Esther Nisenthal Krinitz could recall in painful detail the day in 1942 when her family and the rest of the Jews in her small Polish farming village were taken by wagons to a nearby station to be crowded onto trains and delivered to almost certain death at the hands of the Nazis.
Left behind were 15-year-old Esther and her sister Mania, who was two years younger. “We left our house for good and walked down the road,” Krinitz would recall. “Everyone began to cry. The wagons left for the Krasnik station, and we never saw our family again.”
Krinitz died in 2001, but her words and memories live on through heartbreaking descriptions stitched below each of the 36 pieces of fabric art she left behind detailing her life before, during, and after the Holocaust.
She began creating the pieces in 1977 at age 50 for her daughters, Bernice Steinhardt and Helene McQuade, who would be inspired to share their mother’s story through Memories of Survival, a book that has been translated into many languages; the Art and Remembrance organization; Through the Eye of the Needle: The Art of Esther Nisenthal Krinitz, a 2011 documentary featuring interviews with Krinitz; and “Fabric of Survival,” a traveling exhibit that has been shown across the United States and Canada.
On April 17, Steinhardt and McQuade came to Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick for the opening of the exhibit, running through May 15. Through the Eye of the Needle was also screened.
Art and Remembrance, based in Maryland, develops curriculum for both elementary and high schools and uses art and narrative to help people understand the effects of war and intolerance and runs programs helping formerly persecuted immigrants through art.
McQuade said her mother’s art “just poured out of her.” The works include scenes of family life, a last Rosh Hashana in 1938, and the final time in 1939 that the Jews of her hometown would make matza for Passover.
Creating the needlework tableaus “was her way of connecting us to her family, the people she lost, really everyone she loved in the world,” said Steinhardt.
Her daughters grew up in Brooklyn hearing stories of their mother’s suffering and courage.
“After all she had been through, she so loved living in this country, and her life with her family gave her so much joy,” said McQuade.
The works on display are not the originals, but rather “high quality” photographs created to allow for wider distribution (the textile pieces must be displayed in “museum-like” conditions); they show depth and texture and are virtually indistinguishable from the fabric pieces.
The exhibit is also on a two-year journey through Poland that began in January 2015 under the auspices of the Galicia Jewish Museum in Cracow.
Many pieces graphically show the brutality of the Nazis after they arrived in Krinitz’s hometown of Mniszek, near the city of Rachow, in September 1939. “One of them got off his horse and walked up to her zayde and cut off his beard,” said Steinhardt. “That was the beginning of the war for Esther.”
Other pieces reflect her losses. In October 1939 young people were forced to dig trenches across the fields. Krinitz said of those she depicted, “None of the boys and girls survived the war: Itzhak, Mechel, Nachum, Golda, Elya, Hersh, Ruben.”
Another work shows the day in April 1941 when, while Krinitz was working on a nearby farm, she heard her cousin Moishe call out to her through the fence of the adjacent forced labor camp. The next day, on erev Passover, Nazi soldiers burst into their home, ripping off her father’s tefillin as he prayed, and tearing off the tablecloth, sending all their food flying, a scene of terror also detailed in one of the pieces.
There are also depictions of Nazi raids in 1942 and of Krinitz and her older brother Ruven, and their father hiding in the forest after Ruven was ordered to the Janiszow forced labor camp.
Five pieces recount the horrific events of October 1942, “The beginning of the end, and the somber march of the Rachow Jews to their deaths.”
The night before the Jews were ordered to leave the area, Krinitz begged her mother to let her stay behind and go into hiding; her mother relented but insisted she take Mania, telling her, “Go, kinderlach, maybe you will live.”
“Can you imagine a mother letting her children go like that, giving her children permission to survive?” said Steinhardt.
A friend of their father’s hid them for two weeks in the attic of his home, but then he sent them away, saying, “All of Mniszek knows you are here. The Germans will kill you and they will kill me.”
The sisters “wandered in the forest with no place to go,” said Steinhardt. “It was then that Esther came up with new identities. They would be Josephine and Maria, Catholic farm girls separated from their parents.”
The sisters went back to Mniszek, but were turned away by all their former neighbors. They finally found work on separate farms in Grabowka, which was liberated in July 1944 by the Russian Army.
After the war, Krinitz went back to Mniszek, but found no members of her family. When she went to the site of the Majdanek concentration camp, she found only the gas chambers and crematorium, piles of shoes, and “giant cabbages growing on human ashes,” which she depicted in her art in “horrendous detail,” said Steinhardt.
Krinitz joined the Russian army stationed in the area and entered Germany with them as a victor.
She and Mania met and married other survivors at a displaced persons’ camp in Germany. Mania and her husband went to Palestine; Esther and her husband, Max, went to New York in 1949. Within a couple of years Mania, who now lives in Dallas, and her family joined them in Brooklyn.
In 1999, 50 years after she left Europe, Esther Krinitz returned to Mniszek to see what remained, visiting her old home and meeting many of the Polish townspeople, some of them old friends.
Recently her daughters showed the documentary about their mother in Krasnik, Poland, drawing an audience of people who lived in the region, including from Mniszek and Rachow.
To them, the Jews were “people who have vanished,” said Steinhardt, and the local Poles “were eager to learn more about them. They were overjoyed we were there.”