Mayer Kirshenblatt, a painter and chronicler of prewar Jewish life in Poland, died at his home in Toronto on Friday. He was 93. Kirshenblatt was born in 1916 in the Polish town of Apt, and in 1934, at the age of 17, he, his mother, and his three siblings immigrated to Toronto to join his father, who’d made the trip six years earlier. The family ran a paint and wallpaper store.
In 1990, retired and at loose ends, Kirshenblatt picked up a paintbrush and began painting images from his youth. The images served as a complement to an extended series of interviews Kirshenblatt began with his daughter, New York University folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, in the late 1960s. These conversations culminated with the 2007 publication of They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust, a panoramic, profusely illustrated portrait of Kirshenblatt’s hometown, compiled by father and daughter. The volume served as a companion to an exhibition first shown at the Judah L. Magnes museum in Berkeley, California, and, later, at The Jewish Museum in New York. The exhibition is still to travel to Amsterdam and Warsaw.
As I wrote in a review in 2007, the book managed to offer a new visual language for describing prewar Eastern European life. In stark contrast with the black-and-white record that had made up our vision, Kirshenblatt’s paintings were untainted by the horrors to come. They offered a picture not of Polish Jewish life as it was before tragedy struck, but simply as it was. The book was a unique achievement: the product at once of scholarly rigor and a boy’s sense of wonder, respect for the dead, and an even greater respect for the living, ethnographic exactitude and artistic style.
At a time when the scholarly establishment is often at odds with the survivor community, Kirshenblatt and Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s collaboration offered a rare synthesis of memoir and scholarship—and we are the richer for it.
Related: Portrait of a Lost Town [Tablet]