AMHERST – In 1933, Ruth Nivola fled Nazi Germany with her parents, who made their escape in the middle of the night. Her parents’ plan to board a train to Milan, where they had relatives, was plotted in secrecy. The Jewish refugees later emigrated to New York.
That night, they left all their possessions behind to avoid suspicion by the police patrolling the streets.
Frightened and heartbroken, Ruth had to say goodbye to her cherished doll, Elisabeth, a well-loved, hand-sewn Kathe Kruse doll that bore signs of bite marks on her right arm made by Ruth’s mischievous dog, Fifi. Ruth’s father, a doctor, had stitched the doll’s wounds.
Some 18 years later, and a continent away, Ruth was on a hunt through vintage shops on Long Island to find a doll for her daughter’s sixth birthday. In a serendipitous moment, a doll in a shop window caught her eye. Ruth discovered that the doll was Elisabeth, confirmed by the puncture marks on doll’s arm. She purchased the doll and brought it home for her daughter Claire.
Over the years, Claire Nivola heard this story from her mother, who recounted fond memories of her childhood before the family fled Germany, said Nivola, a Newton artist and acclaimed noted children’s book illustrator.
Ruth’s beloved doll Elisabeth, now more than a century old, has remained in the Nivola family, passed along three generations, she told the Journal in a phone conversation.
“Elisabeth,” the picture book by Claire A. Nivola, was published in 1997. It was based on an initial version she asked her mother to write. Nivola reframed that narrative from the third person to the first-person voice of a young Ruth so it would truly be her mother’s story.
The original illustrations from “Elisabeth” are on view in “The Art and Storytelling of Claire A. Nivola” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, in Amherst, through Nov. 5. The solo exhibit includes 65 illustrations from nine books including two others with Jewish content – “The Friday Nights of Nana,” written by Amy Hest; and “Emma’s Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty,” written by Linda Glaser.
Nivola’s radiant illustrations reveal her extraordinary drawing skill and her masterful use of color and complex patterning.
A stirring double-page illustration of Ruth’s family boarding the train as they flee uses a dark palette of browns and tans that reflect that haunting moment.
Nivola said that the illustration that best captures the emotions of her mother’s story is a reflective scene of Ruth standing in profile against the backdrop of a cobblestone street, clutching her beloved Elisabeth. Ruth’s colorful smocked dress and red socks and hair ribbon pop out against the grayish-tan cobblestone.
As she asked her mother questions while she was writing the book, Nivola found that her mother’s memories were sometimes hazy. For the sake of accuracy with dates, Nivola used poetic license.
Nivola realized that what mattered was how her mother remembered her early life: “It was a piece of her lost childhood and it was unbelievably significant.”
Ruth Nivola was thrilled with the publication of “Elisabeth” and showed it to all her friends.
“It was the thing that I did that she was proud of,” Nivola said.
Museum visitors will be intrigued by a display of a letter Claire Nivola received from a mother who lived with her husband and daughter in a neighboring town. Her daughter Emily had brought home the book “Elisabeth” from her school library and had asked her parents to repeatedly read it aloud.
The letter, written some 23 years ago, recounts the remarkable story of how “Elisabeth” brought these two families together.
Nivola came to the world of illustrating children’s books after she graduated from Radcliffe, where she studied art. She had followed in the footsteps of her parents, who met in art school in Italy. Her father grew up in Sardinia in an Italian Catholic family.
Nivola told the story of her father’s hometown in “Orani: My Father’s Village.”
Her parents immigrated to the U.S. in 1939, settling in Manhattan’s bohemian East Village neighborhood.
As an adult, her father stepped away from Catholicism and was more the humanist, interested in world religion and culture. He was not a religious person, Nivola said.
Growing up, her connection to her Jewish heritage was cultural. She learned more about Jewish religious practice living in Newton for all these decades, she said with a laugh.
To this day, she finds the illustrations for “The Friday Nights of Nana,” full of joy, with a cozy Shabbat family dinner that she filled with illustrations of people she loves, including her son.
“The House in the Country,” Nivola’s new book about the meaning of home, is her most personal, she said.
A quarter century after “Elisabeth” was published, Nivola said writing Ruth’s story was a good decision.
“It is a wonderful story. It is one of these delightful and serendipitous things,” Nivola said.
“The whole story is a complete miracle.” Θ