Stitch by stitch, Holocaust unfolds
by Catherine Fox
March 25, 2007
“Through the Eye of the Needle: Fabric of Survival”
Through May 25. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; until 3 p.m. Fridays; 1-5 p.m. Sundays. William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum. 1440 Spring St., Atlanta. 678-222-3700, www.thebreman.org.
Verdict: An artist with a gift for storytelling and a riveting story to tell.
Esther Nisenthal Krinitz was 15 years old when the Nazis ordered the Jews in her Polish village to report to the train station for relocation. The prescient teenager refused to go. She and her 12-year-old sister made up new identities and went off to another town to find work. They alone among their family survived the Holocaust.
Raising her own family in Brooklyn, N.Y., Krinitz was determined that her two daughters know her past. They grew up listening to tales about her idyllic life on the farm and the terrifying war years. Storytelling was not enough: Krinitz, who died in 2001, thought about writing a book, but, dissatisfied with her command of English, she turned to her skills with the needle arts instead.
The 36 fabric tableaux in “Memories of Survival” at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum affirm her decision. Stitched, embroidered, crocheted and collaged, these works of art are as vivid and as touching as her memories.
Together, the pieces form a narrative. It begins with fond episodes from her childhood. The tale turns dark with the Nazi invasion, as she recounts the Gestapo’s brutality and her odyssey during the war – the narrow escapes, the nights in the woods. It ends on a happy note, with her immigration to America.
Like the art of many self-taught artists, Krinitz’s work is both naive and sophisticated. Although the first few pieces, done in the late 1970s, lack perspective and scale, they reveal an intuitive understanding of composition, the potential of her different techniques and use of texture. In her first picture, an image of her family on the farm, she uses yarn fringe for the straw roofs, crochets the figures’ clothing and makes actual little braids for her and her sisters.
When Krinitz returned to the project in the late 1980s, she grew quickly as an artist. Yet the work never lost its innocence. It’s as if she were telling her stories through the eyes of the child she was at the time. Keen eyes they were, to judge from the profusion of details that bring her stories to life, matched by her skill in conveying them through her medium.
The pine trees bear crocheted, three-dimensional pine cones. Tiny stitches inscribe the tears on her face when she leaves home. A series of X stitches become the ties of the barbed wire surrounding a labor camp.
The lovingly created detail and the aura of innocence add a disconcerting gloss to her images of brutality and fear. “Maidanek,” which depicts the concentration camp she visited after the liberation, is a good example. She records the giant cabbages growing in fields fertilized with human ashes and the piles of shoes she searched through in hopes of finding some remnant of her family.
“They threw away the people and left the shoes,” remarks her daughter Bernice Steinhardt. She and her sister Helene McQuade mounted the traveling exhibition through their organization, Art & Remembrance.
Krinitz looks like anybody’s grandmother in the short video interview that filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan put together for her daughters. It’s hard to imagine her, alone in the world but for her sister, joining the Polish army after the Russian invasion or even, in happier times, climbing the cherry tree in her Brooklyn backyard.
But then it’s hard to imagine the terror and barbarity of the Nazis. Thanks to Krinitz’s eloquence with needle and thread, her story survives, as she did, with ingenuity, courage and grace.
“Memories of Survival,” a posthumous book of Esther Nisenthal Krinitz’s fabric art with commentary by daughter Bernice Steinhardt, is available in the gift shop.© The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 2007