A Story of Survival: Meet Esther
In September 1939, 12-year-old, Esther watched German soldiers arrive in her village of Mniszek. For the next 3 years, German troops used Jewish slave laborers from Mniszek and the nearby city of Rachow (today called Annopol) to build roads and bridges for their Eastern campaign. Once the Nazis moved to implement the “Final Solution” however, the Jews of Rachow and Mniszek were instructed to leave their homes and report to the train station in the city of Krasnik.
Esther was by then 15, the second in a family of 5 children, and the oldest girl. The night before their departure, Esther decided she would not go with them. On October 15,1942, her father, Hersh; her mother, Rachel; her older brother, Reuven; and her little sisters, Chana and Leah, set off for the train station. It was the last time Esther saw her family.
Esther and her 13-year-old sister, Mania, headed for the house of Stefan, a Polish farmer who was a friend of her father’s, hoping he would take them in and give them work. But after sheltering them for a couple of days, Stefan told them that the rest of the village knew where they were and the Gestapo would soon come looking for them.
Esther then decided that they would have to assume the identities of Polish Catholic farm girls and make their way to another village where they were not known. There, they would say that they had come from a town across the Vistula River, where their family, like others in the region, had lost its farm to a German family. With their digging tools in sacks across their shoulders, they would ask for work.
They eventually came to the village of Grabowka, where Esther found work with a farmer whose wife was ill and bedridden. Mania became a housekeeper for the village’s sheriff. Until 1944, Esther and Mania cooked, cleaned, cared for animals, helped in the fields, went to church, and lived out the daily lives of two Polish farm girls.
The white line represents the Jews' journey to the Krasnik train station. The surrounding places were part of Esther's journey and are featured in her art.
In 1944, Russian troops arrived and liberated the village. Esther returned to Mniszek to find out what had happened to her family. Unable to find them, Esther decided to join the Polish Army, then making its way west with the Red Army to Warsaw and ultimately to Germany.
After the war ended in 1945, Esther returned to Grabowka to get Mania and in 1946, the two of them returned to Germany, making their way to a Displaced Persons camp in the favored American zone, in the city of Ziegenhein. Esther met Max Krinitz there and, in November 1946, married him in a ceremony conducted in the camp.
The following year, pregnant with their first child, Esther joined Max in Belgium, where he had gone to work in the coal mines. While in Belgium, he contacted a cousin who lived in the United States and she agreed to arrange for sponsorship of his immigration. In June 1949, Esther, Max and their daughter Bernice arrived in New York.
Mania (left) and Esther, 1945
Esther, Max, and Bernice, 1948
Unlike many Holocaust survivors, Esther always talked about her experiences during the war. But in 1977, when she was 50 years old, Esther decided that she wanted her daughters to see what her home and family looked like. Although she had no artistic training, she was an accomplished seamstress, having been apprenticed to a dressmaker as a child. On a large piece of fabric, she drew the outlines of her house, and then filled the rest of the picture with stitches. She then made a second picture, the view from the other side of the road. She gave both pictures to her daughters. Ten years later, Esther returned to these memory pictures, adding stitched captions to create a narrative. She continued to work on them without pause, creating a series of 36 pictures before she died in 2001 at the age of 74. View Esther's body of 36 tapestries.
In 1999, Esther returned to Poland for the first time since the war, to show her daughters and grandchildren the places they had seen only in her pictures.
Pictured, left to right: Harold Nisenthal (Esther’s cousin), Helene McQuade (Esther’s daughter), Harry Kalenberg (Mania’s son, Esther’s nephew), Alex Kalenberg
(Harry’s son), Simon Steinhardt (Esther’s grandson), Bernice Steinhardt (Esther’s daughter), Rachel Peric (Esther’s granddaughter), a Mniszek farmer and her daughter, Esther Nisenthal Krinitz, Mania (Miriam) Kalenberg (Esther’s sister), and Lipa Kalenberg (Mania’s husband).
A Legacy of Inspiration: About Art & Remembrance
Art and Remembrance, an arts and educational non-profit based in Maryland, was founded in 2003 to bring the work and story of Holocaust survivor and fabric artist Esther Nisenthal Krinitz to a wider audience; to maximize the educational potential of her art and her unique story; and to promote the use of art and personal memoir as tools for promoting healing and awareness. As Esther’s daughters, founders Bernice Steinhardt and Helene McQuade grew up with the stories of their mother’s courage and suffering as a child during the war. Years later, after Esther began to turn her stories into a narrated series of fabric art pictures, they realized the incredible power of their mother’s art and story. Together, they could help people understand not only what war and intolerance are, but also how it feels to those who endure them.
Esther Krinitz’s artwork has now been exhibited in more than 40 museums and other institutions across the United States, Canada, and Europe, including Poland, where it has been seen by several hundred thousand visitors. Art and Remembrance published an award-winning book, Memories of Survival, that has been translated into Japanese and Korean; close to 20,000 copies have been sold around the world.
In 2011, Art and Remembrance produced a multiple-award-winning 30-minute documentary, “Through the Eye of the Needle: The Art of Esther Nisenthal Krinitz,” that continues to be screened across the country and abroad, including on public television stations in the U.S. Since its posting on social media, the film has drawn close to 100,000 viewers.
Among its other projects, Art and Remembrance utilizes the film as a prompt for reflection, discussion, and story sharing through art – primarily working with immigrants and others who have suffered injustice – through its Stitching Our Stories workshops. Most recently, Art and Remembrance designed a set of lesson plans for students aged 10-18, linking Esther’s Holocaust survival story to contemporary issues of racism, anti-semitism, and xenophobia.