‘Fabric of Survival’ exhibit primitive, extraordinary
In 1942, when the Jews in her tiny Polish village were ordered to report to the train station or face death, Esther Nisenthal Krinitz, 15, refused to go along.
Seeing that her oldest daughter wouldn’t budge, Krinitz’s mother insisted a younger sister, Mania, accompany her so Krinitz wouldn’t be alone. Mania didn’t want to.
She’s lucky she did. The two survived, their family did not.
The girls’ story, still harrowing even if they never landed in a concentration camp, is told in 36 large embroidered panels in a remarkable exhibition opening Sunday at West Bloomfield’s Janice Charach Gallery, “The Fabric of Survival.”
The first thing that strikes you about these beautifully embroidered panels, some of which are quite large, is how primitive and child-like they look.
Starting in 1977 when she was 50, Krinitz drew on her old dress-making skills to stitch autobiographic folk-art tapestries that are surprisingly rich and powerful as a way of telling her wartime story.
The work has impressed some highly placed experts.
“These extraordinary pictures are very moving, but not in the least sentimental,” wrote Tom L. Freudenheim, former director of the Berlin Jewish Museum. “The compositional concepts are very sophisticated. I was overwhelmed by what I saw.”
Krinitz, who landed in Brooklyn after the war, isn’t the first artist to use childish imagery as a way of telling a Holocaust story. In a completely different vein, Art Spiegelman did something similar with his graphic novel “Maus,” in which the story of his parents’ ordeal in Auschwitz is told in cartoons.
The fabric panels on display start, appropriately, with Krinitz’s happy childhood — in one of the first, the spunky little girl is on stilts, leading her siblings down the road to their grandparents’ house for Sabbath dinner.
Some of the stories the panels tell are almost funny, like the time Krinitz posed as a Catholic girl and got the Germans’ dentist to pull an aching tooth. (He sent her home with chocolates.)
Others are far more disturbing, like “Ordered to Leave Our Homes,” though the panels’ simple format is remarkably neutral emotionally — a useful contrast to the horror it narrates.
Still, in “Janiszew Prison Camp,” where Mania and Krinitz tend cattle next to a slave-labor camp, one young Jewish boy within their sight is being led off to the woods where we’re told he will be shot.
Be sure to use the excellent audio tour to the show that plays through your mobile phone.
The work has been preserved by Krinitz’s daughters, who’ve created a nonprofit, Art and Remembrance, to showcase the panels, as well as other art dealing with intolerance and injustice.
Can’t make the Charach show? Visit artandremembrance.org, and you can see the entire fabric series.
Still, if this all sounds like a downer, be assured it’s not.
“It’s the story of this amazing little girl who went through all this horror and survived,” said gallery director Kelly Kaatz.
“It’s really kind of uplifting.”
‘The Fabric of Survival’
Janice Charach Gallery
Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit
6600 W. Maple, West Bloomfield
Noon-4 p.m. Sunday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Wednesday; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursday.
‘Through the Eye of the Needle: The Art of Esther Nisenthal Krinitz’
A short documentary
Berman Theater, Janice Charach Gallery