At the age of 50, Esther Nisenthal Krinitz began to create amazing tapestries in her Brooklyn apartment that told the story of her survival during the Holocaust. “When she saw how moved my sister and I were [by her artwork], she kept sewing,” says Esther's daughter, Bernice Steinhardt. Bernice and her sister, Helene McQuade, founded Art and Remembrance, a non-profit dedicated to sharing their mother’s experience and illuminating works of art.
Click through below to learn more about Esther’s life, as told through her incredible tapestries and look for more about Esther's inspiring life and work in the June/July 2017 issue of Mysterious Ways magazine.
As children growing up in the pastoral village of Mniszek, Poland, Esther and her family swam in the river by their house. “Mom really wanted my sister and me to see what her home and her family looked like before the war,” Bernice says. “She felt strongly this need to visualize her home and her family. She had always sewn. She had been an apprentice to a dressmaker when she was eight years old. She felt very confident in her stitching capabilities, but she had never stitched anything like this. It was cathartic for her, retaining that connection to her life in a way that became tangible through needle, thread and fabric.”
Before Passover, Esther’s mother and others baked their own matzo, unleavened bread used to observe the Jewish holiday. “Her fondest memories of her childhood, her life before the war, was of the Jewish holidays,” Bernice says. “She did feel that in some way, God was watching over her and her sister. But it was hard for her to understand why the Holocaust happened. That question never left her.”
In September 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland, and the town of Mniszek. They subjected the Jewish community to daily abuse, starting with cutting the beard of Esther’s grandfather. “Many children of Holocaust survivors, like my sister and me, always felt a wish that we could somehow rescue our parents from the tragedy and loss. In some ways that’s what motivated us to create Art and Remembrance. We saw that our mother’s art could be used as a powerful teaching tool to help people gain empathy for others who continue to experience similar tragedies.”
“This was one picture that made a big impact on me,” Bernice says. “Mom and her sister took their cows on a beautiful June day to graze by the river and discovered this prison camp where the Nazis put the young Jewish men to work. On the one side, the trees are blooming, the grass is so lush, these two innocent girls are tending their cows. And, on the other side, is this incredible brutality, terror and horror. I call this picture heaven and hell. I think it captures what it’s like to live through a war.”
In October 1942, the Nazis ordered the Jews to march 20 miles to the Kraśnik train station, bound for concentration camps. Esther, then 15, refused. She fled with her 13-year-old sister, Mania, to seek refuge. “She didn’t see it as courage or heroic, she saw it as desperate,” Bernice says. “Years later, she’d say she was selfish. She had survivor’s guilt. But there was nothing she could do to save her parents. Her mother encouraged her to go off on her own.”
Turned away by fearful friends, Esther and Mania roamed the countryside and hid at night in the forest. “My aunt asked, ‘Where are we going to go?’” Bernice says. “My mother told her, ‘God will take care of us.’ It was the faith they had to have in order to continue.”
In early November 1942, Esther and Mania found shelter with a farmer in Grabówka who believed they were Catholic farm girls separated from family. The first night, Esther’s mother visited in a dream. “She asked her mother why they were running. ‘Because the sky is falling,’ her mother said, ‘and when it reaches the ground, we will die.’ She looked behind her to see these pieces of black clouds falling. It was a portent of calamity and it was also the last time that she saw her mother—she felt they were still connected.”
In June 1943, two Nazi soldiers began to question Esther. Bees from the farmer’s honey hives swarmed and drove them away—without stinging the girls. “People believe that God was in those bees,” Bernice says. “I love this picture. In just a few stitches my mother created these perfect bees. I’m awed by them.”
“While my mother was living in Grabówka under her assumed identity, the Germans would come through periodically and take young Polish boys and girls off to work in factories,” Bernice says. “The farmer received a warning about a raid. He sent her up into the attic of the barn. There she had a dream. My mother’s grandfather, Zadye, had died during the occupation. But she saw him surrounded by all the familiar things in his house—the grandfather clock and his chest and the portrait of her grandparents hanging on the wall. She pleaded with him to help her because he was close to God. He told her not to worry. In my mother’s dreams, people who she loved reassured her in her greatest moments of need. It gave her hope.”
Esther and Mania were liberated by the Russian army in July 1944. Esther met her husband, Max, at a displaced persons camp. “I went to Mniszek and Grabówka with my mother in 1999,” Bernice says. “The thing that struck me was how faithful my mother’s pictures were. There were still people driving the horse-drawn wooden wagons that are in her pictures. The fields are still farmed in these ribbons of color. When we went back to Grabówka, there were several people who my mother saw there who had been her friends. When they heard she had come to the village they came running out to greet her.”
Esther and Max immigrated to New York in 1949 with their infant child, Bernice. “My parents were desperate to resume their lives,” Bernice says. “In some ways, my mother was strengthened. What couldn’t she do after she had lived through that? She started her own business, a women’s clothing store. She created this new family that she loved so deeply. That was a miracle.”
For more of Esther’s story and tapestries, visit artandremembrance.org.
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