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Spevak review: Fabric of Survival at the Memorial Art Gallery

Nov 14, 2018

Credit Esther Nisenthal Krinitz, Road to Krasnik, Embroidery and fabric collage, 1994. 28-7/16″w x 32-5/16″h

The blockbuster show at the Memorial Art Gallery now was supposed to be “Monet’s Waterloo Bridge: Vision and Process.” And it is a nice collection of pretty paintings of a bridge. Variations on expressionism. Variations on London fog.

But the exhibit that really has people talking as they leave the museum is just down the hall from Monet. “Fabric of Survival: The Art of Esther Nisenthal Krinitz,” running through Dec. 2 at the MAG. Stunning fabric tapestries created by a Polish refugee from memories of her life as a young Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis during World War II.

Starting in 1977 and throughout the 1990s, Krinitz stitched together 36 fabric panels that told the story of her life growing up in the tiny farm town of Mniszek. Then comes the war, Nazis rounding up Jews, the roads filled with refugees, Krinitz and her sister fleeing into the woods, and then finding refuge in neighbors’ homes, even as the remainder of their family was sent off to a death camp, never to be seen again.

Krinitz died in 2001, but her daughter Bernice Steinhardt has taken her mother’s artwork on the road. It’s been a hit, with the MAG parking lot overflowing onto the grass lawns last Sunday for a celebration of Jewish heritage; a day of music, displays of Jewish texts, a scavenger hunt for Jewish artists represented in the museum’s collection, and a talk by Steinhardt that drew nearly 300 people to the MAG’s auditorium. A talk that made a connection between the history in Krinitz’ panels and the contemporary crisis faced by migrants three-quarters of a century later.

The Krinitz collection is a collaboration of art and memoir. “A journey through childhood,” Steinhardt said, “a journey through war and, ultimately, a journey to freedom in the United States.”

Credit Esther Nisenthal Krinitz, Depth of the Forest, Embroidery and fabric collage, 1994. 20-1/4″w x 20-11/16″h

The panels, some of which were projected onto a screen as Steinhardt spoke, are startling in their detail. Drawing from the notebooks that Krinitz had filled with her experiences, the art at first depicts Polish farm fields, geese walking in the yard and Jewish traditions. After the German army rolls through Poland at the start of the war, the townspeople are put to work digging trenches. And the roundup of the Jews begins. In a piece called “Nightfall,” Krinitz and her sister sit in the forest, beneath the golden fall leaves of the trees: “A momentary refuge,” Steinhardt says, “because they were being hunted.” Another scene depicts Krinitz – she and her sister posed as Catholic farm girls while hiding from the Nazis – looking past the wire fence surrounding a labor camp and seeing her cousin.

The panels are beautiful, and often brutal. As the war draws to a close and the Soviet army arrives, Krinitz depicts dead German soldiers lying by the roadside and hanging from trees. And a field of giant cabbages, growing in ground nourished by human ashes. 

When Krinitz had completed her final panel, she told her daughter that she wanted to travel to Mniszek. To see if she had remembered it all correctly. Steinhardt warned her mother that she would be disappointed. “In my lifetime, nothing remained the same over a 50-year period.”

Yet, when they got to Poland, “I was startled by how much it resembled my mother’s pictures,” Steinhardt says. “For me, it was like stepping into my mother’s pictures.”

But not so for Krinitz. True, she found a woman who was one of the four girls depicted looking out a window in one of her pieces. “When she realized who my mother was, she just burst into tears,” Steinhardt said. Mniszek still had cows and chickens. But the home Krinitz had lived in had fallen down, and now the house that replaced it was decaying as well. The town was in decline, the river she depicted in her panels seemed little more than a swampy, overgrown pond. The town, even more sparsely populated than when Krinitz had lived there, had not recovered from the Gestapo’s roundup of the Jews.

“My mother was sad and depressed to see what had become of Mniszek,” Steinhardt said. Before they’d made the trip to Poland, she had told her mother that, “Maybe Mniszek is no longer there.” And now, Krinitz admitted to her daughter, “You were right.”

Bernice Steinhardt, Esther Nisenthal Krinitz's daughter
Credit Meg Colombo / Memorial Art Gallery

Krinitz died a year-and-a-half later. And Steinhardt went to work, assembling the 36 panels that told her mother’s story as a touring exhibit. In 2016, she and her husband accompanied it to Poland, where it was shown in some of the small towns in the region where Krinitz had lived. Steinhardt and her mother had visited the site of the Belzec death camp, where presumably Krinitz’ family had been murdered. At that time there was little left of the camp, the site was overgrown. “Walking through there, it was peaceful, idyllic,” Steinhardt said. But on their trip in 2016, Steinhardt and her husband saw that Belzec had been converted into a memorial. A field of stones, covering the killing field where a half-million Jews died.

A memorial. But that is not the end of the world’s refugee crisis. Steinhardt recalled a line from William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

On the screen, she pointed to a New York Times photo from 2016, while she was in Poland. A photo of Syrian refugees fleeing their homeland. It was a familiar image, Steinhardt said, comparing it to one of her mother’s tapestries, one depicting a road filled with a line of people leaving their homes, walking toward an uncertain future. “One fleeing to freedom,” she said. “The other walking to their deaths.”

Then another image, a black-and-white newspaper photo showing a long line of people – men, women, children, the elderly – fleeing oppression in the Central American countries of Honduras and Guatemala. It is the caravan we heard so much about during the midterm elections, now making its way through southern Mexico.

“My family was welcomed to the United States with open arms,” Steinhardt said. “These people, who are desperate, are not expecting a welcome at all.”

Jeff Spevak, a cultural arts contributor to WXXI, is a Rochester-based writer. His web site is jeffspevak.com.