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'Fabric of Survival' Weaves a Story of Horror and Hope

The current refugee crisis is by no means the first the world has confronted.  Over the years, waves of refugees have come from places as varied as Bosnia, Somalia, Vietnam and, 70 years ago, World War II caused mass displacement in Eastern Europe.

Esther Nisenthal Krinitz was one of those refugees.  She escaped Poland as a teenager during the Nazi occupation, and eventually settled in the United States. It was years after she came to the U.S. that she took the story of her childhood and turned it into unique artwork made from fabric.

"I had always seen her sewing and making things for the house and clothes for me and my sister as we were growing up," recalls Krinitz's daughter and co-founder of the organization Art and Remembrance, Bernice Steinhardt. "But it wasn't until later in her life and later in mine that we knew that she had this tremendous artistry within her."

Esther died in 2001, but the artwork she created is now part of the exhibit, Fabric of Survival: The Art of Esther Nisenthal Krinitz, which is on view at Jewish Museum Milwaukee through late May. Esther made a total of 36 images that tell the story of her childhood before the war, her survival during the war and her arrival in the United States after the war. Esther created her first piece ("My Childhood Home," pictured above) at 50 years-old, and the rest were created in her 60s.

"Coming To America" Embroidery and fabric collage, 1996. 23 3/4" x 23 5/8" From the picture: "Coming to America, June 10, 1949. We arrived in New York. Max's cousin Clara came aboard the ship to greet us. As our daughter Brasia slept in her father's arms, Clara said to her, 'My dear child, this will be your America!'"
Credit Esther Nisenthal Krinitz / Fabric of Survival

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"When (my mother) was telling her stories to my sister and me and others as we were growing up, it was I think because she really wanted to keep her memories of her family alive. It was the only way she could keep them as a presence in her life," says Steinhardt. "I think when she realized that she could visualize what was in her mind and then she could do it in a way that was faithful to her mind's eye, then I think she just kept going."

Although Krinitz had training as a dressmaker and with fabrics, she did not have any formal training as an artist and didn't consider herself to be one, according to Jewish Museum Milwaukee curator Molly Dubin. However, it's this perspective that caught her attention. "I was very taken with this outsider kind of look and genre about it," says Dubin.

The scenes depict a range of emotional memories from happily swimming in a river near a childhood home and making matzos, to being struck by a Nazi soldier and viewing a village's death march. Each piece weaves historical horror with details of Poland's natural landscape to preserve Esther's experiences.

"Even as they tell the story of this terrible terror and brutality that my mother was witness to, still the flowers are blooming, the grass is growing, the trees are filled with fruit," says Steinhardt.
"It's very full of life juxtaposed with death...I think my mother never lost sight of the beauty of the world, and perhaps that in itself was what allowed her to stay alive and keep hoping for her life."

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.