Fabric of survival: Tapestries have threads of resistance and remembrance

Holocaust survivor Esther Nisenthal Krinitz stitched idyllic tapestries showing her experiences during her childhood and the Second World War.

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Bernice Steinhardt and Helene McQuade grew up hearing vivid accounts of what their mother, Holocaust survivor Esther Nisenthal Krinitz, had endured when the Nazis came, of the family she lost — she and a sister were the only ones of their immediate family of seven who survived — and of how she persevered.

When she was about 50, Krinitz decided she wanted her daughters to know what her house in the Polish village of Mniszek had looked like.

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“She knew nothing of art, but she had apprenticed to a tailor and she could sew,” said Steinhardt, who grew up in Brooklyn.

Using fabric collage and crewel embroidery, Krinitz created a four-foot by four-foot tapestry depicting her memories of home and family during the idyllic days of her early life.

“She loved how it came out,” Steinhardt recalled. “To her, it was what she could see in her mind’s eye.”

Tapestry of farm life, with buildings, horse and cart, people and animals.
“My mother was born in 1927, in a little village in central Poland called Mniszek, near the town of Rachow, today known by its Polish name. Annapol. This is how her house appeared in 1937 when she was a 10-year-old girl carrying water up the hill from the river. Her younger sister, Mania, stands at the top of the hill. Her older brother, Ruven, is standing by the horse and wagon. Her parents, Hersh and Rachel, are in front of the house with their youngest daughters, Chana and Lea. Esther would say everyone was so happy then. My mother was pleased with how the picture turned out: She felt it captured what was in her mind’s eye.” — Bernice Steinhardt

It was the beginning of a narrative series that grew increasingly intricate as Krinitz began to depict an idyllic childhood that ended abruptly when she was 12 and the war started. In 1942, all Jews were ordered to leave the area; Krinitz’s mother agreed that she could go into hiding if she took her sister Mania. They posed as Catholic farm girls and travelled from village to village looking for work.

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Between 1977 and 1999, Krinitz created a total of 36 exquisite works of fabric collage and embroidery. It was an artistic journey — and a therapeutic one.

“She was on sort of a mission to tell the whole story,” said Steinhardt, addressing a rapt audience of 100 gathered at a discussion this month of how textile arts became a form of resistance, remembrance and cultural preservation during and after the Holocaust.

The event was organized by the Montreal Holocaust Museum in partnership with Tablet, an online magazine of Jewish news and culture.

“My mother always told the stories. I was quite young — and, for her, they were such recent memories,” Steinhardt said. “At that time, she needed to just be able to relate it and to tell it so that she could make sense of it.

“When she went back to the memories years later, I think there was still some of that, but she was much older and it was legacy. She wanted to share memories of her family with the family she had created, so it was a different kind of therapeutic experience,” she said.

“When she created scenes from before and after the war, she created them in psychological order. She started with the pictures she needed to recall most and then she went back and forth in time.”

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After the war, her mother met the man she would marry, Max Krinitz, in a displaced person’s camp in Germany. They waited in Belgium – Steinhardt was born there – for a visa to the United States, where her father had a cousin who sponsored them.

One of Krinitz’s collages depicts the family arriving at Ellis Island. Steinhardt said her mother remembered the wide-open sky, the Statue of Liberty “and the whole feeling of the picture is this expansiveness and freedom. My mother said that her first thought was that she would never have to hide being Jewish again.”

After their mother’s death in 2001, Steinhardt and McQuade founded a not-for-profit organization, Art and Remembrance, to bring Krinitz’s works to a wider audience and promote the use of art and memoir as tools for awareness and healing.

“It became clear they needed to be out in the world, needed an audience. This was her legacy,” Steinhardt said. “We saw they provided an opportunity to educate people about what happened during the Holocaust and to inspire other people to tell their own story about anti-Semitism, racism, otherism.”

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One one site, people are working in fields with Nazis watching and whipping them. On the other, two girls tend cows in a green pastrure.
“On the right side of the picture are Esther and Mania and the cows they brought to pasture. On this beautiful day in June, everything is blooming, the grass is lush, each blade separately stitched in different shades of green. It depicts nature at its most gorgeous, full of colour and life. On the left, we see the Janiszew slave labour camp, where Jewish men and boys were imprisoned. The colour is drained and, in contrast to the serenity of the green pasture, the camp scene is aswirl with whips and wagons and shots in the forest. This was the scene that Esther witnessed as she peered through the thin line of trees separating life from death.” — Bernice Steinhardt

The panels are being exhibited at the American Visionary Art Museum in Bethesda, Md., until early 2025.

Tanya Singer, general manager of Tablet’s podcast division, a writer and the speaker at the event this month, described how she found in knitting “comfort without words” through the trauma of her son’s brain surgery in 2017. His surgery was successful.

Her father’s 97-year-old cousin Eva Bender is a Holocaust survivor who was deported from Romania to Ukraine in the winter of 1942 and held with her parents and brother in an overcrowded prison camp where her father died within three months. Only 11 of the 40 in their room survived.

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“I was 11 and unconscious most of the time because of hunger,” Bender told Singer. “Knitting kept me alive.”

Singer interviewed Holocaust survivor Liselotte Ivry, who had learned handicrafts in school in Czechoslovakia. She told her that her earliest memories were of sitting around a heater with her mother and embroidering — and that her closest feelings of home were experienced through crafts.

Life as she knew it ended when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939. Ivry was eventually sent to Terezin, a Jewish ghetto and concentration camp, and then Auschwitz, where her brother and mother perished. She was transferred to Bergen-Belsen and liberated by the British army on April 15, 1945; at 19, she was her family’s sole survivor.

Two men lead Rosh Hashanah services. They are bearded and their heads are covered. One is holding a ram's horn. There is an open book on a table in front of them
This collage is a memorial to the last Rosh Hashanah services led by Chaim, Esther Nisenthal Krinitz’s grandfather, and his neighbour Baresh. It was 1938, the year before the war began. The Polish village in which they lived, Mniszek, was too small for a synagogue or rabbi, so Chaim and the neighbour led prayer services for the Sabbath and holidays at the home of Shmuel, who had one of the village’s nicest houses. The Torah was placed in a closet draped with curtains. Here, Chaim holds the shofar, the ram’s horn, blown as the Jewish New Year is ushered in.

Ivry remained in the camp to serve food to liberated prisoners and described to Singer seeing a young Roma woman in line wearing a colourful headscarf — one of the first beautiful things she saw after the war. She asked her to trade it for a ration of bread.

“Someone so deprived of so many things would be willing to trade bread just to get a piece of beautiful cloth,” Singer said.

Ivry donated the headscarf to the Montreal Holocaust Museum in 2011. She died in 2022.

In her later life, Ivry knitted squares for blankets for women and children at a shelter.

“Such an incredibly generative act to knit for others,” Singer said.

“That’s the thing about textiles; they’re tactile. When someone has created something out of thread and cloth, you can see that person in that creation and that is a very powerful thing.”

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She saw a young Roma woman in line wearing this scarf, one of the first beautiful things she saw after the war, and asked her to trade it for a ration of bread.
Liselotte Ivry (née Epstein) was deported to various camps before being transferred to Bergen-Belsen and liberated by the British army on April 15, 1945, the sole survivor of her family at 19. She remained in the camp to serve food to liberated prisoners. She saw a young Roma woman in line wearing this scarf, one of the first beautiful things she saw after the war, and asked her to trade it for a ration of bread. Photo by Peter Berra /Photo courtesy of Montreal Holocaust Museum

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