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Memorial Tapestry Cleaned
The Memorial Tapestry after cleaning. 2022.24.1, Textile made by Vichna Yablonsky Kreiger, 1896. Gift of the Zimmerman and Schwartz Families.

Written by Judy Baumel-Schwartz

For many years my mother-in-law, Bernice Cohen Schwartz, had a framed, hand embroidered matzah cover on the wall of her dining room. “This beautiful piece was made by my grandmother, Bubba (grandmother) Lena,” she would say. It was one of two embroidered tapestries that her mother, Daisy Sheidler Cohen, had inherited from her own mother, Lena (Chaya Lieba) Kreiger Sheidler, and passed on to her daughters.

Family lore stated that the family was originally from Elizavetgrad in Ukraine, had spent time in Manchester, England, and immigrated from there to New York. Lena had been the first of the immediate family who came to America as a fifteen-year-old in 1893, paving the way for those who followed. A year later, she was joined by her parents, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Kreiger and Vichna Yablonsky Kreiger, and her siblings Samuel (Shmuel Isaac), Maurice (Moshe Chaim) and Idie (Ita Zelda). Like many young women of her generation, Lena spent her teenage years working and preparing her trousseau, embroidering various pieces that she would use in her own home and would eventually be passed down to her descendants. “When my mother passed away, I took the matzah cover and my sister Elaine (Cohen Zimmerman) took the second piece of family embroidery, Bubba Lena’s challah cover,” my mother-in-law told me.

Baumel-Schwartz Memorial Tapestry before cleaning. 2022.24.1, Textile made by Vichna Yablonsky Kreiger, 1896. Gift of the Zimmerman and Schwartz Families.

When Bernice and Elaine passed away, each of the textiles came into the possession of the next generation. The matzah cover made its way to our home in Israel, and the second textile to Elaine’s older son, Dr. Stanley Zimmerman, in New Jersey. By then, over 120 years after it had been completed, the closely woven embroidery had faded, and parts were illegible. That’s when we had our first surprise: on closer examination, it turned out not to be a challah cover, but rather an embroidered yahrzeit memorial tapestry, listing the names and dates of death of family members. Stanley recalled that his mother had wanted it to go to a museum after her death, and, knowing of my connection with the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust (MJH) — where I had been part of the curatorial committee that worked on the new core exhibition “The Holocaust: What Hate Can Do”– and where I am today the Consulting Historian and Curator, asked if I could make the connection. Maggie Radd, Vice President of Collections and Exhibitions at MJH was thrilled with the idea of the donation, particularly as my mother-in-law planned to donate Lena’s large steamer trunk to the museum, in which she had brought her family’s possessions to New York in 1893.

Covid and its complications delayed the tapestry’s transfer to MJH by close to a year, but eventually the textile reached its new home. “It really needs cleaning up,” Maggie wrote me, telling me that she was going to be working in partnership with a textile conservator who would provide conservation treatment that would remove decades of soiling and enable us to read what Lena had embroidered. Eventually, the textile returned to the Museum after the process had rendered the thread more contrasted from the substrate, and Maggie sent me a set of beautiful color photographs so that I could provide a translation of the embroidered Hebrew verses.

From my mother-in-law’s stories of her grandmother, I knew that she had been an Orthodox Jewish woman, quite familiar with Jewish tradition and custom, but with limited formal education, Jewish or other. While reading and translating what was written on the sides of the yahrzeit tapestry, I found myself immersed in Hebrew abbreviations, quotes from Jewish prayers, and rabbinical verses. Beginning with the words: “The Yahrzeits of my father and mother of blessed memory,” the right side of the tapestry continued with the names of her parents, Yehuda Leib and Genesha and their dates of death.

But wait! Lena’s father was indeed Yehuda Leib, but her mother was Vichna, not Genesha, and in 1896, the year the tapestry had been embroidered, both were quite alive and well! Continuing to the left side of the tapestry there were two more names and dates of parents, Moshe Chaim and Draiza, interspersed once again with rabbinical verses. But Lena only married in 1899, so how could this be her husband Avigdor’s parents? Could it be that this was not Lena’s tapestry but that of another family member?

Now our second surprise, revealed by the conservation treatment that allowed us to finally read and interpret the text: the true needlewoman of this tapestry was Vichna Yablonski Kreiger, Lena’s mother, and those listed on it were her parents and in-laws. Vichna, a rabbi’s daughter (according to the text) and a rabbi’s wife, was more familiar both with Hebrew and rabbinical verses than her daughter Lena. The conservation process also brought out the style of needlework, and a closer look at the embroidery style of the two tapestries shows them to be somewhat different, another expression of each having been created by a different needlewoman.

Being able to read the tapestry also provided us with information about the two generations preceding Vichna and her husband Rabbi Yehuda Leib – we now knew the name of their parents and their grandparents: Yehuda Leib and Genesha Yablonsky and Moshe Chaim and Draiza Kreiger. Here was the source of my mother-in-law’s mother Daisy’s Hebrew name, Draiza Genessa, named for two great-grandmothers. As a historian who had charted my husband’s family tree as far back as possible when writing a book about my mother-in-law (The Bernice Chronicles: A Very Special Life, One Woman’s Journey Through Twentieth Century America, Bern: Peter Lang, 2017), I now knew the names of an additional generation. I could tell the grandchildren on that side about their great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents!

It was extraordinary to witness how the conservation of a tapestry disclosed the true identity of the needlewoman while revealing another layer of a family’s genealogical history, charted by women of the family for close to 130 years.

Translation of the tapestry: “the Yahrzeits (day of death) of my father and mother of blessed memory.”

On the right is a quote from the Amida prayer “and you are trusted to revive the dead”. Under that “On the death of my father, my teacher, MHR (“Moreinu Harav” Our teacher the rabbi Yehuda Leib ben (son of) Nahum who was collected unto his people on the 2nd of Nissan 5629 [March 14 1869], TNZBH (“may his soul be bound up in the bundle of life”, a Hebrew abbreviation that is customary to write on the bottom of Jewish tombstones).

“On the death of my mother, my teacher, a woman (and now two abbreviations that mean) with fear of God, the important woman Mrs. Genesha daughter of Shmuel left the hills and went up to the sky (died) on 12 Tishrei 5655 [Oct 12 1894] TNZBH

On the upper left side the same quote “and you are trusted to revive the dead”. Under that “on the death of my father my teacher MHR Moshe Chaim ben (son of) Aryeh, collected unto his people on the 2nd of Kislev 5640 [Nov 17,1880] TNZBH.

“On the death of my mother, my teacher, a woman (and then the abbreviations) with fear of God, the important woman Mrs. Draiza daughter of Chaim, left the hills and went up to the sky on the first of Sivan 5655 [May 24 1895].