Lovingly painted childhood memories reveal life in prewar Jewish town
A once-thriving Jewish community shattered by the Holocaust, yet miraculously resurrected decades later by a self-taught artist, is the subject of a new book and exhibition at Warsaw’s POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Before the Holocaust, Jewish life in Opatów flourished and, growing up in the town, a young Mayer Kirshenbalt would often skip school to observe the hustle and bustle of everyday life which fascinated him.
Decades later in retirement, he made it his mission to remember the vivid world of his childhood in extraordinary detail, “lest future generations know more about how Jews died than how they lived.”
What he created in hundreds of paintings was an astonishing act of memory and love for his former home.
His works offer glimpses into the daily lives of Opatów's inhabitants, from the brushmakers, blacksmith, harness maker, wigmaker, and women who plucked geese to the joyous celebrations of Jewish holidays.
Kirshenblatt's canvases breathe life into the town's streets, portraying a man carrying water, a porter, a bagel seller, a milk maid, a stonemason meticulously crafting a matzeva, a shoemaker, a tailor, and a cooper.
The upcoming book, set to be published in Poland in October (originally published in English in 2007 under the title They Called Me Mayer July), masterfully pairs Kirshenblatt's evocative paintings with descriptions drawn from interviews spanning over 40 years between Mayer and his daughter, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. Together, these elements transport readers into a world that has long ceased to exist.
Speaking about her father's unique artistic legacy, Professor Kirshenblatt-Gimblett told TFN: “As a Jewish memory artist, nothing else like it exists. It is unique,” adding “It’s warts and all, but he does not idealise or vilify.”
Mayer Kirshenblatt was born in Opatów, in south-central Poland, which Yiddish-speaking Jews called Apt, in 1916. His father, Avner, left for Canada in 1928 for economic reasons, but Mayer stayed in Poland with his mother, Rivka, and his three brothers.
His father sold leather to the shoemakers, and Mayer apprenticed with a shoemaker, harbouring dreams of eventually working in a shoe factory in Toronto.
“He lived in a time before helicopter parents so he would wander and explore every nook and cranny. The town was his playground,” Professor Kirshenblatt-Gimblett recounted.
His inquisitive wanderings gained him the nickname Crazy Mayer among the townsfolk.
“I would spend hours observing the blacksmith and the tinsmith, the ropemaker and the cooper, the mills and the carp ponds, and the town square on market day, when all the peasants came to town,” he said in an interview conducted by his daughter.
Mayer finally left for Canada in 1934 with his family, thereby escaping the Holocaust, which saw the town’s Jewish population perish.
This meant that when he recalled Opatów, it was not through the direct experience of the Holocaust, although his parents’ families perished.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, professor emerita in Performance Studies at New York University, says it is very rare to have such an account.
Upon retiring from running his paint and wallpaper store in Toronto, Mayer was encouraged by his family to channel his memories onto canvas, presenting him with art supplies each year on his birthday.
Eventually at the age of 73, he picked up a brush, and the memories poured out onto his canvases.
Over the last twenty years of his life, Mayer produced almost 300 paintings, each narrating a distinctive story.
In one painting, Mayer himself fills the frame as he holds a herring.
Describing the scene, he reminisced: “You can see me coming home with a herring. Mother sent me to my grandmother’s store to buy a herring.
“They did not wrap herring in paper, because paper was in short supply, and even newspaper was precious. […] Brine would drip from the head and tail of the herring. On the way home, I would lick the drops of brine.”
When Mayer lived in Opatów, Jews made up about 60 percent of population and the town was an important centre of Polish Hasidism.
With the outbreak of World War II, some of Opatów's Jews fled to areas in eastern Poland occupied by the Soviets.
In 1940, the Germans established a ghetto, and on October 20–22, 1942, approximately 6,500 Jews were sent to the German extermination camp Treblinka and murdered.
Today, little is left in Opatów of that world from before the war. On Leszka Czarnego Street, there is a former mikveh building, now owned by the local milk cooperative, while on Szeroka Street there is a former Jewish school building, not far from where there used to be a synagogue.
Professor Kirshenblatt-Gimblett believes that the book and exhibition will serve as a cherished gift of memories to the people of Opatów.
She fondly recalls a visit to the town with her father when "the town embraced him, he received such a beautiful welcome."
Mayer’s family is gifting his paintings to POLIN Museum. These invaluable works of art will take centre stage in the exhibition “(post)JEWISH… Shtetl Opatów Through the Eyes of Mayer Kirshenblatt,” slated to open in May next year.
The set for the innovative exhibition will be constructed using lumber salvaged from former Jewish wooden homes from the town, aiming to transport visitors to the Opatów of Mayer's youth, a world resurrected through his artistry and memory.