Tuesday, December 18, 2007

They Called Me Mayer July by Mayer Kirshenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett

I have been searching for a book like this for years, and have always come up empty handed. What was life like for Jews in the small villages and towns of Eastern Europe, before World War II eradicated all traces of it? I have always wanted to know this, but it’s harder to find out than you might imagine. The Holocaust wiped out not only a people and their way of life, but also most of the records of that life. And I think the people who survived were so transformed by their experiences that they are unable to look back through any lens other than one of grief and horror, or in some cases, guilt.

But now we hear from Mayer Kirshenblatt, who left Poland in 1934 at the age of 17 and spent the rest of his life in Canada. As a child and teenager in Poland he lived a happy peaceful life in the shtetl, and once in Canada he found success as a house painter and later as the owner of a paint store. His book, They Called Me Mayer July, shows and tells us what life was like in Poland when he was a boy. He is uniquely situated to tell the stories in this book because he has another lens, one that wasn’t tinted by atrocities. Here is what he says about sharing his memories with other survivors:

Within five or ten minutes of any conversation, whether the topic was politics, women, this or that, we would be back in the concentration camps, on the march, in the railroad cars, in the bush with the partisans. It was as if there were no life before the war, so overshadowed had their memories become by the pain they suffered. I lost many members of my family in the Holocaust, but God spared me from living through that horror myself. He also blessed me with a wonderful memory.
At the urging of his family, Kirshenblatt began painting his memories of life in Apt (also called Opatow) Poland. The book contains these paintings, hundreds of them. They are painted in a naïve style that is at the same time joyful and bittersweet. I also love the text, which is comprehensive and delightful to read. Written in a conversational style (with the aid of his daughter, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett), Kirshenblatt just tells us about Apt and all the busy goings-on there. Filled with funny anecdotes about his friends and family (like about how “Malkele Drek” came by her nickname; here’s a hint: she fell into the public toilets), it’s also full of compelling details about how people went about their business. It tells us where the people shopped, what school was like for the children, what kinds of crops the farmers grew, and which families were rich and which were poor. I was fascinated to read about how self-sufficient their society was. Kirshenblatt tells us about the ropemaker, the potter, the hatmaker, the brush factory, the leather tannery, the sawmill, how the laundry was done, how to make shoes, how the oven in their house worked. Births, funerals, religious services, the escapades of the town drunk and the town prostitute – nothing escaped the notice of the young Mayer Tamez (a nickname which means Crazy Mayer, Tamez being the Hebrew month of July, when the heat made everyone crazy). If I were a historian or a genealogist I’d be beside myself to find this much original source material in such a beautiful format. Is there any other book like this in the world?

Kirshenblatt stresses that he left Poland purely for economic reasons and not because of anti-semitism. Jobs and opportunities were scarce for everyone, and many people (both Jewish and Christian) who could leave did so at the first opportunity. He offers a simple but funny commentary on the pattern of emigration of the early 1930’s:

I just could not see any future in Poland…Life was such a struggle. Why didn’t people leave? The reason was this. Those who had enough money to leave didn’t want to leave. Those people who wanted to leave didn’t have the money to leave. Mostly, though, everyone who could leave, left.

Most of Kirshenblatt’s family members who stayed behind in Poland perished in the Holocaust. Kirshenblatt was able to discover the fates of many of them, and has illustrated their deaths. Particularly moving is his painting of the murder of his grandmother. He also writes about his visits to Apt in the 1980’s and 1990’s and his struggle to reconcile the present with the past.

Sixty of the book’s paintings are currently on display at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, California (through January 13, 2008). From there the exhibit travels to Atlanta, New York, Amsterdam and finally to Warsaw Poland. I think historians owe a huge debt of gratitude to Mayer Kirshenblatt and his family for making these images and stories available. I feel enriched by this book. Here is a little more from Mayer July, writing about his story:

What I’m trying to say is “Hey! There was a big world out there before the Holocaust.” There was rich cultural life in Poland as I knew it at the time. That’s why I feel I’m doing something very important by showing what life was like. It’s in my head: I will be gone, but the book will be here. They didn’t call me Crazy Mayer for nothing.

(Book 54, 2007)


Anonymous said...

This looks like a great book, Becky.

By the way, I recently finished Tolstoy's "War and Peace" (Briggs' translation). It was excellent, though I did skip some of the long musings on history and historians. You might want to give it another try -- sometime when you have nothing to do but read (it's nearly 1400 pages of small print).

loveitallabove said...

really nice write up -- THANK YOU!

Unknown said...

Serdeczne pozdrowienia dla Autora tak wspaniałej książki o minionej żydowskiej świetności Opatowa. Opatowianin;) lipiec.2008r.

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