Portrait of a Lost Town
Through words and images, Mayer Kirshenblatt brings to life the Polish town he left in 1934
Mayer Kirshenblatt was an excitable kid. In the predominantly Jewish village of Apt in Poland where he was born in 1916, he was called Mayer tamez, or Mayer July, as July was the hottest month, the time of year that made everyone crazy. Other local characters included Zalman goy, who was as Jewish as the next Zalman; Yosele kliske (Yosl the Little Square Noodle) and Yankele kekl (Yankl the Little Penis).
Though he left Apt for Canada in 1934 Kirshenblatt is still able to summon those nicknames and much more in They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust. The book is equal parts ethnography, memoir, and—perhaps most remarkably—gallery, with hundreds of paintings Kirshenblatt has created in the past two decades capturing the sights and rhythms of the world he left behind.
For years, Kirshenblatt has shared stories about his childhood with his daughter, folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, but it was only in 1990, at the age of 73, that he began to paint those memories as well. Though he had no formal training as an artist, he quickly found a visual language that is at once vibrant, empathetic, and simple, and dense with material evidence of Jewish Polish life.
Kirshenblatt’s first-person narratives (as told to Kirshenblatt-Gimblett), which accompany the illustrations collected in They Called Me Mayer July, could easily stand alone. Together, they completely immerse you.
Take, for instance, a lovely purplish-grey painting titled The Pisher. In it, young Mayer stands in the center of a stark, night-darkened room, a kitchen stove in one corner and a narrow cot in the other, peeing into a basin on the floor. In the accompanying story, Kirshenblatt explains that though the family used an outhouse during the day—as did unwelcome intruders with regrettably poor aim—at night a basin was brought out and the house was bolted and locked—the windows fully boarded up—a practice left over “from the time of pogroms, when fear was a constant companion.”
They Called Me Mayer July is sweet, coarse, and at times devastating. We know a lot about what happened to Poland’s Jews after Kirshenblatt left, so much so that Jewish life in Poland sometimes seems to have lasted a single, nightmarish half-decade before it was utterly destroyed. Kirshenblatt didn’t witness those years, and while he doesn’t spare us the knowledge that many of the people he describes—including members of his own family—perished, he is more concerned with preserving his memories of Apt, where Jews had lived for hundreds of years, perhaps struggling but very much alive. The following pages show a sampling of his work, which can also be seen in a traveling exhibit, now at the Magnes Museum in Berkeley.
RINSING THE LAUNDRY
Mother did the heavy laundry—the bed sheets, pillowcases, and tablecloths—once a month. Without running water, this was a very big job. She would hire a woman to wash the heavy laundry in a big wooden tub in the kitchen. After the laundry was boiled and washed, it had to be rinsed. Water was at a premium because you had to pay a water-carrier for every bucket, so it was too expensive to bring the water to the laundry. Instead, the women took the laundry to the water. They put the soapy laundry into a sheet and took it down to the river, where they could rinse it in running water. They would swoosh the laundry in a shallow part of the stream, beat the laundry with a wood paddle on a nice flat rock, and rinse it again. After wringing out the laundry, they would bring it home and blue and starch it. Bluing makes white look whiter and prevents it from yellowing.
In nice weather, we hung the laundry to dry in the courtyard. Otherwise, we hung it in the attic next to Moyre Simkhe’s apartment. If you were unlucky, thieves would climb the ladder to the attic in the middle of the night and steal the laundry. To get your laundry back, you had to rush over to a particular man who would arrange a pay-off for the return of the stolen goods, You had to be fast, or the thieves would sell the goods to a receiver. Then it would be too late. A middleman knew where to find the thieves: they liked to hang out at the local bootlegger’s place, which was called a shvartse shenk in Yiddish. There were several such places in Apt. Bootlegging was an honorable profession; it was like running a private club in your own home. The thieves would gather around a table in the bootlegger’s bedroom to discuss the day’s business: loan sharking, whose home got broken into, and the like. They knew everything. The lady of the house would roast a goose or a couple of ducks. The aroma of garlic, onions and roasting fowl is still in my nostrils. It could cost as much as a laborer’s weekly pay to get the laundry back; a worker earned a zloty and a half a day. If you paid the money, the next morning you would find the laundry back in the attic. It would be in exactly the same order as the thieves had found it. This was a point of honor among the thieves.
YOM KIPPUR EVE
Two people sold lime in Apt. One was the woman whose husband was so devout that he whitewashed the decorated walls of Upper besmedresh so the men would not be distracted during prayer. The other was Yankl kvapus and his wife. That was not their real name. It was their nickname. They had no children. They sold lime, as well as starch and bluing for laundry, and herring. Don’t ask me why this combination; people would do anything to get by. Yankl’s wife was a big, tall woman. She wore many skirts, one on top of the other. What I remember best about her is the way she shook hands with everyone on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in front of the synagogue. This is a time of contrition. It was customary to apologize, ask forgiveness for any offenses committed during the previous twelve months, and shake hands. Crying, she would blow her nose in her hands before shaking hands.
BUTCHER CARRYING A CALF
As far as meat is concerned, it is written, “Do not remove the calf from its mother for seven days.” Every farmer had his favorite butcher. Periodically, the butcher would talk with the farmer when he came to town for the market, or the butcher himself or cattle dealers would go around the countryside to make arrangements for buying livestock. A farmer would have one or two cows. The butcher would inquire as to the welfare of the pregnant cow: “How is the cow doing? When is it expecting?” As soon as the cow dropped the calf, the farmer would notify the butcher, “Gimpl, the calf is here.” The farmer wanted to get rid of the calf as soon as possible in order to start milking the mother. The calf at seven days would not be too steady on its feet. It couldn’t walk very fast. Besides, if the calf had to walk three or four miles, it would lose weight. The solution was for the butcher to carry the calf, at least part of the way. Sometimes the farmer would fill the calf with water to make it weigh more. Out of fear, the calf would urinate and wet the butcher. Or, rather than carrying it, Gimpl would insert his finger into the calf’s mouth. Thinking his finger was a teat, the calf would follow Gimpl home.
After an animal had been butchered, it had to be sold quickly because there was no refrigeration. Even if a housewife were short of money, the butcher would give her credit so that he could get rid of the meat. Gimpl, however, could not read or write. To keep track of his transactions, he would mark the name and the sum on his boots with chalk, in his own signs, and he would know who owed him what. But on Friday, since he had to clean his boots before going to the synagogue, he would go around collecting his debts. Once they were settled, he could clean his boots and erase the whole bookkeeping. Like many other poor people, he cleaned his boots with truen to keep them black and supple. The fish oil prevented the leather from drying out.
BRINGING FOOD TO GRANDFATHER IN JAIL, ca. 1930
One is not supposed to handle money or do any kind of commerce on Sabbath, but my grandmother was always ready to turn a penny. On Saturday, when the young swains were out of pumpkin seeds, they went to my grandmother’s. The bags were on the table. My grandmother would pick up the corner of the tablecloth, and the gentlemen would drop the coins under the cloth and then help themselves to a bag. The transaction was completed without my grandmother ever touching the money or handing out the merchandise. I would say that was pretty clever. As soon as the Sabbath was over and the lights came on, Grandmother could open the store again. She took in a few cents. A big housekeeper she was not.
On Sundays, when it was illegal to do business, my grandmother would sit outside her shop with the door ajar. If someone wanted something, my grandfather, who stayed inside, would slip the merchandise through the partly open door, and my grandmother would take the money. She had deep pockets. They wouldn’t make very much on a Sunday, but whatever they made was more than if the shop was closed. Every once in a while, one of the only two policemen in town got ambitious and cracked down. The policemen were always in full dress: a dark blue tunic, buttoned to the chin, rifles with fixed bayonets. The only difference between summer and winter was that in winter they also wore a greatcoat. They did very little patrolling in the town. They mostly patrolled the periphery and on occasion patrolled the Jewish Street to look for stores that were open on Sundays. If my grandmother got caught, she had to pay a fine or serve time. My grandfather would be hauled in front of the civil court to represent her. Usually, she would be fined about ten zlotys. That was more than a week’s salary for a worker. Not wanting to pay the fine, my grandmother would be sentenced to a few days in jail, and my grandfather would serve the time for her. The authorities didn’t care who served the time.
The jail was a two-room affair, one room for women and one for men. The cell was about twelve feet by twelve feet, with a small window close to the ceiling, so that nobody could look in or out. There was no furniture, just a little straw scattered on the floor along the perimeter of the cell. There was an outhouse in a little courtyard.
Grandfather had company in his cell, his contemporaries. Usually there were five or six men there, also pious Jews. Some prayed. Most played cards all day. I don’t know whether the turnkey served them food. Even if he did, Jews would not eat it because it was not kosher. Since I was the oldest grandson, my mother delegated me to take food to my grandfather. I was told that the brushmaker, Yekhiel Watman, looked forward to jail because he could stretch out and go to sleep. At home, he and his family lived and worked in one tiny room.
BOY IN THE WHITE PAJAMAS
I remember even before my father left for Canada [in 1928] seeing how the cobblers lived. In my painting, you can see all the action. The drinking water was in a barrel on the floor. The wooden bucket on the cabinet contained water for soaking the leather to make it flexible. You can see all the tools and each step in the process of making a shoe. There is one cobbler I will never forget, our neighber der shvartser Khiel, Khiel the Brunet, and I’ve painted him. As I mentioned earlier, although he was redhead and all his children were redheads, they called him Khiel the Brunet. To confuse matters further, they nicknamed a brunet Khiel in town der geyler Khiel, Khiel the Redhead. One day my mother sent me to der shvartser Khiel in the early morning on an errand. It was before they had a chance to rise. When I walked into that room, there were people sleeping everywhere, wall-to-wall, at the head and foot of the beds, on benches and tables, and on the floor. The whole family lived and worked in two rooms.
Der shvartser Khiel was so poor he could not pay his income tax (dochodowy in Polish). When he knew the tax collector was about to arrive, he would hide anything of value. The tax collector, seeing that der shvartser Khiel couldn’t come up with the money, would take his tools and anything else he could find, put them out onto the street, and auction them off right in front of the cobbler’s workshop. Meanwhile, der shvartser Khiel had arranged for a neighbor to place a low bid: “Moyshe, you bid. I’ll pay you back.” It was a put-up deal. Everyone knew, so no one else would bid. The tax collector settled for the pittance he got from the auction and wrote off the rest. After the tax collector was gone, der shvartser Khiel repaid his neighbor, which was considerably less than he would have paid in taxes, and got all his tools back. The poverty was unbelievable.
Der shvartser Khiel had seven daughters. Every time a male child was born, something happened and the child died. Every Jew wants to have a son so that there will be someone to say kaddish, the prayer for the deceased, for him after his demise. In desperation, der shvartser Khiel went to the rabbi and implored him: “Am I to die without a male heir? Who will say the kaddish after I’m gone? I have seven daughters. Can I afford another one? Where will I find dowries and grooms for them all?” The rabbi thought for a while, then came up with a solution. He said, “Go home. When your wife gets pregnant and it’s a baby boy, do exactly what I tell you.” First, he gave Khiel an amulet and told him to make the boy wear it all the time: it would ward off evil spirits. Second, the child must always be dressed in white: the white clothes would fool the Angel of Death, the malekh-hamuves, into thinking the boy was already dead and not taking him, since Jews always bury their dead in white burial shrouds. A boy was born. Der shvartser Khiel followed the Rabbi’s instructions, and the boy survived. When I left Opatow in 1934, the boy was eight years old. I was told that even as a teenager he still wore the white pajamas. He was dressed in white in 1942 when the Jews of Apt were expelled, never to return.