In 1977, at the age of 50, my grandmother, Esther Nisenthal Krinitz, decided she wanted her family to see what her childhood home in Poland looked like. A survivor of the Holocaust, my grandmother had lost almost everyone she loved in the world; out of her family, only she and her sister had survived. And when my grandmother arrived in the United States as a refugee in 1949, she brought with her little more than a few pocket photos and her memories.
My grandmother was a gifted seamstress. When she decided to take up the project of depicting the world she had lost, she chose the tools she knew best: needle and thread. Beginning with an image of her home, and later, a dream from the war, my grandmother began a process of bringing to life — stitch by stitch — the family that she had lost and the story of her survival. Before she passed away in 2001, my grandmother created a series of 36 embroidered fabric panels that narrate and depict life before the war and her harrowing experiences of living through the Holocaust.
The exhibit of her work, Fabric of Survival, has traveled the country and has been seen by tens of thousands of people. I doubt my grandmother could have ever envisioned such an audience. After all, she created the panels for us, her family, as a way of helping us to learn about the family we never knew. But for us, her powerful artwork was about something far greater.
I grew up with my grandmother’s stories. As we sat together around the kitchen table late at night, she would recall memories from her childhood. These were happy memories — bread baking in ovens, practical jokes played with her siblings, and life in a quiet Polish village. Then came the war, the occupation, the midnight raids, and the inconceivably heartbreaking goodbye to her family as they left for the nearby train station to be taken to their deaths. My grandmother, 15 at the time, spent the war in hiding with her younger sister, posing as Polish Catholic girls who had been displaced from their land.
Again and again, my grandmother would recount these events and I would sit mesmerized by these stories of courage, learning about the clever things she and her sister did to hide, the villains who chased them and the amazing twists of fate and acts of kindness that ultimately saved them.
My grandmother could not help but tell these stories. She had lost so much and she not only wanted us to hear about her world and her family, she wanted us to know them. Maybe that is why she realized that to tell the story was not the same as to bring it to life through her art.
To spend time with my grandmother’s artwork is to not only hear a story but to become a part of it. For us, her family, that experience was something that we too couldn’t help but share. In 2003, my family founded a nonprofit, Art and Remembrance, so that we could share her art and story with the world. Fabric of Survival has toured museums around the country. We’ve also produced an award-winning book, Memories of Survival and a documentary film, Through the Eye of the Needle. We’ve also created educational materials and shared the art and stories of others whose work helps us understand their experience of war and injustice.
Some months ago, I had the opportunity to share my grandmother’s story at a United to End Genocide conference. I also had the opportunity to hear the stories of survivors of more recent genocides and to see the works of artists who are illuminating the tragedy and experience of modern day genocide through their art. It was deeply moving. To hear a statistic is one thing but to understand a story is another. In so many ways, the cold distance of numbers, facts and distant suffering push us further away. But story and art do something quite different. They welcome us. They invite us to understand, to slip into the world of the “other,” and to see it from their eyes. To make their eyes our own.
If genocide is in any way connected with the slippery slope of fear and “othering” —disassociating our own needs and experiences from those of others — then art and story may be one of the most powerful tools we have. Art and story help us not only to be more aware of the tragedy of genocide but to begin to understand each other in a way that may actually help to prevent it.
For my family, my grandmother’s story and art is an immeasurable blessing, helping us to remember our loved ones and all that was lost. Beyond our family, her work, and that of so many others, helps us to understand what is lost in any genocide, in any war. But most importantly, it reveals to us the power of art and story to alter the way we think and feel about others in the world. It offers us the potential not only to understand and to remember, but to change.
Rachel Steinhardt is a founding member of Art and Remembrance and is the granddaughter of Esther Nisenthal Krinitz. Rachel is the Director of Strategic Partnerships and Communications with Welcoming America, a national nonprofit that works to build more welcoming communities for all who live in there, including immigrants.