A stitch in time

Charlestown quilters pay tribute to the disabled victims of the Holocaust

Created date

April 16th, 2019
Members of the The Charlestown Quilters who worked on the 70273 Project: (from left) Edna Nelson, Della LeConte, JoAnn Wer, Stephanie DeAbreu, and Jane Sinek. (Not pictured) Lucy McKean, Judy Miller, Norma Petersen, Barbara Riester, and Carolyn Stamps.

Members of The Charlestown Quilters who worked on the 70273 Project: (from left) Edna Nelson, Della LeConte, JoAnn Wer, Stephanie DeAbreu, and Jane Sinek. (Not pictured) Lucy McKean, Judy Miller, Norma Petersen, Barbara Riester, and Carolyn Stamps.

It was an overcast Friday in February, and inside the creative arts studio at Charlestown the sound of sewing machines whirred in unison. Members of the Charlestown Quilters had gathered to work on a project. Over the years, hundreds of quilts passed through the hands of the ladies who had assembled, but this was by far the most memorable—a quilt to commemorate disabled victims of the Holocaust. 

The quilt was a special project organized by club member Stephanie DeAbreu after she attended the Houston International Quilt Show, the Superbowl of quilting events.

“At the festival, I noticed there were rows and rows of quilts with red Xs on them. I didn’t think much of it until a woman stopped me and said, ‘Let me tell you about them.’ It was the first time I had heard of the 70273 Project,” says Stephanie.

Passion with a purpose

The 70273 Project is a worldwide quilting project started by quilter/blogger Jeanne Hewell-Chambers (the same woman Stephanie spoke with at the quilt festival). Chambers, who lives in North Carolina, initiated the project to commemorate the 70,273 disabled people murdered between January 1940 and August 1941 in Nazi Germany, under an involuntary euthanasia program called Aktion T4, or T4 for short.

The T4 program, named after the Berlin address, Tiergartenstrasse 4, from which the program was directed, authorized German physicians to determine whether physically and mentally disabled people were unfit to live based solely on their medical records. Each case was evaluated by three doctors. If the doctor deemed the person “incurably sick,” they placed a red X at the bottom of the form. Two Xs meant imminent death.

According to her blog
thebarefootheart.com, Chamber’s idea was “to gather 70,273 blocks of white fabric (representing the paper the doctors read), each bearing two red Xs (representing one person), and…stitch them together into quilts.” The red Xs can be painted, drawn with marker, embroidered, sewn from ribbon, or crafted from virtually any other creative method. Chambers has received blocks from volunteers all over the world.

“Seeing the sheer number of blocks there at the festival made me weep,” says Stephanie, a lifelong quilter who made her first quilt 42 years ago when she was pregnant with twins. “I volunteered to make a few blocks and two quilts. I thought, ‘How many times do you get a chance to be part of something like this?’”   

Quilting for a cause

The Charlestown Quilters worked together sizing the blocks; arranging them into a design; sewing the blocks together; basting the top, batting, and back together; quilting the three layers together; sewing on binding; and finally sewing on a hanging sleeve and a label to make two 47- by 52-inch wall quilts.

“I’m a relative newcomer to Charlestown, so I was pleased that the quilting group embraced the project. And I was particularly moved to see how they quickly volunteered to do the various tasks involved,” says Stephanie.

Judy Miller has been a member of the Charlestown Quilters for more than a decade. She has personally made more than 100 quilts since she first learned to quilt in the late 1970s. She has a dedicated workspace in the master bedroom of her apartment. Judy helped sew the binding onto the quilts.

“I love doing the binding because it’s the finishing touch on the quilt,” says Judy. “It’s fun picking out the fabrics and colors. It has been a very high-energy but also an emotional project. I think one of our members described it best when she said, ‘You know it’s important to keep this tragedy in the forefront of people’s minds because there are too many people that say the Holocaust never happened.’”

The Charlestown Quilters meet twice a month and typically work independently unless there is a specific group project, like the 70273 Project.

“We bring whatever we are working on. I’m always doing Christmas-related things. Some people do machine work at home and then bring their handwork and come and chat and get inspiration and that kind of thing,” says Judy.

Stephanie started making traditional quilts but has moved to art quilts that hang on the wall.

“Some people think quilts are made of calico and cover beds, but quilts are works of art that often express personal or political statements,” she says. “They can be as small as one inch or as large as you can imagine.”

The group sells their work, featured in display cases near the community’s Terrace Café, as well as at the annual Charlestown craft fair. All of the proceeds go to Charlestown’s Benevolent Care Fund.

As for the 70273 Project, once the two quilts are completed, they will become part of a display traveling all over the world.

“I love the community aspect of all the quilters when we work together,” says Stephanie. “I hope projects like this will continue to bring us together, help facilitate friendships, and build community.”