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  • They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust
  • Katherine R. Jolluck (bio)
Mayer Kirshenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust. Berkeley: U of California P, 2007. 411 pp. ISBN 978-0-52024-961-5, $39.95.

This is a truly remarkable book—as are the story of its making and the world that inspired it. Through descriptions, anecdotes, sketches, and paintings, Mayer Kirshenblatt recreates the daily life and culture of a small Jewish city in Poland before the Holocaust. It is a world remarkable in part because of its complete destruction by the Nazis, but also because of the richness of its characters and customs. “What I’m trying to say,” Kirshenblatt explains, “is ‘Hey! There was a big world out there before the Holocaust. There was a rich cultural life in Poland as I knew it’” (353). He fulfills his mission with insight, affection, and vibrancy.

Mayer Kirshenblatt, nicknamed Mayer July or Crazy Mayer, from the notion that the July heat caused craziness, was born in Apt, the Yiddish name for Opatów. Located in south-central Poland, near the city of Kielce, Apt had a [End Page 756] mixed population of Jews and Christians, but the majority was Jewish. Kirshenblatt lived there from his birth in 1916 until his emigration to Canada in 1934. The young Kirshenblatt was partially assimilated and considered himself a Polish Jew; he attended Polish public school, spoke Polish well, knew the national literature, and regarded himself as a patriot. His family was of the middle class, perhaps living above the average level, until his father’s leather shop failed in 1928. This impelled the elder Kirshenblatt to emigrate, alone, to Canada. Though Kirshenblatt does not recount any anti-Semitic incidents, the economic climate in interwar Poland, which increasingly hampered Jewish livelihoods, led him, at age sixteen, to conclude that Poland held no future for him. As soon as he could, he joined his father in Canada.

There, in Toronto, he ran a paint and wallpaper store for several decades. The book would never have come about without the efforts and encouragement of his wife and, especially, his daughter. The latter, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, is a folklorist, now teaching at New York University. She began interviewing her father in 1967, and over the next forty years, she drew out her father’s childhood memories of Apt. At the urging of his family, Kirshenblatt began to paint his memories in 1990, at the age of 73. The result: more than 200 paintings illustrating every aspect that he could recall, from his mother’s kitchen to the market, from the local chimney sweep to the town’s kleptomaniac, from a Purim celebration to a Christian funeral. The scenes come from his memory, or, in a few cases—such as the execution of his father’s family by the Nazis in 1942—his imagination. In the style of naive or folk art, this self-taught painter revives the lost world of Apt, bringing his childhood memories to vibrant life.

Father and daughter have combined Kirshenblatt’s tales and paintings in this beautifully produced volume. It is not a conventional autobiography. Though present in many of the stories and even paintings (as a small boy dressed in blue), Kirshenblatt does not make himself the center of the book. Instead, he focuses on the city of Apt and the life within it. While we get to know the young Kirshenblatt well, we also come to know the town leaders and tradesmen, the local characters and eccentrics. We learn also about their daily routines: how they bathed, what they ate, what work they performed, and where they spent their free time. This book is a veritable encyclopedia of life in a small, mostly Jewish, city in prewar Poland. A keen observer, Kirshenblatt has tremendous curiosity and power of recall. He elucidates, with precise illustrations, how to make such things as a tin whistle, a brush, a willow shofar, and shoes—practically lost handicrafts. He tells us how to bind a book, and shows us how a...