With “Fabric of Survival,” her brilliant series of 36 fabric collages, the late Esther Nisenthal Krinitz has succeeded in transforming one of the ugliest and darkest periods in history — the Holocaust — into works of great beauty and electrifying color.
The works, currently on display through September at the American Visionary Art Museum, tell the harrowing true story of 15-year-old Esther and her 13-year-old sister, Mania — the only members of their immediate family to escape the Nazi invasion of their small Polish village — and their miraculous survival. On April 10, “Through the Eye of the Needle,” an award-winning documentary about Krinitz and her work, directed by Nina Shapiro-Perl and featuring interviews with Krinitz, her daughters, psychologists and a folklorist, will premiere on Maryland Public Television.
Krinitz’s daughters, Bernice Steinhardt and Helene McQuade, grew up hearing dramatic stories from their mother’s past — stories of her childhood before, during and after the time when the Nazis drove her family and their neighbors from their homes and to their violent deaths. Krinitz and her sister escaped by hiding in the forests near their village and taking on new identities as Catholic Polish farm girls.
“I can’t remember her ever not telling stories, and I always loved to listen to them. She was a gifted storyteller. She created suspense, she was animated, and she told the stories with lots of feeling,” said Steinhardt. “At some point, she began weaving her survival memories into the stories. She was brave and heroic, and such a strong and resourceful person.”
Whereas many Holocaust survivors rarely spoke to their children about their traumatic wartime experiences, Krinitz was compelled to share her stories.
“I suppose many survivors found the memories too painful and wanted to shelter their children, but my mother was coming from a different place. It was very important for her to keep the memories alive. She didn’t want to leave them behind; that would be like leaving her family behind,” said Steinhardt.
Steinhardt speculated that even though her mother and aunt suffered tremendously and witnessed great horrors during the Holocaust, Krinitz’s memories and her feelings about them were colored by the positive experiences she had in her earlier years.
“I think that’s why people are so moved by the artwork. My mother’s memories aren’t bitter, even though there is sadness. Mostly they’re full of love. That’s what makes the story universal. Even if people don’t know much about the Holocaust, they understand the love of family.”
When she was 50, Krinitz found herself wanting to document her childhood in a more visually accessible way.
“She wanted my sister and me to actually see what her home and village looked like,” said Steinhardt.
Although she had never thought of herself as an artist, Krinitz was a talented dressmaker. She used her needlework skills to create fabric panels that illustrated the natural beauty of the Polish countryside and the story of her and Mania’s incredible escape.
“She made the first two panels in the late 1970s. She wanted to make one for me and one for my sister,” recalled Steinhardt.
After she created those panels, Krinitz occupied herself with her dress store and created toys for her grandchildren. By the early 1980s, Krinitz and husband Max, also a Holocaust survivor, had relocated from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Frederick, Md., where they could be nearer to Steinhardt and her family in Montgomery County. It was not until the late 1980s that she returned to her fabric collages.
“My mother had two dreams [at that time] that made her turn back to her needlework. The next picture she made was of her and her sister saying goodbye to the rest of their family and watching the procession of Jews being led to the train station. On that one she stitched the caption, ‘It was the beginning of the end.’ She never saw them again. After she wrote that caption, she realized she could tell the whole story, and she just kept going,” said Steinhardt. “She didn’t produce them in chronological order. I’d say she completed them in psychological order. She did them as she felt compelled to express herself.”
When the 36 panels were complete, Steinhardt and McQuade were amazed.
“It was a big surprise to see them. Some of the panels really took my breath away; to see this body of work was something to marvel at. That’s when I realized I needed to get this work out into the world,” Steinhardt said.
Two years after Krinitz died, in 2003, Steinhardt and McQuade founded Art and Remembrance, a nonprofit arts and educational organization that seeks to change people’s hearts and minds by illuminating the experience of war, oppression and injustice through the power and passion of personal narrative in art.
The organization uses the power of storytelling and art to educate people, especially children of diverse backgrounds, about war, intolerance and social injustices.
“Through the Eye of the Needle,” can be viewed and purchased on the Art and Remembrance website, artandremembrance.org, and it also is part of the installation at AVAM.
Having exhibited part of the work in 2001, and the whole series from 2003 to 2005, AVAM’s executive director, Rebecca Hoffberger, was already familiar with Krinitz’s panels when she decided to include them in the museum’s 2012 exhibition, “The Art of Storytelling: Lies, Enchantment, Humor and Truth.”
“The effect of this exhibit on people of all backgrounds, all cultures, all religions has been so powerful because this is the story of survival from genocides everywhere. And it’s told so lovingly through the filter of the kindest, least angry woman who every walked this earth,” said Hoffberger. “So much of the Holocaust art out there is so dark and so painful that people can’t take it all in. In this exhibition, because the emphasis is on nature and beauty, you go through and you feel deeply connected to the human heart; not only is there negative imagery, but there is also this beauty, and she never lets go of it.”
Hoffberger dedicated some of the installation to Krinitz’s relationship to her grandchildren.
“The last panel she did was a portrait of my daughter. In it she speaks directly to my daughter, and the last line says, ‘Grandma loves you so much.’ Rebecca pulled that out and put those words over the section with the toys my mother made for the grandchildren. My mother created pictures [in her fabric collages] for the family she lost, but she passed them on to the family she created,” said Steinhardt.