By Anna Maria Gillis
MARYLAND “I am not going to Kraśnik,” Esther Nisenthal told her parents one night in the fall of 1942. The Nisenthals lived in Mniszek, Poland. Like all Jews in this village, they had been ordered to leave their homes and go to the Kraśnik railroad station. From there they would be sent onward to what almost certainly would be their deaths.
Pleading, the fifteen-year-old insisted that her parents must know someone somewhere who would give them shelter. Finally, they named her father’s friend Stefan in the village of Dombrowa. The next morning, when her mother sent off Esther and her younger sister, Mania, she said, “Go, maybe you will live.”
The story of how Esther and Mania survived in Nazi-occupied Poland using their wits and false Catholic identities is revealed in the documentary Through the Eye of the Needle: The Art of Esther Nisenthal Krinitz, which features Krinitz (who had been interviewed in 1997), her daughters, and the art that documents Krinitz’s life. Supported by the Maryland Humanities Council and produced by the nonprofit Art and Remembrance, the film aired earlier this year on Maryland Public Television and is now accompanying a traveling exhibit called “Fabric of Survival.” It was on view at Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum this summer before traveling to the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg.
The exhibit, which includes thirty-six works that combine fabric collage and exquisite embroidery, tells in countless stitches and knots—and in saturated color—the story of a young Esther in happier times on her family’s farm. With her needle, Krinitz also chronicled the coming of the Nazis, fleeing from home, hiding in plain sight, the appearance of the Russians, and finally arriving and thriving in America.
Each collage is compelling in its own right. In Passover Matzos, Krinitz put her mother, making the holiday’s traditional dough, at the center. To the right, four women roll the dough. To the left, Mottel, the village shoemaker, scores the dough, and his son, Yankel, places it in the oven. The sweet homeliness of the scene contrasts with the reportage in the stitched words beneath: “These were the last matzos we ever had in Mniszek.”
In one panel called Rosh Hashanah, Krinitz shows her venerable grandfather, wearing his prayer shawl and holding the shofar, or ram’s horn. In another, a Nazi officer grabs the patriarch’s beard and cuts it off with a bayonet. Digging Tank Trenches, with its beautiful green hills and autumn-clad trees, memorializes Itzhak, Mechel, Nachum, Golda, Elya, Hersh, and Ruben—seven village children who had been commandeered to do the hard work of making a way for tanks to get across the fields. “None of these boys and girls survived the war,” reads the embroidery.
Creating the pictures was her mother’s “way of connecting me and my sister with the family she had lost—her mother, her father, her sisters, her brother, nearly everyone that she loved in the world,” says Bernice Steinhardt in the documentary.
At the same time Krinitz captured people in thread, she often wove in the natural world—the river near her home, silvery birch trees, red-and-white mushrooms, knobbly pinecones, black-and-white cows. The contrast between sustaining beauty and atrocity is no more vivid than in Janiszew Prison Camp. To the right, the sisters are shown in June 1941 pasturing their cows on lush grass near the Vistula River, a vision of bucolic perfection. But only a line of trees separates the girls from a horrific scene of boys being whipped as they labor to build a dam. “I saw everything that was going on through the bushes,” Krinitz recalled in the film. “I saw them leading these boys into the forest and I heard shots, shots.”
For Steinhardt, Janiszew Prison Camp captures “the full reality of my mother’s life and of life in general in wartime.”
But it is to October 15, 1942, that Krinitz gave her greatest attention, creating five panels that begin with Esther and Mania saying their last goodbyes to their family, then following the girls in their paisley dresses to their ultimate destination. The road shows a sea of people—women in bright head-scarves, children carrying baskets, and men with rucksacks—becoming tinier and tinier, until they disappear over the horizon. Above their heads fly crows, birds Krinitz associated with death. In the foreground, we see Esther and Mania parting again from loved ones. This time, it is their cousin, Dina, with her red-hooded baby in her arms.
Stefan’s House shows the girls embracing Stefan and hiding in his attic, and then departing. Stefan must send them off in the rain—marked in grayish stitches across their clothes—because “the whole of Mniszek knows you are here.” In the panel’s last scene, Krinitz has the sisters taking cover in the woods, fearful of being found and turned in. Five pounds of sugar was what the Germans were offering as a bounty on Jews.
Knowing they could no longer be their father’s daughters, Esther and Mania decided to be Catholic farm girls in search of work, says Steinhardt.
It was a ploy that had a chance of succeeding because Catholic Polish children did get separated from their families during the war. Esther went to church, went to confession, and carefully mimicked the Catholics around her. She was shielded by the old farmer from Grabowka who took her in. (He can be seen in a panel where Esther is on her knees tending strawberries while two German soldiers fend off the farmer’s bees.) The farmer told Esther to call him Dziadek, or grandfather, and he introduced her to strangers as his granddaughter. “He was very protective of her,” says Steinhardt, sending her off to hide whenever the Germans came to round up Polish children to be factory workers.
“It’s possible that he suspected she was Jewish, but if he did he never acknowledged it,” says Steinhardt. “He treated her as the girl she said she was.”
Luck, a “desperation to survive,” and deciding not to do as she was told all contributed to Krinitz living when others did not, says Steinhardt. She had “a trust in her own ability to stay alive.”