Arts Listings

The Shtetl Before the Holocaust

By Peter Selz, Special to the Planet
Tuesday October 30, 2007

We know so much about the deportation and death of Polish Jews in the Holocaust, but so little about life in the shtetl before the genocide. The exhibition of his paintings, currently on view at the Magnes Museum displays 65 pictures by an artist who has documented the joys and sorrows of daily life in the shtetl.  

Mayer Kirschenblatt has drawn on an amazing memory to tell the story. Mayer left the small town of Opatow (pronounced Apt in Yiddish) in 1934, when he was 17 and emigrated to Canada in search of a better life. In Toronto he became a house painter and eventually opened a small paint and wallpaper business.  

At age 59 he fell ill, retired and began telling his stories to his daughter, Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblet, an anthropologist and professor of Jewish Studies at NYU. She had seen some still-lifes her father had painted on a vacation in Florida, detected some talent and encouraged him to paint. On his 50th wedding anniversary in 1990 he began to paint a historic narrative, documenting all aspects of life in his hometown as he remembered it.  

Four hundred paintings and the story of the place has been published as They Call Me Mayer July by the University of California Press and serves as the catalogue of the show of 65 paintings at the Magnes. 

We see births and deaths, weddings and bar mitzvahs, holiday celebrations and burials, children playing and going to school, men praying in their prayer shawls. We see the butcher, the chimney sweep, the blacksmith, the water carrier, the bagel seller, musicians and the fellow called “The Human Fly,” who liked to climb the wall of buildings. We wonder how he was able to remember it all and how he was able to paint so convincingly.  

His style, related to folk art, used to be called “primitive” by art historians and critics. It is simply work by a self-taught painter, now often referred to as “outsider art.”  

When Mayer came to the opening of his show in Berkeley, I had occasion to ask him about his sources. He spoke with admiration of Chagall, and, indeed, there is a resemblance to pictures Chagall produced during his return to Russia in World War I. Chagall, however, was trained as a painter in St. Petersburg, absorbed the lessons of Cubism in Paris, and purposely worked in a more naive style back in Russia.  

Mayer certainly lacks the sense of color and composition we find in an artist like Chagall. Mayer also knew the photographs of the ghettoes by the Russian photographer Roman Vishniac, and he was also familiar with the renowned Yiddish writers Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Loeb Peretz, who wrote with such humor and understanding about life and culture in the Jewish shtetl, where the Jews often outnumbered the gentiles, who always saw them as “The Other” while the Jews looked at the Poles as the outsiders. 

As one would expect, not all the paintings are of equal interest or aesthetic quality. Some, in fact, are rather awkward, which is part of their appeal. I was particularly delighted with “Purim Play: The Krakow Wedding” (circa 1994). Purim celebrates the delivery of the Jews from Persian massacre. It is a holiday which often includes theatricals about Mordecai and Esther. In Mayer’s paintings we see itinerant actors with Napoleonic hats and a small band of musicians at work. And there are the kids—including Mayer himself looking into the window of the more prosperous folks who could afford to hire the actors and music players. “Exit Hamburg, 1934” (1997) shows a large picture of Hitler and a Nazi woman examining the papers of a traveler at the Humburg (sic) American Ship Lines. This is how the artist remembered his exit from Europe. This was 1934 and he remembers that “we did not personally experience anti-Semitism.” They left before it was too late. 

Forty-seven members of his family who had remained in Poland were killed by the Nazis.  

Mayer, his mother and his siblings went on their “cold and stormy crossing,” and they must have been among all the people sitting in straight chairs on the bow of the ocean liner in “Ice Fields: Arriving in Canadian Waters.” We see members of the crew, pushing chunks of ice off the prow. The Mayers took the train from Halifax to Toronto, where many years later Mayer related the reveries of his childhood world in word and picture. 



Mayer Kirschenblatt’s Purim Play: The Kraków Wedding (circa 1994, acrylic on canvas).  




Through Jan. 13 at the Judah L. Magnes Museum, 2911 Russell St., Berkeley. 549-6950.