A curious confluence of events brought DeLandite Kelly Bowen to The Beacon office with an unusual story that stretches back over 100 years and spans two genocides.
Twenty years ago, Mimi Shaw, a good friend of Bowen’s, purchased artwork at an estate sale in the tiny Florida town of Greenville, east of Tallahassee.
The paintings, many of women and children with large, piercing eyes, haunted Shaw. She returned to the sale to buy the rest.
“She asked if there were any more,” Bowen said, “and underneath this stilt-legged house, from the dirt [they pulled] a pile of paintings, some in terrible shape.”
Shaw found another treasure in that estate sale: in a linen box, nestled in the fabric, was the memoir of Teodora Verbitskya, the mother of the artist.
Thus began a 20-year process for Shaw and Bowen of exposing the story behind the memoir and the paintings.
They have cataloged and curated, and they tracked down the artist, Nadia Werbitzky. Piece-by-piece, the two women have revealed the remarkable saga of the artist’s mother, Teodora, and her talented daughter.
In the process, Shaw and Bowen managed to be a remarkable story of their own.
From salvage to schools
Nadia Werbitzky, a professional artist, had left more than 250 paintings and sketches for Shaw and Bowen to ultimately, and literally, unearth.
Together with the manuscript left by her mother, Teodora, the paintings chronicle the lives of mother and daughter through two genocidal reigns: Josef Stalin’s 1932-33 man-made famine in the Ukraine – known as the Holodomor – which killed between 7 million and 10 million ethnic Ukrainians in just two years, and later, the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.
With the help of researchers, translators, art restorers, teachers, and two grants from the state Legislature, Shaw and Bowen turned the works of both mother and daughter into lesson plans and exhibitions for students in the fourth grade through high school. The lesson plans are available digitally for free, and they come with study guides and translations in Spanish and Russian. The lessons have been approved by the Florida Department of Education and CPALMS, an online educational materials standards guide.
The works are indeed haunting — scenes of war, and daily life and struggle, with strong-lined faces and piercing eyes.
To find out more about Nadia, Shaw went knocking door to door in the neighborhood surrounding the estate sale.
“The neighbors told her that the artist said, ‘Some day, someone is going to come looking for me,’” Bowen said.
Nadia was right — and Shaw did find her in 2002, living in Baltimore. The 79-year-old artist was brought to Tallahassee the following year, and reunited with her paintings. Only three years later, Nadia passed away, and her daughter sold Shaw and Bowen her remaining works.
In her words
“Since my salary of fifteen rubles was not even enough to buy bread, I began taking our things to the market and selling them. At first, this was difficult and I felt shameful – pushing my way through the crowds with some kind of faded sweater in my hands, holding it in such a way so everyone could see that I was looking for a buyer. Dozens of people would take it, turn it over, try it on, haggle with me insultingly over the price and then one would finally buy it. Then I would run to get into the bread line.
“At home there was joy: Mother had come home with bread. Jumping up and down on their thin legs, the children waited while I divided it up like a treasure, not wasting a single crumb. Although they were still so young, they already learned about need and want.”
– Teodora Verbitskya
Before she passed, Nadia gave the pair the much-needed context for the artwork — Nadia’s memories, the things she had seen, and the people she had known.
The manuscript was her mother’s memories, Teodora’s version of events.
Independently of each other, and decades apart, the two women had each sought to capture, in words and on canvas, their lives, and the lives of those around them, as they lived through two genocidal regimes.
For instance, a painting titled Hell’s Threshold shows a scene of townsfolk, some wearing armbands bearing the Star of David, being herded out of a town by soldiers, on their way to forced-labor and concentration camps. In the foreground are a mother with her two daughters — the artist Nadia, as a young child, with her sister and mother. To the left in the painting, at the back of the line in pink, covering her face with her hands, Nadia painted her best friend from memory. After that day, Nadia never saw her friend again.
Shaw and Bowen purchased 115 paintings and 150 sketches, all deteriorating.
Bowen’s first reaction to the work was different from Shaw’s, Bowen said, because the works were in such terrible shape.
“Why would you buy these? I would have just walked away,” Bowen said.
Nevertheless, with the help of two $50,000 grants from the Florida Legislature, and their own personal funds, Shaw and Bowen began the long and laborious task of restoring the paintings, creating exhibitions and lesson plans, and translating the manuscript, which the duo self-published in 2012 under the title “Two Regimes: A Mother’s Memoir of Wartime Survival.”
Overseeing the collection is a massive undertaking, Bowen said.
So why go to all the trouble?
“Because I feel this can change the world,” Bowen replied.
The works speak to modern life, she said, not only to history.
“It’s not that it is unique — it’s because it is so common. How many people are just trying to feed and clothe and house their kids?” Bowen asked.
She listed the subjects the paintings and memoir touch on: single-parenting, a father incarcerated (Nadia’s father was sent to a gulag, a forced labor camp in the Soviet Union), homelessness, job loss, immigration, internment, bullying, survival, and the strength of women.
“To me, it’s just so universal,” Bowen said.
But many things make the collection unique — among them, the focus on women and children, and the existence of a detailed memoir the author risked her life to create.
“If you were caught writing this kind of material,” Bowen said, “the writing was destroyed and you were executed. For that reason, most writings during that time are not available.”
“Although the collection is finite, it’s a living collection through lesson plans,” Bowen added.
It’s enough to make Bowen step out of her comfort zone, to promote something she believes in. Of the two owners of the collection, Bowen is less outgoing.
“I’m a little shyer — but it needs to happen,” Bowen said.
April is Genocide Awareness Month, and Bowen is offering a series of banners to be displayed, without any fees, to any groups who would be interested.
“I felt compelled to come. I feel what I am doing here is doing for God. I feel His presence on this all the time. I didn’t want to come in [to The Beacon], but I did,” Bowen said.
“There is so much divine providence in this collection, it is unbelievable,” she added.
To request exhibitions, learn more about the free lesson plans, or for any other information, go to tworegimes.com, email email@example.com, or call 804-608-6464.