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Quilting a Legacy

Barbara Bensoussan

Malke Yablonsky a”h produced dozens of magnificent quilts while simultaneously raising thirteen children and running a successful fabric store. Her moving “Holocaust Quilt” traces the progress of her mother’s family through the European churban to the shores of America and beyond. It’s a magnificent work of art that tells the story of her family’s triumph.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

I had been told Mrs. Yablonsky wasn’t well when I paid her a visit last August in Flatbush. She lay on a sofa, frail and barely able to speak, surrounded by several of her daughters who helped fill in the blanks of her story.

The comfortable, roomy house bears witness to a deeply creative nature: art work by Jewish and Mexican artists on the walls, quilts mounted on walls and covering coffee tables, a William Morris–style wallpaper of pink peonies on a navy background. The wall beside the staircase is covered floor to ceiling by a decoupage collage of literally thousands of family photos.

“The family pictures were just lying in boxes,” Malke’s daughter Miryam Lea says, “so my mother decided to put them in a place where we’d all see them.”

Even the kitchen table — a lengthy affair appropriate for a megasized family — is surrounded by dinette chairs whose backs are covered in homemade cotton slipcovers, a merry print of red and brown chickens in their roosts.

The place is too quirky and charming to qualify as a “typical” Flatbush house, and the Yablonsky sense of humor comes through as well. A sign in the entry announces, “Welcome aboard: Our ship doesn’t always look like this ... Sometimes it’s worse.” A framed reproduction of Saul Steinberg’s “View of the World from Ninth Avenue” dominates one wall of the kitchen’s eating alcove, and the dining room’s bay window is festooned with plastic vines and vintage Coke bottles.

Malke, the creative force behind all this, was born in Asch, Czechoslovakia, shortly after the war. One of her great-aunts had had the good fortune to leave Europe while it was still possible, and when Malke was two, she and her parents joined her in California. There Malke grew up, deeply marked by her mother’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor.

“Her mother used to have nightmares, and wake up screaming,” says her husband, Mr. Benzion Yablonsky.

Malke moved across the country after high school; she and her friends were off to Stern College in New York. There she met her husband, who had learned at RJJ on the Lower East Side before becoming a social worker, and they married in 1965. “She began a degree in education, which she didn’t finish,” says Mr. Yablonsky, “but her real avocation at the time was drawing and painting.”

She was also a talented seamstress, and eventually decided to open a modest fabric store cleverly named “Sew Materialistic.”

“My mother and a friend started it in a basement in 1984,” Miryam Lea explains. “It later moved to a couple of other locations; her partner sold out in 1990.”

I was fortunate enough to meet Mrs. Yablonsky at her store many years ago, when her health was still intact. In those days she presided behind the counter with eyes infallibly sharp behind owlish spectacles and hair topped by a beret. Mrs. Yablonsky was the go-to lady to ask if a fabric remnant was large enough for a six-year-old’s Purim costume, or which kind of bias tape to buy for a hem. She had a way of sizing up her clients, and cutting to the crux of a problem like a seam ripper tearing through faulty basting.

She was generous as well. “In 1988, we were asked if we could take in an Iranian girl who’d escaped from Iran,” says Mr. Yablonsky. “She stayed with us for about a year, in a room with three of our kids. When she got married, she asked my wife what type of sewing machine she should buy, and my wife simply gave her one as a wedding gift.”

In addition to stocking bolts of fabric, zippers, thread, and other notions, the Sew Materialistic store offered sewing classes. One of the teachers, Laverne, was interested in quilting and opened a class. The best pupil turned out to be her employer.

Malke’s creative energy exploded into a veritable cascade of quilts. At least half of her grandchildren received their own quilts; some of her children, as well as one granddaughter, were privileged to be married under one of her quilted chuppahs. The house is decorated with hanging quilts ranging from the whimsical (a quilt decorated with a collection of flattened bottle caps) to the tongue-in-cheek (one has a strong-looking, 1940s Rosie the Riveter-type lady wearing a bandanna in the center, with the legend “Keep On Quilting”) to standard geometric patterns.

“My mother found the image of the bandanna lady, and wanted to create a quilt that included it,” Miryam Lea clarifies. “But it was actually her class that did the work, and they wrote ‘Keep On Quilting’ to encourage her while she was undergoing chemotherapy.” As for the bottle caps, they were part of Malke’s many whimsical collections of everyday objects.

How did Malke create this kind of output with so many children and a business?

“It was a labor of love, and an obsession,” Miryam Lea says. “She used to have a sign in the store that said, ‘To quilt or not to quilt — what a silly question!’

“She used to stay up late at night to finish things; she’d lie in bed at night and design quilts in her mind. She often received requests from people seeking to commission quilts, but she just couldn’t do it. You put so much of yourself into these projects; it’s never worth it on a monetary level.”


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