Esther Niesenthal Krinitz created 36 panels of her story to share with her children. Each panel contains a scene of her childhood memory – from fun family times to the horror of the Holocaust and World War II.
The fabric art – created with needlework – is on display at Omaha’s Kaneko Art Gallery in the Old Market district. The display, free to the public, runs through March 15th.
Esther starts her story with a memory of her parents, brother and sister at their home in Mniszek, Poland. Esther is carrying water up the path. Her sister Mania is waiting for her. Their brother Ruven is with the horses and wagon. Their father and a younger sister were together. Their mother is also near the house, holding the youngest child.
The art piece is mesmerizing. The house is covered with different thread. The entire picture was beautiful. The family being together gives you hope they’ll stay together; yet, you know the story and it’s not going to end well.
The next panel showed more of the family, along with neighbors. Ruven and Esther are swimming in the river. Farmers are heading home from the fields. The sisters are playing with geese. Farmers are on the road walking home.
A few more panels show pre-Nazi art, including the last Jewish holiday celebrated in the village during that era.
In 1939, the Nazis arrived and took over the village. The Nazis roughed up people, including her father. Esther said they threatened to cut off his beard, as well as kill him. At this point, the borders on the art pieces were black, as if quietly saying the dark days of her life began.
In 1942, knowing that the family was going to be taken away, Esther’s mother told her to take Mania and run for their lives. The day this happened turned out to be the last time Esther and Mania would see their family.
They initially joined up with non-Jewish Polish people hiding in the forest. They eventually made their way to Grabowka and created different identities as Catholics.
Nazis would talk to them. They had to pretend they couldn’t understand the soldiers.
As the war neared its end, Russian soldiers moved into the area. They were saved from the Nazis.
Esther returned to Mniszek. Some of the villagers were shocked to see her. Very few people returned. Her family was not among the survivors.
She traveled to the nearby Nazi death camp. She noticed the large cabbage heads growing in a field near a crematorium. She later learned people’s ashes were buried in the field.
Esther and Mania were separated for a short time. Esther went to Germany with the Russians. After the war, she returned to Poland to get her sister. In 1946, they went to a camp for displaced people in the American Zone of Germany.
It was here that she met her future husband, Max Krinitz. Mania also married and remained in Europe. After they married, Max went to Belgium to work in a coal mine. About a year later, pregnant with their first child, Esther joined Max in Belgium. They eventually emigrated to the United States, after Max’s cousin agreed to sponsor them.
Esther would tell her daughters stories about her childhood. As she turned 50, she decided to put the stories to fabric. Her family encouraged her to continue after viewing the first panel. She created two panels in 1977. Then, nothing was added until 1999.
She returned to Mniszek in 1999. She reunited with friends and neighbors. Following her return from Poland, Esther became ill. She passed away in 2001.
She left a beautiful legacy of survival. The 36 panels she completed tell the story of a young girl and her family before the Nazis invaded her home village, and how she and her sister survived the Holocaust. It ended with Esther having her own family.
“Fabric of Survival” is well worth the visit to Kaneko at 11th and Jones Streets. You may be moved emotionally in feeling the artist’s happiness, fear, and then happiness again.
For more information on the exhibit and Kaneko, please visit www.thekaneko.org.