They Called Me Mayer July by Mayer Kirshenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (University of California Press/ Judah L. Magnes Museum) is a remarkable and necessary book on a number of fronts. Its subtitle, “Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood Before the Holocaust,” reflects only one key aspect of the volume.
The painter is Mayer Kirshenblatt, whose visual memory of his childhood in the central Polish city of Apt is incomparable.
Kirshenblatt came to think of himself as a painter late in life, once he’d retired from his paint and wallpaper store in Toronto. But They Called Me Mayer July also includes the substantial, detailed texts that resulted from interviews Kirshenblatt gave to his daughter, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, who is an ethnographer and Jewish social historian of the first rank.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett explains in her “Daughter’s Afterword” how this collaboration developed. The interviews were first undertaken in the 1960s, as part of her broader work on Jewish storytelling among Jews in Toronto. They continued into the 1990s, when she urged her father to complement his oral record of a childhood in Apt with painted versions.
The paintings, she says, added a dimension to the memory-record that spoken words could not: “It was not until he began painting that the ‘where’ emerged in all its dimensionality. The stories now occupied space… What had been locations indexed in a kind of shorthand – the cemetery, the military latrine, the khayder, the market, the inn – were now spaces, and they were filled with objects and people and activities and information, much of which had never made it into the spoken stories.”
The cover illustration accompanying this review reflects the hallmarks of Kirshenblatt’s paintings: they are intensely focused on the built environment of Apt, on the daily activities of its inhabitants – both Jewish and not – on the objects used in work, in cooking, in music making, travel and devotional life. One aspect of the paintings that disappears in a newsprint reproduction is colour, and Kirshenblatt-Gimblett points out that our sense of prewar Poland is necessarily in black and white, since documentary materials of that time and place are drained of their actual colour. Kirshenblatt’s Apt is largely remembered in spring and summer greens; the ancient Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of the city is lushly overgrown; substantial buildings in the city’s central markets are washed in the customary pinks, ochres and burnt umbers of old Polish masonry structures. He remembers, too, the blues of his mother’s kitchen walls and the blood red mess made at the improvised shchitah yard where housewives brought their chickens to slaughter.
Since many of Kirshenblatt’s paintings portray early morning or late evening, he is a careful student of the Polish sky, its layers of ripe reds and violets at change of day, along with the full moon and stars over a Rosh Chodesh celebration outside the main Apt synagogue.
Kirshenblatt’s memories are marked by the particularity of his own childhood experience. His father left for Canada in 1928, and he and the rest of his immediate family followed in 1934, “not with sadness but with great anticipation of our new life to come.” In this way, Kirshenblatt remembers Poland through the lens of a rooted, rich childhood surrounded by a host of family and townspeople whose character and quirks he cherishes: “What I’m trying to say,” he writes in conclusion, is there “was a big world out there before the Holocaust. There was a rich cultural life in Poland as I knew it at the time.”
Ironically, to recover a point of view similar to Kirshenblatt’s, one must go to the yizkor bicher, or memory books, compiled after the war by survivors and established landsleit from hundreds of destroyed communities in eastern Europe. Though these books were made in response to the destruction of the Holocaust, the bulk of their documentary materials were aimed at recollecting what prewar Jewish life had been like. Like Kirshenblatt’s book, they included maps, an attentiveness to local characters, to the specific roles of tradespeople, merchants, market women, klezmurim and agriculturalists. One dimension that Kirshenblatt adds to this is a real appreciation of the relationships shared by Jews and non-Jews. He remarks on the antipathy between them, but says that he “did not encounter much anti-Semitism.” He describes in detail his friendship with Poles, the impact made on him by the Polish woman who worked for his family and the lengths to which his mother went when the woman died to arrange the kind of church funeral she desired.
Kirshenblatt’s terminology is insistently bilingual. The vernacular of Apt, whether to describe food, tools or locales is conveyed in Polish and Yiddish. This relationship between Polish and Yiddish culture is brought home in the painting that appears on the book’s cover, titled Purim Play: The Krakow Wedding. As part of the repertoire of Purim shpiels, The Krakow Wedding made use of traditional costumes from the Krakow region, including “shako hats, which were inspired by the hats that soldiers wore during the Napoleonic wars to make them look taller and more intimidating.” The players performed “command performances” at the homes of Apt’s foremost Jewish families. Kirshenblatt paints himself and his friends looking in at the window from outside.
They Called Me Mayer July is a rich source of social history and a masterful autobiographical document. It reflects an uncommon collaboration and the good fortune of having an ethnographer in the family.
Norman Ravvin is involved in a number of projects related to contemporary Poland and Jewish-Polish literature and history. He is chair of the Concordia University Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies.