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Florida women unravel an emotional mystery of history

Matthew J. Palm
Contact ReporterOrlando Sentinel Arts Writer
A mysterious diary and soul-grabbing paintings lead two Florida women to develop a "life-changing" exhibition

Under the old North Florida house, raised on stilts, old trunks decayed in the dirt while termites snacked on paintings, forgotten under filthy plastic sheeting.

Mimi Shaw, there to browse through an estate sale, was gripped by the image of a terrified woman, gazing from a decomposing canvas. Shaw's curiosity led to a ragged Russian diary, a hunt for a missing artist and the discovery of a unique record of life during one of humanity's darkest times.

On Sunday, the story of a Soviet family's witness to the atrocities of World War II will take the stage at the Holocaust Center in Maitland, where the now-restored artwork is on view in the exhibit "Two Regimes."

In the paintings, a girl runs past a gun-wielding soldier, Jews queue for an uncertain fate, women light candles and look mournfully at their children.

"It's such a striking display, it's impossible to ignore," said Terrance Hunter, program coordinator for the center, officially known as the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Educational Center of Florida.

Because of the perseverance of two Florida women, the art and writings are now being used to teach history and fight bigotry throughout the state.

"Even though these events happened so long ago, students are able to apply them to the current day," said Kelly Bowen of DeLand, who manages the "Two Regimes" project with Shaw. "We realized we have something reaching students on an emotional level. It's helping them appreciate what they have, it's helping them have empathy for others."

When Shaw discovered the vivid paintings in 2000, in a rural stretch between Tallahassee and the Georgia line, she became obsessed.

"I couldn't sleep," she said. "The images were so haunting. They were beautiful, but haunting."

The Tallahassee resident was determined to track down their origin — but she had no clues.

"It really was such a mystery," said Shaw. "It took years to figure it all out."

A breakthrough was finding the diary in a battered trunk. A Russian translator deciphered the memoir of Teodora Verbitskya, a Christian woman who had lived in Mariupol, Ukraine, where she and her two daughters witnessed the killing of thousands of Jews in the fall of 1941. Later, the family was transported to a German forced-labor camp.

Descriptions in the diary seemed to match images in the paintings. Shaw began returning to the old house, buying more of the art — and traversing the dirt roads, knocking on strangers' doors in hopes of finding someone who knew who abandoned the paintings.

"I had a premonition that this would be important, that their story was crying out to be told," she said.

At last, she found a name and address, left with an Italian neighbor who also had lived through World War II. Shaw began writings letters to Nadia Werbitzky, Teodora's daughter — and the artist behind the paintings.

A recluse in her 80s, Werbitzky was living in a rundown Baltimore neighborhood, still afraid of the KGB. After liberation, she had exhibited her art in Europe, immigrated to Canada and then the U.S.

With the artist's limited English, Shaw never understood why she had abandoned her works in Florida, but one thing was clear: Werbitzky was overjoyed to be reunited with her paintings.

"She felt she could speak through her art for the millions who died," Shaw said. "She had survived, and she thought she had survived for a reason."

Werbitzky died soon after. But Shaw and Bowen, a friend who was equally moved by the art, decided her paintings — and her family's story — would live on.

They had the mother's memoir published under the title "Two Regimes;" it's available at amazon.com. They set about restoring the paintings and arranged for exhibitions at the National Infantry Museum of Columbus, Ga.; Langley Air Force Base in Virginia; Tallahassee Community College; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Tallahassee.

The works have artistic merit beyond their historical value, said Gylbert Coker, who curated an exhibition of the work a decade ago.

"Her colors are intense, perhaps not 'cheerful,' but certainly not forlorn," Coker said. "And yet the viewer cannot escape the sensation that something is amiss."

Coker praised Werbitzky's ability to depict environments "beyond the control of humans" and pointed out her versatility in brushwork, color choices and varying degrees of impressionism and realism.

The paintings serve as a backdrop to Sunday's free presentation at the Holocaust Center, in which four actors will share Teodora's experiences. Said Bowen: "Her book has a lot of stories to tell."

The exhibition, which runs through December, is atypical in that it provides a non-Jewish perspective of the time, Hunter said. The current conflict in Ukraine makes the exhibition timely.

"People need to be able to draw connections and look backward to have a better understanding of what's happening today," he said.

Shaw and Benson hope their educational initiative, which has received state grants, will help schoolchildren make those connections. They are raising money to make free lesson plans accessible to all teachers — and they still need funds to finish restoring the paintings, an urgent task they pay for out of their pockets.

"It's one thing to read about these horrible events, but it's another thing to see them," Shaw said. "This transcends all races, all religions, all ethnicities. This is a story of survival."

mpalm@orlandosentinel.com

'Two Regimes: Caught Between Hitler and Stalin'

What: Free exhibition of paintings and writings

Where: Holocaust Center, 851 N. Maitland Ave., Maitland

When: Exhibition hours are 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Friday, 1-4 p.m. Sunday; the free hourlong stage program will be presented twice on Sunday, at 2 and 4 p.m. Reservations are required; go to holocaustedu.org/events/kristallnacht/

• Online: For more information on the 'Two Regimes' project, go to tworegimes.com

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