A SURVIVOR’S POIGNANT PATCHWORK OF MEMORIES

Reprinted by permission The Washington Post
A Survivor’s Poignant Patchwork of Memories;
Esther Krinitz Told Her Story in Needlework

by Megan Rosenfeld
May 10, 2001

In the picture, three girls stand in the foreground, their backs to the viewer. They wear bright dresses but no shoes, as though they had been running free in the summer warmth. The girl in the middle is touching the shoulder of the one on her left, while the third has her hands behind her back, clasped at the elbows. Unfolding before them is a terrifying scene, described in carefully embroidered letters at the bottom.

My friends and I ran to see the first Nazis entering our village, Mniszek. They stopped in front of my grandparents’ house, where one got off his horse to rough up my grandfather and cut his beard as my grandmother screamed.

Esther Nisenthal Krinitz made this picture in 1993, 55 years after the events she described. By that time, long after she’d escaped the Nazis and started a new life in America, run two dress shops and raised two children, she wanted to record her past. She remembered dreams from the horrible years, turned the dreams into pictures, using the art she knew — embroidery, applique and sewing. She stitched with the same fierce energy that had seen her through the war, creating, with wisps of fabric and strands of thread, her story.

The dreams prompted other memories, scenes of life, terror, death and survival. By the time she died almost six weeks ago at the age of 74 she’d made 36 amazing pieces; 22 of them are on view through Monday at the D.C. Jewish Community Center.

Nobody knows quite what to call them. “They’re not tapestries, in the formal sense. And they’re not really collages,” says Liz Diament, director of the JCC’s Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery, where the works are displayed. “Needle art” sounds like tattoos. “Stitchery” sounds like arts and crafts. Let’s settle for “three-dimensional works on fabric.”

What Krinitz did was re-create her world in a way that is somehow truer and more vivid than a photograph or film. In the tiny braided pigtails, the thin line of blue trim on a girl’s white anklets, the lace curtains at a window or the pattern in a matzoh, you can sense real people living ordinary lives. The colors — in contrast to the black-and-white pictures in which so much of our information about the war and the Holocaust is captured — are bright and lively. The scenes are full of exquisite flowers, impassive witnesses to scenes of disruption and horror. Using embroidery as an art form to document the Holocaust — so homely and familiar and yet adapted to such an unfamiliar purpose — has a nearly surreal effect.

Although Diament has arranged the pictures chronologically for easier comprehension, Krinitz did not produce them that way. The first scene in the show, from June 1937, which depicts her making a bowl of borscht for her misbehaving brother Rueven, was created in 1996. A day in April 1941 when her father, praying on the first night of Passover, was beaten and nearly shot by Nazi soldiers, emerged three years earlier.

There are disarming elements of whimsy in her story pictures, as in one labeled “Shavuot 1938,” in which she is walking on stilts, leading her siblings to their grandparents’ house. In another she has nail polish on her toes, tiny stitches in red. There are chilling stitches, too — the red ones making welts on the back of a boy being beaten by the Gestapo, and the tiny pale pink tears on white cheeks you must squint to see. The perspective of every picture is hers, what she saw, straightforward and without sentimental commentary. It is her story.

The Nisenthals lived in a small Polish village called Mniszek. At that time most of the residents were Jewish; today none of them is. During three years of Nazi occupation, the years that Esther was 12 to 15, the Jews were increasingly restricted and threatened. When, on Oct. 15, 1942, the Gestapo ordered her family and all the other Jews deported, Esther talked her parents into letting her and her younger sister, Mania, seek shelter with gentiles.

Five of her pictures depict scenes from this one day. One scene she made twice — the leave-taking. “This was the hardest thing for her,” says her daughter, Bernice Steinhardt, who has had most of the works hung in her home in Chevy Chase. “She felt so guilty that she left them, that she was so selfish.” Esther felt, without knowing exactly why, that the Jews who were being deported were doomed. Something deep within her wanted to take responsibility for her own survival. “Goodbye, my children, maybe you will live,” she remembered her mother saying. The guilt came later.

In the first rendering of the farewell scene, her father holds her by the arms affectionately; there are two baskets with potato spades — the girls’ ticket for work — at their feet. Yellow daisies cheer up one corner, but there are crows on the roof, their red eyes shining ominously. The second version, made seven years later, is more detailed. The Jews are loaded into carts, layered with clothes and bundles, while Esther and Mania can be seen in the distance, walking up the road carrying their spades. Each piece of gravel in the road is another knot of thread. They never saw their mother, father, sisters or brother again. (Neither of these works is at the JCC, but three others of Oct. 15 are.)

Another series, most of it created in 1994, depicts what happened to the two girls in subsequent weeks. A neighbor reneged on her promise to take them to a farmer who had promised shelter; they walked to his village alone. This farmer, Stefan, took them in for two days, then turned them out in the pouring rain. They hid in a forest. This episode is shown in one large work — Stefan’s initial embrace, the two girls working in his attic, the rain, then Esther and Mania drying their boots in the forest when the sun shone again.

There were other rejections before they found refuge in Grabowka, changed their names and masqueraded as Polish Catholics. Esther worked for an elderly farmer whose wife had died, and Mania as a housekeeper for the local sheriff. A year and eight months later, Russian soldiers liberated the village, and they were safe. After a month, Esther returned to Mniszek to find her family, but there was no trace of them. She next went to the camp she believed they’d been taken to — Maidanek — but found only gas chambers and crematoriums.

One of her most stunning works shows her at Maidanek, a girl in a bright yellow dress standing at the gate. Inside there is a small building filled with shoes; she went through them, looking for one she recognized, but they were all so worn “they looked the same.” There is a small pile of hair — even a brown braid — and barbed wire made with minuscule X’s. She found no record of her parents or siblings.

Esther began the rest of her life. She joined the Polish army and worked with the Russians at the camp. She was 17.

She cooked and changed truck tires, and her unit ended up in Berlin. She made her way to a displaced persons camp. There she met Max Krinitz and, at 19, married him. She wore the one wedding dress in the camp, a garment passed from one newly hopeful refugee bride to the next. Mania also met her husband there; they moved to Israel and had children before coming to the United States in 1960.

The rest of the Krinitzes’ story is not unlike those of the many who came to this country after the war to make new lives and families. Esther and Max (he had his own story of survival) moved to Brooklyn; he managed a supermarket and she opened a dress shop. They had ambitions for their two daughters, and they took great pride in their house. After Bernice had her first child, the Krinitzes moved to Frederick to be closer to them, and opened a dress shop called Esther’s. Max died in 1998.

She was never reluctant to tell her story, Steinhardt recalls. It was a regular refrain, generally starring Esther, but always with the theme “How did I ever do that?” She wanted one of her daughters to write it for her, or paint it for her. She thought she couldn’t do it herself.

There was an 11-year gap between her first picture and her second, years in which her sewing energies were directed toward her grandchildren. But one night in the late ’80s she had a dream, the same dream she’d had that first night in Grabowka. From then on her fingers were on fire. She described the dream in a caption.

“I had a dream that my mother came to get me, running and pulling me along. ‘Why are we running?’ I asked her. She said, ‘Because the sky is falling, and when it reaches the ground, we will die.’ When I looked back, black pieces of clouds were falling to the earth.”

She embroidered the dream, and cut out black pieces of clouds from cloth, and sewed them to a canvas. And gave the picture to her daughters. Between 1991 and 1999 she made more than 30 pictures while also running her dress shop.

“She never thought of herself as an artist,” says Steinhardt. “She was making them for us.”

But Steinhardt and her sister, Helene McQuade, could see that these were more than needlework. Where their mother saw a kind of documentary, they saw art; where Esther thought of them as a private family legacy, the daughters saw creations that should be seen and acknowledged by others.

Eventually they arranged this exhibit at the JCC. Others have joined in their enthusiasm; Tuesday night the Polish ambassador, in one of his country’s ongoing efforts of expiation, hosted a reception and showing of the works at his embassy. A nonprofit organization called the Cultural Exchange Foundation is raising money to send the works to Poland, Germany, Israel and other cities in the United States.

The exhibit was scheduled before Esther Krinitz died March 30. Her daughters say she would have been thrilled to see it.

© The Washington Post, 2001