I’ve read dozens of books, visited museums, seen countless exhibits, heard many many stories about the Holocaust.
Still, each time I encounter the realities of what the Nazis did to millions of innocent people just like me, a deep pit develops in my gut, along with feelings of anger, horror, and angst.
Those feelings visited me again this afternoon when I toured Fabric of Survival at the Oceanside Musem of Art. The exhibit is the nexus of primitive art and native Holocaust story telling.
Fabric of Survival is a series of 36 fabric art scenes from the life of Polish Jew, Esther Nisenthal Krinitz (1927 – 2001) who, with her younger sister Mania, were the only members of her family of six to survive the holocaust.
Krinitz used mostly embroidery and applique to depict snapshot memories of her life, starting in Mniszek, a small village in Poland around 1937. Twelve year old Esther lived with her parents, three sisters, and brother on her family’s farm.
Esther Krinitz's family farm in Mniszek, Poland early 1930s
First in the exhibit, is a group of scenes documenting what life was like for Esther and her family – tending to crops, caring for cows and geese, swimming in the nearby river, celebrating Jewish holidays with their neighbors.
One notable image shows community Matzoh-making at the village shoemaker’s home. Esther’s mother mixes the dough while a tableful of women roll it out into rounds. The shoemaker perforates the rounds on their way to his son who tends the oven.
How different from today’s experience of strolling into the supermarket to buy a box of square, factory produced Matzoh!
Community matzoh making
The rich, close life of Esther’s family and their community is depicted in other ways. A scene shows her grandfather and a neighbor, the community patriarchs, leading high holiday services. The men are draped in pure white prayer shawls that frame their salt and pepper colored beards. Her grandfather holds a shofar, the ram’s horn that he would blow to announce the new year.
Behind them is the ark, home of the community’s Torah, a table with a wash basin, a important part of the holiday, and a grandfather’s clock. The latter has no religious value but makes it clear that they are praying in a home, not a synagogue. The town was too small for a proper synagogue.
The image is all blue and red, with a sense of three dimensions created by the timbers that support the roof over the mens’ heads.
Esther’s grandfather appears again in a scene that portends the future. It is 1939. Esther and her friends run to the road as the first Nazis arrive in their village. Clearly, they have no idea what the men’s mission is. But when the soldiers drag Esther’s revered grandfather from his home, rough him up, and cut off his beard (a symbol of his position as a respected elder in the community), it is quite clear that these are not friendly strangers.
Nazis rough up Esther's revered grandfather, 1939
From that point on, the scenes become more and more disturbing, more and more poignant. The Nazis continue to terrorize the town. They construct “labor” camps in their nearby forests. Life generally becomes more and more difficult.
October 15, 1942. The Nazis ordered all the village Jews to the train by 10 am. They are being relocated. Any Jew found left in the village will be shot.
There is an scene of the family gathering in tears on the last night in their home, and one from the morning as they and their neighbors board horse carts for a ride to the train station from where, we know, they will ride to their deaths.
Esther describes how she desperately begged her parents to allow her to flee and take her younger sister Mania with her. Isn’t there anyone, she asks, who would take us in?
Her father responds “Maybe Stefan,” a gentile farmer friend who lives in a different town. Esther and Mania’s mother hires a woman to escort them to Stefan’s. Esther remembers her mother’s last words to them, “Goodbye my dear children. Perhaps you will survive.”
Those words stopped me in my tracks. Clearly, Esther’s mother feared her fate, along with the fate of her husband, other children, siblings, extended family, neighbors, the entire community that made up her life.
She also understood that she would never again see her daughters, whether or not they survived.
As a mother, I tried to imagine saying that to my own children. As I did, my heart felt as if it would burst. Could I let some children go, flee as Esther and Mania were doing, to some unknown fate? Or would I want to keep my family together, even knowing that it likely meant their deaths?
And what would it have been like to be in that line of horse carts, an entire community of people being carted off to die. Would I be scared? Angry? Hopeful that it was all a big mistake? Wanting to believe the Nazis’ promise of food and comfort at the end of the trip?
Or would I have shut down, terrified of what had happened to that point and even more terrified of what was to come?
Questions that we all hope we never to have to answer.
As you probably realize by now, Esther and Mania do survive, thanks to their determination, some clever thinking, and plain old fate.
They find Stefan but it is too dangerous to stay with his family for the long term.
Cast out on their own, they travel to a community where they are not known, and masquerade as Catholic school girls separated from their families. There, they are taken on as domestics and work, though not without incident, until the Russians liberate Poland
Finally free, Esther goes back to search out the fate of her family. She finds the camp she believes they were taken to. Tragically, there is no trace of them, just piles of worn shoes amid the “showers,” crematoria, and giant cabbages growing in piles of human ashes.
Esther searches for her family's fate
Esther joins the Polish and Russian Armies to help with the liberation. One scene shows truckloads of Russian soldiers (Esther’s battalion) passing down a road where a battle was recently fought. On one side, bodies of Nazi soldiers lie helter skelter in a field. On the other side of the road, bodies of Nazi officers dangle from the trees. It is a chilling scene in all respects.
When the war ends, Mania and Esther go to a displaced persons’ camp where each meets her future husband. Esther and her husband Max move to America. Mania and hers go to Israel first, to America several years later.
The last group of scenes are of life in America. The final one struck me as the most touching and hopeful. A tiny, blond haired girl explores the bark of a tree in a park. In the caption, Esther addresses her granddaughter using a Yiddish term of adoration, “Mami Sheine,” beautiful little girl.
Esther's grandaughter, a free, safe generation in America
It wasn’t until 1977 when Esther, then 50, created her first amazing fabric picture. Over the next 20 plus years, she stitched and painted to create the touching narrative that hangs on walls of museums across the country today.
Interestingly, the sequence in which the scenes were created is different from the sequence in which each event occurred. It made me wonder whether Esther created each one at the time she remembered it, or whether she had a grand scheme for what she would create and when she would create it.
And since Esther was not a trained artist, her technique developed over time. I quickly came to connect each image to the era in which it was created, simply by noting its style. Those Esther created first, for example, were more like tapestries where she primarily used yarn and intricate embroidery. Over time, she relied more and more on applique, eventually, creating fabric collages by paying attention not just to the color of each fabric, but also to its pattern.
In one scene, for example, flowers are depicted as giant pansy blooms, each cut from a pansy patterned fabric and appliqued whole onto the background. Eventually, Esther incorporated fabric paint to darken skies and establish mood.
At the same time, Esther’s characters became more refined. She focused on creating expressive faces, and action through the positions of arms and legs and bodies in space. She also learned to create perspective and dimensions.
There is a 13 minute video of Esther and Mania recalling the past. Unfortunately, I only caught the end of it at the museum, but I found it online at Art and Remembrance, the organization that Esther’s daughters created “that seeks to change people’s hearts and minds by illuminating the experience of war, oppression, and injustice through the power and passion of personal narrative in art.”
The site also includes a gallery of all 36 fabric art pieces, along with audio narrative of Esther’s daughters describing their mother, background to the events depicted, how Esther created her art, and more.
The online exhibition is well worth visiting
But, there is nothing like seeing Esther’s creations in person.