Esther Nisenthal Krinitz and her younger sister, Mania, were the only members of their immediate family to survive the Holocaust. But Krinitz, a Polish Jew who died in 2001, kept the memories of her parents and siblings vividly alive in 36 hand-embroidered collages she created between 1977 and 1999.
Initially exhibited at the American Visionary Art Museum in 2001, the collages recently returned to the Baltimore museum and now serve as the basis of the AVAM’s new exhibition, “Esther and the Dream of One Loving Human Family.”
The exhibition, which opened Feb. 23, is scheduled to remain at the AVAM through 2024.
Chevy Chase resident Bernice Steinhardt, who is Krinitz’s daughter, said her mother was always an avid storyteller.
“Unlike many Holocaust survivors who never talked about their experiences, my mother always talked,” said Steinhardt, 71. “I always knew my mother’s story. But when she turned 50, she wanted my sister and I to see her home and her family. She was never trained as an artist, but she was an incredibly talented seamstress. So she took a huge piece of fabric and [sewed] in her house and her neighbor’s house, and she gave that to me. Then, she made a companion piece and gave it to my sister.”
It wasn’t until a decade later that Krinitz — who once owned a dress shop in Frederick — returned to her needlework, determined to tell the rest of her life story.
While Krinitz’s collages were not created in a chronological order, they are presented that way in the AVAM exhibition. The first collages depict an idyllic childhood when, as Krinitz told Steinhardt, “[The family] was all happy together.” These pieces reveal a cheerful family home located in the village of Mniszek, with cows and chickens, trees and flowers as well as family celebrations of Jewish holidays and such simple pleasures as swimming and walking together.
When Krinitz was 12, the Nazis invaded Mniszek. The next set of collages, beginning with “The Nazis Arrive,” illustrate the events of the three years of occupation leading up to October of 1942 when Jews in the village were ordered to report to the train station or be shot. Instead of following orders, Krinitz, then 15, took her 13-year-old sister and fled the village, with a plan to find work with Polish farmers.
Another set of collages depict the perilous and frightening journey that Krinitz and Mania endured while escaping the Nazis.
Despite the dark subject matter, nature is joyfully represented in nearly all of the collages. Krinitz frequently reveals the coexistence of beauty and ugliness. For example, the collage titled “Labor Camp” captures “the essence of the experience of war to a young girl,” said Steinhardt. “On one side, there’s this beautiful pastoral scene. My mother stitched every blade of grass. It’s so full of life, vivid, colorful. On the other side, the color is gone. It’s all gray and tan and depicts a scene of fear and horror.”
The series ends with collages that document Krinitz’s arrival in the United States; a portrait of her husband, Max Krinitz; a never-before-exhibited portrait of her mother; and a collage she made for her first-born granddaughter that Krinitz signed, “Grandma loves you so much.”
Steinhardt said that latter collage helped her understand why her mother embroidered the series of collages. “She was creating something to remember the family she lost [to give to] the family she had,” Steinhardt said.
The AVAM exhibition adds to Krinitz’s story with the inclusion of a fabricated house, meant to resemble her family home before the war, an addition that thrilled Steinhardt. Like many of Krinitz’s collages, the house is painted in bright, cheerful colors.
Rebecca A. Hoffberger, founder and curator of the AVAM, said the exhibition’s goal “is to juxtapose the power of Esther’s work and story with the experience of other innocent victims of cultural genocide.”
Also included in the exhibition are humanitarian and artist Lily Yeh’s vibrant, colorful works depicting life in Rwanda prior to, during and after the 1994 genocide there. Pen and marker drawings by Rwandan survivor Niyonsaba Esperane are also on display, as are embroidered works illustrating life under South African apartheid which are part of the AVAM’s collection.
The exhibition’s artwork is interspersed with reproductions of documents such as “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” written in 1807 by abolitionist and poet Julia Ward Howe. The document sheds new light on the background of the holiday of Mother’s Day, imploring mothers around the world to pledge that “no mother’s child would ever again take the life of any other’s mother’s child.”
Also featured is a facsimile of a direct order by President George Washington calling for the immediate destruction of Native American communities, serving as a reminder of this nation’s own history of genocide.
Nearly two decades after Esther Nisenthal Krinitz’s collages premiered at the AVAM, Hoffberger said she feels this exhibition is more timely than ever.
“We’re in an era when the embers of hate are being blown on again and again,” she said. “We want to urgently underscore the great danger of demonizing any human being as an undesirable ‘other.’ When we take away identifications like Jewish or Holocaust survivor, ethnic, religion, color, and look at the mechanisms of campaigns to implement genocide, it’s all one playbook.”
For information about “Esther and the Dream of One Loving Human Family,” visit avam.org. For information about Art and Remembrance, a Maryland-based nonprofit inspired by Esther Nisenthal Krinitz’s art and life story, visit artandremembrance.org.