In our printed publication of God’s Friends for Eastertide we have presented the astonishing tapestries of Esther Nisenthal Krinitz, a survivor of the Holocaust in Poland. Editor Dave Hurlbert has interviewed Esther’s two daughters, Bernice Steinhardt and Helene McQuade, to learn more about their mother’s art.
Were your mother and her family observant Jews?
Bernice: My father would say that in Europe then, Jews were all Orthodox and observant. My mother’s father said his morning prayers every day, wrapping his arm with tefillin—a phylactery—and wearing his prayer shawl. Like her mother, my mother would prepare a Sabbath dinner every Friday and light the candles. In my mother’s village, they didn’t have a synagogue; instead they would have their services at the home of one of the village elders. A rabbi would come to their house to teach the children how to read Hebrew and say their prayers; that was common in those little Jewish villages.
A number of the pictures that my mother did about her life before the war are memories of Jewish holidays in her village. In one of them, she pictures her grandfather and another Jewish elder holding services on Yom Kippur.
For most of my own childhood, we were observant. My mother kept kosher, and we were very observant of the holidays and rituals.
Did your mother tell you and your sister about her survival in Europe during the Holocaust? Was it something she openly discussed?
Bernice: My sister and I can’t remember a time when we didn’t hear stories about my mother’s life. She talked about everything, and she was a great storyteller. She would fix us lunch or dinner, and tell us stories, all the stories that are in the tapestries. She always told us the stories about leaving her family, and going off with her sister and hiding. They were incredible adventure stories for us, and my mother was the heroine. We knew that in the end she saved herself and she saved her sister, and there was a happy ending for them both.
When I was very little, she started writing out her story in notebooks, about what happened to her and her family. When I got a little older, she asked me to help write her stories, because I could read and write well in English. When I was 10, I read the Diary of Anne Frank and was so affected by it that I thought I could help my mother write her story. But it didn’t work--it wasn’t her voice. It was her voice that was so powerful.
So she went back to writing for herself, as best she could. But she continued to tell her stories. Years later, I realize that her storytelling came not only from an urge to record what happened, but also from a strong need to understand what it meant.
Helene: When we got older, we realized what a gift it was that our mother would talk so openly, when we understood that there were many survivors who would not or could not talk about their experiences, even to their families.
Your mother began creating her tapestries in 1977, 30 years after the Holocaust. What do you think prompted her to begin this project after all those years?
Bernice: She always told her stories--her pictures were just another way to tell them. But when she created her first pictures, it was because she wanted my sister and me to know what her own childhood looked like.
And your mother chose to show you the home and her village through tapestries. Why was that?
Bernice: My mother always loved sewing, and she always had a great talent for it. She learned the basics in school, but when she was nine, she was apprenticed to the dressmaker in the village. She would have been a dressmaker had the war not come. When we were little, she was always knitting or crocheting or sewing, and she used to make our clothes. And when I was in high school, she took this a step further and opened a women’s clothing store.
In her first picture, she wanted us to see her house and her family, her brothers and sisters and parents, the horse and their animals. She was confident in her sewing, but she was not confident in her artistic abilities. When she had the idea for the first picture, she asked my sister, who was an art student, to draw it for her. My sister said, “Mom, I don’t know what your house looked like! You have to draw it for yourself!” So my mother got a piece of linen and sketched out her house and the house next door. She started stitching, and just filled it in: her family, the house next door, the thatching on the roof of the house—it all emerged from her needle. When she was finished, she really loved it. It was just what she had had in her mind’s eye. She showed it to a friend of hers who came from her village, and he said, “Yes, that’s Esther’s house!”
She was delighted that it turned out so well. Then she made a second picture, a companion to the first, showing the river down below their house. In this picture, the cows are grazing on the riverbanks, and she and her brother are swimming in the river. It’s incredibly sweet and charming and pastoral. She gave this to my sister.
Then my daughter and son were born, and all of her creative talent went to making things for my kids. She made all these dolls and stuffed animals, wall hangings, and clothes. Her work was very much focused towards her grandchildren, and not on her own memories.
About 10 years later, though, in the late 1980s, she had this idea rolling around in her head about a dream she had had during the war: in this village where she and her sister took refuge, posing as Polish Catholic farm girls. In the dream, she and her mother were running, her mother pulling her along, and when she asked why they were running, her mother said, “Because the sky is falling, and when it reaches the ground, we will die.” And when my mother looked back, she saw pieces of black sky falling. This dream scene—of her and her mother running as the sky was falling—was the first picture that my mother did those years later. She followed this with a picture of another dream she had had during the war, in which she went to see her grandfather to beg for his help.
After the second dream picture, she turned to a memory. In this picture, she and her sister stand by the side of the road, watching the Jews of Rachow, the town near her village, as they travel on the road to the train station where the Germans had ordered them all to report. This was the day that she and her sister said good-bye to the rest of their family; my mother determined to save herself somehow. She added a caption that she stitched at the bottom: “On Friday, October 15, 1942, it was the beginning of the end, the somber march of the Rachow Jews to their deaths. "
That opened the floodgates for her. After that picture, she just kept going. In a series of pictures, she started telling the story of what happened to her, how she left her family, and how she survived the war, stitching a narrative at the bottom of each one. When you look at the pictures in the order in which she created them, a period of 10 years or so, you can see how complex and sophisticated her work became. She was evolving so much as an artist over this period.
She went on to create a total of 36 tapestries, some of which we’re featuring in this issue of God’s Friends. Did she plan all 36 in advance, as a narrative of her Holocaust experience and survival? Or were they created one-by-one?
Bernice: My mother had no master plan for creating these pictures. She was sorting through her memories of her experiences, a process of self-discovery, a very personal journey into her past. And the pictures that emerged came in the order in which she felt them. Some are dreams, some were very difficult scenes, some were extremely hard for her to do. Some were lovely memories of the more innocent times, before the war.
Was her plan to make the tapestries more personal, her way of trying to make sense over what happened to her, or was she conscious at the time of a wider purpose: educating the world through her story?
Bernice: Consciously, my mother always said that she created her pictures for her children, so that we could see what her life had been like. Her pictures were my mother’s legacy, her way to leave to her children and her grandchildren the memories of her life and loss. But at another level, she was doing it for herself, to try to understand, from the vantage point of a woman in her sixties, what had happened to her and what she had done to survive as a child.
The feelings she describes are not anger. They’re not hard feelings; they’re complicated feelings. You don’t get a sense of hatred of the Nazis. You get a sense of her fear of loss and her love for her family, and what leaving them had meant. In fact, the strongest feelings in all the pictures are of love, the love that she had for the people she lost. And that’s what impelled her to create those works of art. It was to remember the people she lost and to hold on to her love for them.
Her work is very powerful and engaging. Part of its power is in its beauty, the vivid colors and details of nature. That beauty draws you into her pictures, and it’s only after you’re drawn in that you realize what the subject is.
Helene: Our mother’s pictures memorialized her family and friends who did not survive. Initially, this was her way of keeping them alive for her children and grandchildren. Later, she recognized that her pictures and story could be shared with the world, and she dreamed of seeing them in a book.
Judging by the photos of the tapestries, it seems to me that your mother used a wide variety of materials and fabrics in her work. What kinds of things did she use, besides regular cloth and thread?
Her first pictures were crewelwork, totally stitched. In her later pictures, she began using fabric appliqué and embroidery; later, she even started using fabric paint. Since my mother had chronic bursitis, these other techniques allowed her to do more complicated pictures in less time, and with less physical effort. You can tell when she was feeling better because she would cover her pictures in embroidery. But she never stopped working, even when it caused her pain--she was intensely motivated. In the video interview with my mother, you can see bandages on her wrists—she had just had surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome.
How long did each of the tapestries take to produce?
Bernice: She did more than 30 of these in less than a 10-year period, and they’re each substantial. And she did these while she was running a business, her women’s clothing store in Maryland.
How did the Esther Project begin? Or “Art and Remembrance?” And how did it become the impressive, international art and education program it is today?
Bernice: In the mid-1990s, I realized I had most of the pictures my mother produced in my house, and I was running out of walls. It became clear this was becoming an amazing body of work, and it needed an audience of more than the people who came to my house. I started talking to people, and trying to figure out what we could do to bring my mother’s work to a wider audience.
A number of interesting things happened along the way. My mother’s work came to the attention of Lawrence Kasdan, the filmmaker who did The Big Chill and Body Heat. He loved the art and the story, and wanted to do a feature film based on it. At the time, he had a production deal with Disney Films. The Kasdans and their crew spent three days at my house interviewing my mother and her sister on videotape, which they used as the basis for a screenplay. But Disney decided to pass on the project, so the film was never made.
Eventually, I brought my mother’s work to the attention of the Polish Embassy in Washington. The ambassador and others were very moved by it and agreed to host a reception and exhibit at the embassy. But my mother passed away shortly before the event, in March 2001, so it became a kind of memorial to her. After that, the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore included nine of my mother’s pictures in an exhibit called “The Art of War and Peace.” Amazingly, the exhibit, which had long been planned, opened right after September 11, 2001. The reaction to my mother’s work there was incredible, and the museum asked to exhibit all 36 pictures. The pictures are currently on exhibit at the Visionary Art Museum, where they’ll be until the end of this year. We’re hoping the pictures will then go to the Jewish Heritage Museum in New York City. I’m hoping that when I come to San Francisco, I can get interest to exhibit them there, too.
We’re also very excited about a book of my mother’s work that will be published this fall by Hyperion Books for Children, called “Memories of Survival.” It will be an exceptionally beautiful book—designed as an art book for the whole family, including children.
To help us bring our mother’s work to a wider audience, Helene and I founded Art and Remembrance, a nonprofit tax-exempt educational organization dedicated to using art and story to promote social justice and peace. Through the Esther Project of Art and Remembrance, we want to create a traveling exhibit of my mother’s work. In conjunction with the exhibit, we also want to develop educational materials through which young people can explore a number of important themes that are raised by my mother’s work. These are issues related to the Holocaust, prejudice and violence, as well as to personal identity and character in the face of fear and loss.
Thus far, Art and Remembrance has been completely a labor of love. All of us involved in the organization are part-time and volunteers: me, my sister, my daughter Rachel, my son Simon, my husband Bruce Steinhardt, one of my oldest friends who now lives in San Francisco, Benita Kline, as well as other dear friends: Lisa Hill, Nina Shapiro-Perl, and Ronni Denes. We’ve also benefited from the help of Anita Semjen, director of the Cultural Exchange Foundation in Washington, DC, and another great supporter.
How has it been for you and your sister, being daughters of such an extraordinarily courageous and artistic woman? How have her experiences and her work affected your lives?
Bernice: Both my sister and I feel blessed to have had a mother who was so incredibly loving. No one gets to pick their parents, so we were extraordinarily fortunate to have a mother who was so gifted in her loving. But in addition, both of us became the people we are because of her experiences, and what she taught us about them. We were always sensitive to those for whom life was difficult. We were taught to speak out when things were wrong, or when people were doing wrong. For myself, I’ve worked in and around public service for my whole life. I’ve always felt that it was important to serve society, and to make sure that people who were less fortunate could get the same opportunities.
I think my mother’s example influenced me in my own personality and behavior. She was very brave. Her whole experience of survival was led her to believe there was something you could do, even when it seemed impossible, to affect your fate. That sense of optimism has been very powerful for me.
Helene: Not only was our mother very loving and devoted, she was also extremely selfless, often sacrificing her own needs and putting ours first. Her experiences gave us a perspective, even as very young people, that made us aware of how fortunate and privileged we are. From her, we learned the importance of giving of ourselves.
Esther took enormous pride in everything she did, and in us and our accomplishments. It’s natural for us to be so proud of her.