Mayer Kirshenblatt, the artist whose paintings opened a window onto Jewish life in Poland before the Holocaust, died November 20, 2009 at age 93. Kirshenblatt started painting at age 73 at the urging of his family, who asked him to “paint what you remember”. Over the years he created almost 300 paintings, each an illustrated memory of his hometown of Apt, Poland, before World War II. “The paintings burst from his brush,” his daughter Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett wrote in a Toronto Globe and Mail column in memory of her father.
With his paintbrush, Kirshenblatt immortalized his home and family, and all the goings-on in Apt: the “human fly” who would climb the house of the wealthiest man in town, the boy whose parents dressed him in white all his life, the interior of the synagogue, weddings and funerals, holiday meals and celebrations, and the stories that were handed down to him from past generations.
His paintings also capture vivid fragments of everyday life: the way his mother’s scrubbing burnished the floorboards, sailing paper boats in the rain-filled gutter, the tools used by leathermakers and the way a horse’s harness was fastened, the foods bought and sold in the market, the fish in the millpond and the attire of the water-carriers—all the details that can only be expressed by someone who was there. Each painting is its own story, and together they are a visual memoir and a priceless gift.
Mayer Kirshenblatt moved to Canada in 1934, and had a long career before starting to paint. His work is collected in They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland before the Holocaust, published in 2007. The narrative is gathered from 40 years of interviews and conversations between Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and her father.
The Museum of Family History has an online exhibit of 40 of Kirshenblatt’s paintings, with accompanying narratives, audio and video. In this feature from The Jewish Museum, where he had a solo exhibition last year, Kirshenblatt leads a virtual tour through his hometown. A documentary about Mayer Kirshenblatt, called Paint What You Remember, was completed in 2009.
Read Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s “Lives Lived” column about her father in the Toronto Globe and Mail, and visit the blog They Called Me Mayer July.