Powerful art collection shows Ukraine’s tragic past, now used to teach local students about a little known piece of history

Published: Mar. 4, 2022 at 11:33 PM EST
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - A Tallahassee artist discovered an incredible art collection at a Madison County Estate Sale decades ago: hundreds of paintings and sketches by a Ukrainian refugee who fled her home having survived famine and the Holocaust.

The collection now serves as the backbone for a one-of-a-kind lesson plan at Leon County Schools. Its message is now even more striking given current events.

Mimi Shaw still remembers the day she first found the collection in Greenville, Fla, in 2000.

“Drawings, and paintings, and writings- they tell the truth. And they survive people,” she said.

The collection includes 118 paintings and 150 sketches. Shaw said they spent several years in the woods and were in awful condition when she found them. A years-long effort to restore the paintings is about half-way complete, but the group says they’re running out of funding to continue the process.

In total, they serve as treasure from a past life for a mother and daughter from Ukraine.

“That began a journey of over a year and a half where I went in search of her and I found her,” Shaw said.

Nadia Werbitzsky painted the originals in the 1960s, many with the faces she remembered as a girl. She first survived the Holodomor, a famine in Ukraine under Josef Stalin’s rule in the early 1930s. Millions starved to death due to Stalin’s policies.

Werbitzsky also was an eyewitness to Nazi evil. She saw Jewish Ukrainians in her town rounded up and sent to a mass grave on the outskirts of town. While not Jewish, she and her mother also spent time at a Nazi Labor Camp.

“You knew she had been hurt,” said Douglas Darlington, a filmmaker and FSU alum.

He has known Shaw for decades and spent years constructing a half-hour documentary on the collection, using archive footage, the paintings, and narration from a manuscript written by Nadia’s mother.

That manuscript is now a memoir titled ‘Two Regimes.’ And its themes resonate today.

“It’s about dictatorships, it’s about authoritarianism, it’s about governments imposing war on everyday people,” Shaw said.

“I’m watching history repeat itself,” Darlington said.

He said Nadia was never the same after she experienced tragedy as a child. He fears the children experiencing Ukraine’s latest crisis will be scarred forever too.

“When you look at what’s going on in Ukraine now I can only feel like what these children are going to be like when they grow up,” he said.

The Two Regimes project has been funded by both state legislative grants and from the Leon County Schools Foundation. Shaw said donations are needed to keep the project going and to expand the curriculum into even more classrooms. Click here to donate.

Teachers can also sign up to use the video in their classroom for free.

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