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They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust

May 19, 2009

What I was not expecting to find at the Jewish Museum was another exhibit (on the first floor) that really entertained me and opened my eyes to the importance of oral history. The exhibit, “They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust” is a showcase of paintings done by a 70 year old man who escaped from Poland at the age of 17 (in 1933), just before WWII. Mayer Kirshenblatt made a life in the United States after leaving Poland and his daughter became a professor of Eastern European history. She would interview/chat with her father about his childhood village, Opatow, in Poland and his memories were so vivid that she eventually asked him to start drawing pictures of his mother’s kitchen, the village church etc. The paintings are so charming and child-like with two dimensional spaces and bright colors but they really evoke a sense of village life. As he stated in a conversation with his daughter,“What I’m trying to say is, ‘Hey! There was a big world out there before the Holocaust. There was a 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 that life was like.”

Mayer Kirshenblatt, Purim Play: “The Kraków Wedding,” c. 1994.


What is even more inspiring is that these paintings were all created spontaneously, by someone who never considered themselves an artist until their memories were so strong that they just flowed out onto canvas. The exhibit was so fun to walk through since each painting was accompanied by Kirshenblatt’s often hilarious observations about village life (“This painting shows the village kleptomaniac, a lady who was always very nicely dressed in matching outfits and who would stuff live fish down her dress – who wants to steal a dead fish? Her husband had to always pay up afterwards since every body knew…”). The exhibit is traveling around the U.S. and the artist’s blog can be seen here


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