by emailing justin@rabbiproject.com. You can also find me on facebook.com/rabbiproject and on Twitter with the handle @rabbiproject. And until next time, Shalom and Safe Driving. 


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