Embroidering a life: The panels of Esther Nisenthal Krinitz
Michael Abatemarco, Pasatiempo, The New Mexican
Sep 30, 2016
Updated Oct 13, 2016
The embroidered panels of Esther Nisenthal Krinitz are a testament to survival against the odds, offering hope and despair in equal measure. The exhibition Stitching Our Stories, on display at the Santa Fe Community Gallery through Oct. 20, is arranged chronologically. Krinitz’s 36 autobiographical vignettes tell how she and her sister Mania escaped from a German-occupied shtetl in Poland during World War II and how they survived the war; they also portray their arrival in America. The panels are compelling because of their narrative, but also because of the depicted details of village life and dress, houses, soldiers’ uniforms, and events, some of which are lost to time. The panels on exhibit are high-resolution photographic prints of the originals, which are undergoing conservation. Those showing life before the occupation are bordered by vibrant colors, while those representing events that occurred during the Holocaust are bordered in
The Somber Death March Esther Nisenthal Krinitz, March, 1991, embroidery and fabric collage; photo José Luis Cruzado Coronel
Stitching Our Stories is a program of Art and Remembrance, an organization that promotes personal narrative through artistic expression as a means of giving voice to victims of war, displacement, and other
injustices. It was founded by Krinitz’s daughter Bernice Steinhardt, who recognized the value of her mother’s work, which was not made to be exhibited but was created as a gift to her children. “It deserved an audience beyond people who came to my house,” Steinhardt told Pasatiempo. “When we founded Art and Remembrance, we also saw that they had tremendous potential as teaching tools. There were so many themes and issues that could educate people about the experience of war.”
Part of the value of the panels is their glimpse into the prewar era in Poland, where Orthodox Jews were free to observe their traditions and folkways. Women roll out unleavened dough for making matzos, which the men cook in ovens; rabbis read from the Torah, holding their ritual implements; chickens run free seemingly everywhere; and the thatch covered homes look small, warm, and inviting. The accompanying descriptions are necessary to understand the narrative, but much detail can be gleaned or suggested by the embroidered imagery. Krinitz was not a trained artist, but she developed a greater aesthetic eye as the years long project developed.
The idyllic views of Krinitz’s hometown of Mniszek are all too brief. The German soldiers arrived in September 1939. Krinitz was a young girl. Her introduction to the foreign invaders was watching them rough up her grandfather and hack off his beard. Krinitz went to work for a farmer in Gos´cieradów near a labor camp where her cousin was being held. Her depiction of the camp is the only evidence of what the place may have been like and the only image of it known to exist. “We went back there this fall and showed the film to people living in Gos´cieradów, who had no history of this,” Steinhardt said. “Some people who were living then told their children about it. It was known that there was a camp, but there was no documentation. No one knew what happened there or who came there.”
Krinitz and her sister escaped from Mniszek on Oct. 15, 1942. That was the day all the Jews in their hometown were ordered, under threat of death, to report to the Krasnik train station; from there, they were sent to concentration camps. It was the last day they saw their parents and siblings, none of whom survived the war. The vibrant colors and rich embroidery of the panels belie the subject matter. Even images of people crowded into horse drawn carriages, en route to certain death, appear almost as simple genre scenes.
The full impact of what they actually depict is revealed by the stitched narratives and accompanying text panels. The two sisters roamed from village to village, adopting Christian names and identities and working as field hands throughout the war. One of the most compelling pieces is her rendition of the Janiszew prison camp, which they glimpsed from the edge of a verdant forest. The panel is divided down the middle, showing the lush Polish countryside on one side and the drab prison camp on the other. A young boy is being led off at gunpoint into the birch forest to be shot. With their Jewish identities hidden, the two girls sometimes found themselves forced to interact with German soldiers. One panel depicts a soldier assisting Krinitz as she struggles to get water from a well. “I thanked him,” her caption reads, “and he clicked his heels in response.”
According to Steinhardt, it is unusual for Holocaust survivors to be as open about their experiences of survival as Krinitz was with her children. “My mother always talked about her experiences,” she said. But giving it a permanent form happened only later, when Krinitz was fifty. She began the project in 1977. “The first four didn’t have stitched captions,” Steinhardt said of the panels. “The first two were of her home and family. The next two she did some years later and were of two very powerful dreams she had. The next piece she did was the first with a stitched caption, and she never stopped after that. She continued until she grew too sick to work.” Krinitz died in 2001 at the age of seventy-four.
Steinhardt uses the panels in workshops to inspire people in immigrant communities to tell their own stories. Santa Fe is the first venue to exhibit alongside her mother’s works some of the story cloths created in these workshops by young people and adults. They tell of immigrants’ experiences in coming to America and are part of why the show, which travels under the moniker, Fabric of Survival: The Art of Esther Nisenthal, is presented here as Stitching Our Stories, adopting the name of the workshop program.
Krinitz’s panels were exhibited in 2015 in Krasnik, the same town from which Steinhardt’s ancestors were deported by train. “A group of women in Krasnik saw the exhibit last spring and created their own large fabric picture of their town square using techniques similar to my mother’s,” she said. “It was a work of civic pride inspired entirely by my mother’s work. It was very meaningful to me to share my mother’s memories in her homeland.”
From Santa Fe the panels travel to the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center of the Jewish Federation of St Louis where they go on exhibit beginning Nov 3.