I always thought of my mother
as different from other mothers. She sounded different from other mothers.
She pronounced words differently. She had a past that other
mothers didn’t have. She loved to sew.
She loved to embroider. She loved creating
beautiful things. Our mother was very driven to tell the story. She wanted us to know. She wanted us to remember. It was a way of connecting me and
my sister with the family that she had lost: her mother, her father, her sisters, her brother,
nearly everyone that she loved in the world. At some point, she really began
to look to me to be the storyteller. I had just read “The Diary of Anne Frank,”
which came out around then. So I started writing it. But I knew even then that nobody
could really tell my mother’s story. It was her story to tell. Krinitz: I wanted to show my kids
how I grew up. and I was trying desperately,
but I never drew anything in my life. I said, “Well, I’m gonna try.” So, I bought this piece of cheap fabric. I thought I was just
going to mess around with it. And I took a ruler. I still see my house the way it was. I just drew the lines and then I start
filling it out with the crewel work. And then I made the straw roof, sort of. Now, when I finished the house,
I was really satisfied, the way it looked. That’s the way it looked. And once she found that way,
it just poured out of her. We grew up in Brooklyn
in a working class neighborhood. My father worked as a manager
for a supermarket. Until I was about 10,
my mother was at home. Very often while she was cooking,
I would be sitting at the kitchen table and she would tell me stories. She might, for example,
be making a potato kugel, and she would tell me about how
her mother used to make potato kugels, and growing the potatoes, and then
going to get the eggs from the chickens. And so she would create this whole other world for me
of her life before the war. My mother grew up in a little tiny village
in the center of Poland. Where she came from,
everything was done by animals. They had no cars, no machines,
no electricity, no running water. Voice of “Young Esther”: My childhood
home in the village of Mniszek, Poland. I am carrying water up the hill to our house. My sister Mania waits for me. My brother Ruben is standing with the wagon. My father and my sister Chana
are in front of the house, along with my mother who holds
my youngest sister, Leah. All the Jews raised their chickens. A few people had their cows for milking. And she recalls swimming in the river
and the cows grazing in the pasture… She was very happy at what she had created because she was able to show us what
her childhood home looked like. The celebration of the Jewish holidays
was central to their lives. It was how they marked the passage of time. Young Esther: Shavuot 1938.
My brother and sisters followed as I walked on stilts to our grandparents’ house. Krinitz: My brother was always the one that would
make toys, and I was the one to test them. So he built these tall stilts, and I was supposed
to walk on them and all the kids are following me. He, my brother, is following me
to see if I am going to fall down. But I made it all the way to the Zayde’s house. Young Esther: March 1939. Every year before Passover, the Jewish women of Mniszek
would gather at Mottel the shoemaker’s house to bake matzos, the aroma of the matzos filling the room. These were the last matzos we ever had in Mniszek. When I was in high school, my mother decided
to open a women’s clothing store. At first she had the store in Brooklyn,
for a number of years, Esther’s clothing store. Then in 1983, she and my father moved the business to
Frederick, Maryland to be close to her grandchildren. And then she started making things for her grandchildren. She had a very full life with her beautiful grandchildren. After this period of sweetness, when she was
about 60, she returned to these memory pictures. She continued until the time she died,
and by that point she had created 36 pictures altogether. And the first picture that she did was of a dream
that she had had during the war that left these very deep impressions on her. Krinitz: I had this dream about my mother. She dragged me, and she’s pulling me,
and I said, “Mama, where are we running?” She said, “The sky is falling!
See the black sky?” When I turned around, there was the sky,
with the stars in it, reaching the barn. She said, “If it falls on the ground, we will all die.” When she created those pictures of her dreams,
she realized that she could tell the story that way. That the whole story could be told. Krinitz: 1939 – the word came around that the Nazis,
the Germans, are already in Rachov. As we spotted them, they were coming on horses One of them jumped off the horse,
and he said, “Halt Jude!” They saw a beard, anybody with a beard was a Jew. And they started beating up my Zayde. He grabbed the beard, cut it with his bayonet. He cut his beard off. He was an elder of the village.
He was a very respected and venerated person. And he was her grandfather besides. To see him treated in that way marked
the beginning of the war for my mother. In the countryside, there simply weren’t enough Jews
to make it worthwhile to create a ghetto. And so Jews suffered in other ways, round ups for labor camps, random shootings,
mass shootings in the woods. It became a time of terror
for the entire village and for my mother. Her childhood vanished when she was 12 years old. Young Esther: My sister and I brought our cows
to the good pasture near the Vistula River. Through the trees I discovered
we were next to the Janiszow prison camp. And I didn’t know how close I was to this camp. It was so close. I saw everything that was
going on through the bushes. The guys, you know, wheeling the wheelbarrows
up the hill with the mud. And then I saw them leading these boys into the forest. And I heard shots–SHOTS! All the time I was there, I heard shots in the forest. They called it a “death camp” because it was a death camp. Nobody came alive out of that. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett: One of the paradoxes
in an image like the “Heaven and Hell” image is that no matter how horrible the Holocaust,
the flowers kept blooming, the trees kept bearing fruit,
the cows had to be milked. And there was a way in which that normalcy
in the midst of horror is something she captures. What she is saying is: “Look!
Look what happened here!” It’s so stark, the contrast.
It’s a way of really riveting your attention. Krinitz: one morning, it was the beginning
of September, there were knocks on the window. “Raus du verfluchte schweine Juden, raus!” And it was still dark out. Once my father opened the door,
they got in and they pushed us all out. We were all in shirts, you know,
in white shirts and they lined us up. I thought they are going to kill us
right by the river, lined us up. And we were all hysterical, the children. And my mother was begging. And one guy stays with the machine gun,
with a real machine gun. The day was breaking and the Poles came out. All around the Poles standing at the other side of the street
looking at us as like we were freaks. Young Esther: After the morning raid
the Gestapo were returning. We fled across the fields to the woods,
my mother directing me to separate. Krinitz: So we thought the horror was over,
and my brother came running. “They are coming again!” So my brother and father ran into the bushes. My mother took us, myself and the
two younger kids, out in the fields. And the fields, September, there was still
something blooming, a yellow strip and a blue strip. So we went through these blooming fields
and we were heading for the forest. My mother always knew that I’m responsible,
that I know how to take care of myself. And she thought, if the Nazis chase around
and look for us, we didn’t want to be all caught. She said, “You go that way.”
And they were going that way. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett:
The act of a child separating from her mother
has to be very, very dramatic…very traumatic. The question I think for Esther was how to represent it. The way in which Esther has brilliantly stitched
the meadow into the body… I would call the “immersion in the meadow.” The field itself seems to stretch out into infinity,
and stretch out into a massive hiding place. Her mother keeps giving her permission to survive. “You go that way!” Her mother has told her. And so it holds what comes later. My mother did five pictures
describing the events of October 15th 1942. It was clearly the center of her body of work
and clearly a central memory. Young Esther: This is my family
on the morning of October 15, 1942. We were ordered by the Gestapo
to leave our homes by 10 AM to join all the other Jews on the road
to Krasnik railroad station. And then to their death. If they find you after 10 o’clock on your property,
you are shot to death. I screamed all night, I cried,
I am not going to Krasnik. My father became mute.
He couldn’t talk. My mother was trying to calm us down. So I begged my mother. I said, “Mama, Tata, you have so
many friends, farmers, friends. Can’t you think of anybody that I could go to?” Mama said, “Hersch, you know somebody?” So my father said, “Stefan in Dombrowa.” I called out, “Stefan?”
That’s all I need. I am going to Stefan. So, the little one, the youngest one, Leah,
who I actually brought up, started crying, “Esther. ‘Nehm mir!’ Take me Esther, take me!” Still ringing in my ears, “Take me!” And my mother pulled her back. She said, “You are too little,
you have to be able to work on a farm.” So, Mama says, “Mania, go with Esther.” Young Esther: We left our house for good
and walked down the road. Mottel sat in the front wagon holding the Torah. My parents went to join him, while my brother
helped my little sister settle into the wagon. Suddenly, Mottel’s daughter-in-law stood up
and cried to my mother, “We will never come back. We will all perish!” Krinitz: It was horrible. We all clinged and my mother says,
“Gehts kinder! Go, maybe you will live.” She and her sister Mania
are already out of the picture. What she is recalling in the foreground are her parents
and the rest of her family getting into the wagons. When she did this picture, she was imagining
what it must have been like for her mother
to say goodbye, to let her children go because she could no longer protect them. And that was so…emotional. Young Esther:
The wagons left for Krasnik railroad station, and we never saw our family again. It was the beginning of the end, the somber march of the Rachow Jews to their death. She includes at the very center this line of
humanity on its way to the train station in Krasnik, and it could be the Jews from all over Europe. The skies, from morning to night,
they were black. I mean black on black, clouds. It was horrible, the way we were crying, the sky was filled with blackness. And the crows, they were flying like vultures all over us. There’s no way that one image can fully capture
and fully express what the nature of that experience was. And so to return to it over and over again, is to indicate
how enormous it was in her life and in her memory. I think that by stitching this, she was giving herself some
emotional space, some emotional distance, to re-live it again, but in a way in which she could confront it safely. You can tell the whole story in 5 or 10 minutes, but it could take her days, weeks, even months
to tell the story by stitching it. A stitch at a time. It’s almost a metaphor for any kind of remembering, that you pull a thread out and you put it in,
and you pull it out and you put it in. Every time she returns to it, she is saying,
I know this moment, I remember this moment,
and I remember the people. Young Esther:
My sister and I arrived in the village of Dombrowa and went to the house of Stefan,
our father’s friend. So, we found Stefan. I said, “We are Hersch’s daughters.
Please help us.” And the two of us, we threw ourselves on him,
and we broke down. I felt his hands went around both of us.
He squeezed us, and he said, ‘Shh…,” and he closed the door.
“I’ll help you.” And he put us up in the attic. Big torrential rains came Friday night. It was tearing us apart
just to think of what they’re doing there,
out in the fields by the railroad. Sunday morning, he called us down,
and when we came down,
I saw the baskets by the door. And he said, “Dear children, the whole Mniszek
knows you are here, and if the Germans will come, they’ll kill you,
they’ll burn my farm and kill my family.” Young Esther: After two days, he sent us out
into the rain, with no place to go but the forest. I said, “We cannot stay here in the woods,
we’re going to be suspected as Jewish right away.” My mother realizes that for them to survive,
they cannot be Hersch’s daughters any more. And so she comes up with a new identity for herself
and for Mania — Polish Catholic farm girls. I tell her, “Here is what we are going to do–
her name Maria, I’m Josephine.” They had to pretend that they
could not understand German because Yiddish, their native
tongue, was a German derivative. After they left Stefan’s house they went back to Mniszek,
to their home village, to see what had happened. They went to their next-door neighbor Zebina. She said, “Go to hell!
Don’t ever come back here! The Germans, the Nazis,
are looking for Jews every day!” And when she said that,
there was no other farm I would go to. It was so dark, we had to hold on
by the hand not to get lost. We headed up into the fields. We stumbled into this pile of debris. I said, “This is where we are going to dug in.” We pushed ourselves in. We shivered through
because, who could sleep? It was cold. Krinitz: We stopped blaming each other.
She didn’t blame me anymore. “We were in it. That’s it.” And they came to the village of Grabowka. She was working for this elderly man whose wife
was infirm and really needed a lot of help on his farm. He had beehives, honeybees,
and there was an empty lot. I said to him, “Can I dig up and plant vegetables,
like schav and strawberries, dill and parsley and all that?” He said, “Do whatever you want–it’s all yours.”
So, I was the boss. There’s no question that she felt protected by nature. That nature was a place that could hide her,
it’s a place that could feed her. And the beauty of it is something she never lost. Young Esther:
While I was tending the garden I had planted,
two Nazi soldiers appeared and began to talk to me. I couldn’t let them know that I understood them,
so I just shook my head as they spoke. Dziadek, the old farmer came to stand watch nearby. But the honeybees rescued me first,
swarming around the soldiers. “Why aren’t they stinging you?”,
the soldiers asked Dziadek
as they ran out of the garden. I think she was kind of tickled by the fact that
this tiny little creature could do what nobody else could do, which was to drive off the Germans. Krinitz: And sometimes I used to work
in the fields, even by the moon.
I cried. See, I was alone and I was thinking of them.
I see the abundance that we eat here and I always thought, what are they eating,
and where are they? And I even told Mania that we had to learn,
and we did train ourselves not to get emotional,
not to come tears. We told each other,
“We cry inside.” Young Esther: July 1944. At sundown,
Russian infantry marched into the village of Grabowka. The neighbors and I rushed to the fence
to look at the soldiers. Finally, freedom had come for Mania and me. I left Grabowka and returned to Mniszek.
None of my family was there. There were no Jews that had come back,
there were no survivors. But one of the neighbors thought that perhaps
the Jews might have been taken to Maidanek, a concentration camp not terribly far
from where they lived. So my mother decided to go to Maidanek. This was the first time where she saw with her own eyes
what had actually happened to the Jews during the war. Young Esther:
I went to Maidanek to search for signs of them. I looked through the piles of worn shoes
but they all looked the same. She shows horrendous detail,
things that you reallydon’t want to know: the cabbages that are in a field that’s built
on the ashes of the Jews, the crematoria, the shoes,
thousands of pairs of shoes. It became expressed in zillions of little stitches, but I think her need was,
every single bit of this has to be confronted. We can’t turn away from it. Young Esther: After seeing
the gas chambers and the crematorium, I joined the Polish and Russian armies
stationed there and soon left for Germany. She was with an army.
She wasn’t just a girl hiding with her sister. She was now part of the victors. After the war ended, my mother
went back to Poland to get Mania. The two of them made their way to
a displaced persons camp,
in the American zone in Germany. And there, my mother met my father
who was also a survivor from Poland. My aunt met her husband, likewise a survivor,
and they each got married in the camp. Everybody was looking to start a new life. My aunt and uncle emigrated to Palestine, Israel. My father had relatives in New York.
So, they decided to emigrate to the United States. They stopped in Belgium, and I was born there. Young Esther:
June 10, 1949. We arrive in New York. The sky is wide open.
There are white birds, seagulls flying in the sky. Young Esther: Max’s cousin Clara
came aboard the ship to greet us. As our daughter Bernice slept in her father’s arms, Clara said to her,
“My dear child, this will be your America.” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett:
Esther has left us an extraordinary account
of her personal experience, transformed by her exceptional artistry. It is a way for a new generation to begin to explore these terrible events. They are very different from the way in which
the Holocaust is generally taught. Genocide has not stopped, so her message
is as fresh and as important as ever. People still starve,
or people are still murdered, or children are turned into killing soldiers, and there is a stillness in the world about it. But it’s my hope that passing on witnessing
of the Holocaust helps put light on all atrocities. She wanted to record her memories of her family. She was never really interested in doing this as an artist. She was doing this simply to record.
It was documentary to her. To us … it was art.

26 thoughts on “Through the Eye of the Needle – The Art of Esther Nisenthal Krinitz”

  1. My wife and I had the privilege of seeing your mother's work on display at the St. Petersburg Holocaust Museum last January while there to meet with D.K. Lubarsky whose sculptures were on display. Diana collaborated with us on my book about Holocaust survivor Victor Breitburg. Thank you for this video. I will post it on our FB page and our website  www.tolifeink.com in the next few days.

  2. This is a beautiful movie and the needlework is spectacular. Was so glad to see it in DC a few years ago. What a work of love to share from mother to daughters and from daughters to the world. thank you.

  3. I had the honor of seeing her exhibit at the Kaneko Gallery in Omaha, Ne. Amazing is all I can think of. I am blown away not only by her story but by her magnificient work. Thank you for sharing. I hand sew I know how much work went into this. Again thank you!

  4. These exquisite images of (he)art teaching truth through her story will reside in my heart forever. Thank you.

  5. Esther's art and stories, lovingly stitched shows me your love and hope through the most trying of life's circumstances. What a gift you have shared with us.

  6. An amazing and unique historical, personal and emotional account of a courageous woman's experience of the Holocaust. It touches the heart and gives a way to see through each stitch her experience through her eyes. Thank you for sharing it.

  7. Such a transformation Esther created with stitches: from war crimes to beautiful survival. An exceptional, slow art form with heroic vision and faithful memory. She is like one of those honey bees in Poland. The flowers are all on her side.

  8. The needle can be as powerful as a pen!                                                                                                                                                     Sadly the humanity of man to love the fellow man did not change from 1939 to 2015 : All we say is "there will be great consequences "  and keep on talking and talking.
    While heads are cut off, rape and torcher. Brother were are thou?
     Humanity has cancer until we find a better way to fight cancer we must cut it out so we can survive.
    All those events makes Israel be more resolve, now more than ever. "NEVER AGAIN!"

  9. very moving, Esther Krinitz has the patience of an angel to be able to transform her tragic memories into needlework.

  10. So touching. The film said Esther didn't make these pictures to be art. Real art is like that, part of you brought to life for the future. Truly (he)art.

  11. How very poignant and beautiful and so tragic, the story we have all known but not understood in such a personal manner!

  12. Thank you for making this extremely moving documentary, and for sharing Esther's memories with us. My mother just sent me the link today, and it seemed especially timely in view of Trump's recent immigration ban.

  13. Where can I buy a copy of this video. I have the book = purchased after I saw the complete works of Esther at the local art museum several years ago. Would love to have this story video to go with it.

  14. Thank you for sharing this poignant, inspirational memories of your mother captured through her art.Your memories of her
    stories are precious and her needle work of love , suffering and transcendence is a gift to humanity.

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