The Souvenir(s) of a Lifetime

This detailed watercolor painting was created by my paternal grandmother. It depicts an amazing array of travel souvenirs collected by her dear friends, Wladimir and Emma Woytinsky.

This well-traveled couple’s story is a fascinating microcosm of the 20th century, while the painting is a microcosm of my family legacy — a mix of travel, art, ideas, and love. 

In 1908, Wladimir Woytinsky was a 23-year-old economist living in St. Petersburg; arrested by Russia’s Tsarist government for being a pro-Lenin Bolshevik, he was sentenced to prison and exiled to Siberia aboard the Trans- Siberian Railway. (This epic rail trip across the entirety of Russia is now considered one of the most exciting train journeys on the face of the Earth. Go figure.)

Upon his release from a labor camp in 1912, Wladimir and a friend took to wandering around the then-largely-unsettled Siberia (today we’d call this “backpacking”), where the also-exiled Emma Shadkan caught his eye. In 1917, when Lenin’s October Revolution permitted them to return to St. Petersburg, the couple got married — but their wedded bliss didn’t last long. 

Leery of Lenin’s autocracy, Wladimir helped the pro-democratic Menshevik faction rally an armed resistance, succeeding only in (once again) landing himself in jail. After a few months, he managed to escape to the Republic of Georgia, where he supported that nation’s short-lived democratic revolution; once reunited with Emma, he continued this work in Italy and Paris, ending up in Berlin in 1922.

From that point onward, the child-free Emma dedicated herself to being Wladimir’s economic research partner. Their work launched him to a high-level position with ADGB, an alliance of Germany’s trade unions; in 1933, when the Nazis insisted that ADGB participate in a pro-Hitler May Day parade, the anti-Fascist Wladimir was the only department head to refuse. On the same day as this refusal, he resigned his post, and he and Emma fled to the safety of Switzerland.

After two years with the U.N.’s International Labor Office in Europe, the Woytinskys left for Washington, D.C. in 1935. For the next decade, Wladimir helped draft Social Security policy, then the couple worked on various scien­tific projects sponsored by the philanthropic Rockefeller Foundation, Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University, and the progressive Twentieth Century Fund. Over the years, extended lecture tours took the Woytinskys through the Far East, Africa and Latin America, and they collected souvenirs along the way.

And here’s the part where my family comes in.

By the 1950s, the Woytinskys began holding a regular salon of intellectuals in their D.C. home, to which they invited my grandfather, William Wynne, an economist specializing in debt crises. William always brought along my grandmother, Evelyn, a multi-media artist and art teacher.

Evelyn, her husband’s enthusiastic travel companion on trips around the U.S. and Europe, grew fond of both the worldly Woytinskys and their sun-porch arrangement of souvenirs. Evelyn’s resulting painting of this global scene, which she created in 1959, was one of her favorites. 

It would become one of my father’s favorites, as well. As a young college student, my dad was invited along to a few of these salons, and was suitably awed by the brushy-moustachioed Wladimir, the handsome Emma, and their impressive assortment of deeply knowledgeable friends. My dad recalls spending his time at the Woytinskys with his eyes round and his mouth half-open, eager to follow the highbrow flow of conversation.

His mother’s painting, which passed to him after her death in the late 1960s, serves as a warm memory of his transition from a self-described “kid who knew nothing much about much of anything” to a Ph.D. in psychology who possesses a keen curiosity about the world.

Growing up surrounded by my grandmother’s artwork, I also chose this painting as my favorite. Long assuming the scene depicted a collection of my grandparents’ travel mementos, I simply enjoyed studying each object to puzzle out its country of origin.

Not long ago, on a visit to my parents’ home  in the D.C. area, they gave this painting to me, and I’ve proudly hung it on the wall of my dining room all the way out here at my home in L.A. True, it’s no longer the painting I’ve always known: its faded details have been refreshed by my mom with paint, a brush and a steady hand; I’ve tricked it out with a new mat and frame; and it now tells a very different story than I’d once imagined. But as it turns out, this painting provides me with a link to the principles and politics with which I was raised, to my hometown, my dad, my professional passions, and most of all, to the grandmother I never met.

Sadly, Evelyn died a few years before I was born — but I firmly believe that I carry her with me. After all, I’m an artist with a penchant for intricate work, and also a traveler, slowly amassing my own collection of curios and experiences from around the world. When I look at this painting now, I imagine the many journeys of the brilliant Woytinskys, of my late grandparents and my parents, those I took with my former husband, and those I have yet to take.

I think it’s safe to say this painting is my most treasured souvenir.


  1. I love this piece, Melanie. You’ve written it so evocatively that I wish I could be in that salon right now. Brava!

  2. Melanie, what a wonderful story! I loved the way you wrote about it as well. I can’t wait to come to LA to see it hanging in your house….maybe soon! ( I can alays hope!)

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