Jewish News Weekly of Northern California
Survivor's quilts tell story of Holocaust
by Joe Eskenazi staff writer
November 24, 2006
Reprinted by permission
When we think of quilts, we often conjure up images of babies and cribs and little embroidered ducks and bunnies.
We don't think of forced labor. We don't think of frantically fleeing through crop fields with Gestapo agents in hot pursuit. We don't think of the Wermacht marching into town and slicing off grandpa's beard.
But we will now. We will now.
"Through the Eye of the Needle" is a powerful and evocative new installation at Berkeley's Judah L. Magnes Museum. The exhibit comprises 36 large, quilt-like "fabric collages" painstakingly stitched by Esther Nisenthal Krinitz, depicting her idyllic young life in a Polish farming village prior to the war, her harrowing survival during the Holocaust and her eventual arrival in the United States.
Krinitz, who died in 2001 at age 74, never took an art class but was a professional seamstress for decades by the time she decided to create a pair of fabric collages for her daughters, illustrating the stories of Polish country life before wartime she'd told them since they were old enough to listen.
That was 1977, and the pair of large wall hangings look like what they were intended to be: Elaborate, lovingly crafted decorations made by a mother for her daughters. One can easily imagine the "Fiddler on the Roof"-like renderings of country life featuring a young Krinitz, her four siblings, parents and barnyard animals in the place of honor above the mantel of any 1970s-era Jewish home.
And if Krinitz had stopped there, that's all they would be. But, more than a decade after creating her first two collages, Krinitz began sewing again, crafting far more labor-intensive, detailed and compelling works which depict much darker interludes in her difficult life.
"These are not cute family pictures. They're traumatic family events this girl happened to witness," said Alla Efimova, the Magnes' chief curator.
One can trace the downward spiral of Eastern Europe's Jews during the war through Krinitz's collages. Compared with her nostalgic remembrances of country life and religious rituals, her depiction of Gestapo officers thundering into town on horseback and beating her grandfather is nothing short of jarring.
Krinitz's Bayeux Tapestry-like representations of the human form are primitive, but subtly powerful. The menacing angle of a Nazi's body as he grabs a Chassid by the lapels and holds a knife to his throat, the stricken appearance of the Jew's wife as she wails while the world collapses around her - those details are all the more disturbing and powerful coming from such abstract representations of humanity.
One also can't help but notice that, even when depicting executions and death camps, Krinitz painstakingly detailed the lush vegetation and fields, rolling clouds and abundant animal life of her youth. In one collage depicting Nazis rousting Jews out of their beds and terrorizing them at gunpoint, fluffy white geese cavort in the trees.
"It's effective because of these discrepancies. You have horrific events depicted in a sweet, pastoral and very feminine way," said Efimova.
"She focuses, almost too much, on details that are very pastoral: The mushrooms, the flowers. Why are there geese here?"
Efimova sees the depictions of vegetation as verdant as a Henri Rousseau jungle as a "coping mechanism" for the artist; the beauty of the backgrounds balanced out the horrific scenes in the foreground - and her subconscious.
Never is the discrepancy more apparent than a collage depicting Krinitz and her sister grazing their cows near the Janiszew prison camp, in which young Jews were worked to within an inch of their lives and then shot to death in the nearby birch forest.
Divided neatly in half by a vine, the collage depicts a heavenly portrayal of lush vegetation, black-and-white cows and young, pig-tailed girls on one side and a hellish morass of shirtless men working waist-deep in filth and being executed on the other; the dichotomy recalls Hieronymus Bosch's finest.
Krinitz's distinctly separate background and foregrounds merge in the exhibit's most breathtaking work, a mesmerizing depiction of the artist, her mother and two of her sisters fleeing from German soldiers and literally blending into the fields en route to the distant forest.
Unfortunately, the collage is only the best example of how difficult it is to recreate Krinitz's textured, multidimensional and hyper-detailed works in small, two-dimensional photographs. Efimova noted that, in all her years as a curator, this is perhaps the exhibit that loses the most when being photographed (even high-resolution photographs by competent professionals).
For anyone who has spent a lifetime staring at Van Gogh paintings in books and then found themselves dumbfounded at the power of the artist's decisive brushstrokes and rich textures when standing face to face with Docteur Gachet or the man with the bandaged ear himself in a museum, that's a bit what the difference between viewing Krinitz's work in photographs and in person is like.
In that way, "Through the Eye of the Needle" is like a fireworks show: You can look at the pictures and hear descriptions from onlookers - but if you don't see it yourself, you won't know what you've missed.
"Through the Eye of the Needle" runs until Feb. 11 at the Judah L. Magnes Museum at 2911 Russell St., Berkeley. Information: www.magnes.org or (510) 549-6950.