Book Review: "They Called Me Meyar July: Painted Memories Of A Jewish Childhood In Poland Before The Holocaust Mayer Kishenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett
In 1980, my mother and I moved into an apartment in the neighbourhood she had spent a large part of her childhood. Forty-seven years earlier when she'd been brought home from the hospital five blocks south of where she now lived just north of Spadina and College in Toronto Ontario. In 1933, Cecile Street and it's environs, The Kensington Market area of Toronto, was still primarily Jewish, and home to a good many immigrant families who had fled Europe one if not two generations ago.
Although some families had already gained a good enough measure of success by this time for Jewish enclaves to be established in slightly more affluent areas of the city, Kensington Market was still home to a large percentage of the city's Jewish population. By this time, many families had children like my mother who represented a second generation born in Canada but life remained hard for them. It was the middle of the depression and work was scarce, especially for minority immigrants.
When I used to walk through the neighbourhood in the early eighties when we moved back you, could still see traces of the old community. A sign on an old building advertising a kosher butcher, or a house on a back street that was still an active synagogue, reminders of an earlier time when a village had moved over together and people had done their best to create a familiar atmosphere in a foreign environment.
In the years from my mother's birth leading up to September 1939 when the German's invaded Poland, a thin trickle of new immigrants arrived with whispers of a new pogrom, far worse then any the Tsars had conducted, being carried out by the Nazis. It is to Canada's and the United States' eternal shame that they refused to lift their quota's on how many Jews were allowed entry at that time in spite of having impartial reports confirming the round up of Jewish people in Germany and the confiscating of all their property.
Mayer Kershenblatt was one of the lucky ones who got out before the war started, and came to Canada from the village of Apt in Poland in 1934. When he had a family of his own he would regale them with tales of life in the Jewish community in the small city to the point that later in life his daughter, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, encouraged him to try and bring the people and places to life through paintings.
It wasn't until one day when he was meeting some friends and realized that no matter what happened their conversation would turn to reliving their days in the concentration camps. It was as if no life existed before the war for any of them. In his introduction to,They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories Of A Jewish Childhood In Poland Before The Holocaust, Mayer recounts these conversations as being the motivation for finally surrendering to his daughter's wishes that he set brush to canvas in an attempt to preserve the memory of Jewish life before the war in Poland.
At seventy-three Mayer started to attend drawing and painting classes in order to create a visual record of the time. His method for a painting was simple he says, first he needed a subject, and then the subject had to have a story attached; either one he knew first hand, was told by fellow citizens of Apt, or that had been written down in the "Apt Chronicles" the memorial book of his town.
When people began to show significant interest in the paintings; an exhibition and offers to buy work surely count as interest, Mayer and Barbara began to piece together the stories of life in Apt he had been telling her since her childhood to work as complements to the paintings. They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories Of A Jewish Childhood In Poland Before The Holocaust, published by University Of California Press, is the end result of their joint efforts to ensure that the life of a vibrant community won't vanish from our memories like the smoke from a chimney dissipated in the wind.
The narrative and the paintings are all from the viewpoint of a child, but filtered through an adults understanding of how the world works. What could have easily turned into an exercise in sentimental nostalgia for something that never existed, is instead a steadfastly honest depiction filled with the excitement and wonder that a child bears for the world.
On the one hand, we experience the author's joy at adventuring out into the millpond in a small skiff with his friends and pretending to be pirates, much as children the world over create imaginary worlds for themselves. However, we also read of the tenements where families sleep five to a bed while sharing a room with two or three other families. This is no simplistic singing of praises to the good old days that suggests we would all be better off if we only lived like they did back then.
Things that we take for granted now, such as a ready and easy supply of water, aren't available to the people of Apt. Either they hire a porter to carry the water to them as required or they make the trip to one of the town's two wells. Mayer describes in detail all of those who congregate at the water, from the town prostitute, the soldiers from the local barracks, and of course the housewives who would also stay to exchange the latest gossip.
At first glance, the illustrations appear to be simplistic; work that any grade school student might have done with his or her mother's fridge door the intended gallery. But on closer inspection you realize you are looking at work of a sophistication that belies it's appearance. The detail that is included in each of the works is astounding, from the wall murals that decorate the interior of the synagogue to the elaborate ritual of the Black Marriage staged in the Jewish cemetery.
Of my mother's family it was her father's Romanian people whose stories I was most familiar with. Her mother's Polish family was always something of a mystery. I never heard stories of what their life was like for them back in Poland in spite of the fact that all my grandmother's brothers and sisters were born there. But after reading, and experiencing They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories Of A Jewish Childhood In Poland Before The Holocaust I can image in my head the streets they may have walked down before they came to Canada.
In the past century there have been attempts to erase various peoples from the annals of world history. From the Armenians and Kurds in the Middle East, indigenous peoples throughout the world, to the Holocaust. As a result, we run the risk of losing the stories of these people's lives in specific places and times. Each people are a unique strand in the tapestry that make up who so many of us are today that to allow those stories to vanish would be to throw away a piece of our selves.
Mayer Kirshenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt –Gmblet have given the world the precious gift of bringing the town of Apt back to life. Leafing through the pages of They Called Me Mayer July you can almost hear the sound of the Klezmar band as they perform in accompaniment to the Purim Play "A Krakow Wedding". As Mayer is peeking through a window in his painting of this scene to try and catch a glimpse of the performance, we are peeking through the window of his eyes catching glimpses of what life was like in Poland for Jews before it was ended so horifically.
No on can bring the past back to life, or reverse the course of time and history, but we can strive to ensure that people are not forgotten and that their memories are cherished. As long as one copy of They Called Me Mayer July exists the people of Apt Poland will live on indefinitely. Now that's a blessing.