Most people look back at the Holocaust like a nightmare told in drab black and white. But Esther Krinitz remembered it — brutality and all — in dazzling color.
The Holocaust survivor, who passed away in 2001, spent decades turning her story into art, sewing 36 needlework and fabric collages that told the story of her life, her survival and her family.
The pieces, collected in the exhibition “Fabric of Survival: The Art of Esther Nisenthal Krinitz,” made its debut at the Butler Institute of Art in Youngstown, Ohio, as the kickoff event of the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation’s 75th anniversary celebration.
The exhibition will remain in Youngstown until May 23.
Few people were as close to Krinitz’ creative spark as her daughter, Bernice Steinhardt, who remembers her mother first beginning the project in 1977.
“My mother always told the stories about her childhood and her survival, but when she was about 50, she decided she wanted us to see what her home and family looked like. She’d never been trained as an artist, but she could sew anything,” Steinhardt recalled.
Aside from her stories and her sewing, Krinitz had no other options for sharing her past: at 15, she and her sister Mania were separated from their family in their village of Mniszek in Poland and never saw them again. The sisters pretended to be Catholic and successfully avoided the Nazi death camps, before immigrating to the United States in 1949.
Krinitz began piecing together her past with two collages — pictures of her childhood home and lost family — but didn’t return to the project for a decade because “she turned a lot of her creative energy to her grandkids,” said Steinhardt.
In the late 1980s, though, Krinitz realized that her needlework could be “her family legacy,” said Steinhardt.
“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know my mother’s stories, but hearing them and seeing them was really a different experience. The emotional power of the story with the image is astounding.”
The pieces aren’t the usual portrayal of the Holocaust that one might expect. Landscapes look lush and florid. Colors are bright; clouds hang peacefully. Whether they represent the reality of 1940s Poland seems irrelevant — the images, said Steinhardt, were how her mother saw the world.
“Even though there were these terrifying and brutal experiences that she describes, she couldn’t not make it beautiful. She always was aware of the beauty of nature,” said Steinhardt. “She was very conscious of what flowers were growing, or the colors of the autumn leaves, the bees, the strawberries, the cherry trees. I have to think that, in some way, they sustained her throughout her ordeal.”
Krinitz began working with speed, creating 34 more pieces before her death. But her story, said Steinhardt, was kept within her family and friends.
“When she was done with each one, she gave them to me,” said Steinhardt. “They were hanging on my walls — until I ran out of wall space. This was a whole body of work that deserved an audience. So we started working to get the pictures out into the world, and out of my house.”
Since her mother’s death, Steinhardt and her younger sister, Helene McQuade, have brought Krinitz’ work to about a dozen museums, sharing a new family heirloom with hundreds of strangers. And they’re not the only second or third generation survivors to do so.
“We still have survivors, but we are preparing for the day when we will have to speak,” said Esther Finder, member of the Coordinating Council of Generations of the Shoah International, in an e-mail to The Chronicle. “Children and grandchildren of survivors all over the world are becoming more actively engaged in preserving the historical truth and carrying on our legacy as descendants of survivors. Interest is not waning.”
Though at 36 pieces, the exhibition seemingly represents the double life of Krinitz — her memory carrying on after her death — Steinhardt believes the collection could’ve grown if her mother had more time.
“I suspect she would’ve gone back to other memories,” she said. “She worked on these images until she no longer could.”
In bold color, the art breaks down the usual hesitance many people feel in approaching the Holocaust, said Steinhardt.
“Most people brace themselves to hear a survivor story,” she said. “But because my mother’s images are so visually beautiful, people are drawn into them before they can create that emotional barrier. They touch the heart directly.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com.)