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The Message of Survival

Fiber art from the Holocaust at Jewish Museum Milwaukee

Mar. 7, 2017
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Esther Nisenthal Krinitz was 12 when German troops reached her village in Poland. She lived far from the world stage when the war began, in Mniszek, a town without running water or electricity where life revolved around the Jewish Sabbath and holy days. Trouble came soon enough. In a fabric panel titled Nazis Arrive in Mniszek, Krinitz depicts a contingent of invaders in her bucolic town. One of them is pulling her grandfather from his porch and shearing his beard to humiliate him. Krinitz and her two sisters watch the scene with backs to the viewer. Her grandmother pleads mutely from the porch.

Arriving in Brooklyn, N.Y., after the war, Krinitz worked as a dressmaker. Years later, at age 50, she found a lifelong vocation that also involved needle, scissors and thread. She began to tailor her memories of Mniszek into a series of embroidered panels—hand stitched and vivid in form and color. Thirty-six of those panels are displayed in the current exhibition at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, “Fabric of Survival: The Art of Esther Nisenthal Krinitz.”

The panels are arranged in more or less chronological order, reflecting the artist’s memories of Mniszek at peace before the war, the ever-worsening horror of the Nazi occupation and the liberation by Soviet Russian troops as the Germans retreated. Krinitz must have been a whimsical child. In Shavuot, she depicts herself on stilts, leading her siblings down a trail hedged in wheat to celebrate the summer harvest festival at her grandparents’ house.

Krinitz enjoyed no formal training; the patchwork on some of her panels echo the folk art of quilt making, but the formal elements of her visual storytelling are in harmony with much of the work classified over the past century as outsider art. Renaissance notions of perspective and scale are irrelevant. In Shavuot, the road ahead ascends vertically rather than receding into the horizon and the askew dimensions allow viewers to consider key details of the scene, including the woven gold strands of wheat and blue cornflowers. Young Esther at the top of her stilts crowns the picture in an image the eye cannot escape.

Krinitz stitched captions at the bottom of each frame. In Janiszow (Heaven and Hell), the panel’s right half is green and Edenic with flowering trees and girls leading cows to pasture; on the left, in tones of gray and brown, are slave laborers under heavy guard. The caption explains that in 1941, the artist and her sister, while pasturing cattle, stumbled across a vision of hell across the tree line in the recently established Janiszow death camp.

The panels are three-dimensional and tactile, their textured needlework accented by crocheted elements such as the eager swarm of insects in a miraculous scene, The Bees. Posing as a Polish Catholic farm girl, Krinitz was about to be unmasked by a German patrol when attacking bees drove off the soldiers.

Krinitz and her sister ran when the Nazis finally gathered together the Jews of Mniszek for the march to the camps in 1942. Stefan’s House depicts their attempt to find shelter with a Catholic neighbor. Like much ancient art, which folds a series of events into a single frame, the panel includes Stefan’s initial embrace of the girls, their attic hiding place, his fearful decision to cast them out into the rain (the drops represented by blue stitching) and their new sanctuary amid leafy forest trees. “Fabric of Survival” concludes with a happy ending: In Coming to America, the folds of Lady Liberty are outlined in colored string.

“Fabric of Survival” is a moving testament to the power of an untrained artist with something important to express. The panels were doubtlessly cathartic for Krinitz, but were also intended (and succeeded) in clearly conveying a message of memory, injustice, horror and survival.

Through May 26 at Jewish Museum Milwaukee, 1360 N. Prospect Ave. For more information, visit JewishMuseumMilwaukee.org.

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