June 14, 2024
Artists

Small town life: the shtetl through the eyes of an artist


When Mayer Kirshenblatt was a boy in Opatów in the 1920s his mother would send him to buy a single herring for the family dinner, which the fishmonger would wrap in just a narrow strip of newspaper, a full sheet being too valuable. On the way home, Mayer would lick the salty brine, not wasting a drop.

At home, his mother would remove the bag of semen from the fish and scoop it out adding chopped onions, vinegar, and sugar to make a tangy dipping sauce for bread. My mother was an excellent cook since she was able to make a meal for the whole family from one herring. It had to feed four or five people,” he said.

Decades later in retirement, Mayer would paint himself returning from the fishmonger, just one of around 300 other paintings that poured from his brush of Jewish life in Opatów.

This body of work now forms a unique collection of work that recreates in astonishing detail that world of the shtetl that was lost for ever in the Holocaust.

Mayer painted what he remembered: the synagogue, men washing in the mikveh, the cemetery, people in the town, scenes from school including a pupil being flogged by a teacher, an illegal cigarette factory, the illegal slaughter of a cow, bagel sellers, a water-carrier, circus performers, and even local prostitutes.

There were no taboo subjects. In one of his paintings, he shows a wedding at which the bride is visibly pregnant. In another we see the town’s two prostitutes Jaźdka and Świderka.

Of the hundreds of his acrylic paintings, 70 now form the core of a new exhibition, (post)JEWISH… Shtetl Opatów Through the Eyes of Mayer Kirshenblatt, at Warsaw’s POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Opatów, known as Apt in Yiddish, today lies in south-east Poland. Up until the Second World War it was just one of more than 1,000 shtetls in today’s Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus where Jews made up the majority of the population.

In Poland, shtetls began to emerge in the late 16th and early 17th centuries on the eastern fringes of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Magnate families created private towns within their domains and invited Jews in the hope that they would boost trade and crafts, which they could tax. The Jews were granted a site for a cemetery, the right to build a synagogue and open a mikvah, elements essential for a Jewish religious community to function.

A large map at the exhibition shows a huge cloud of black dots representing the location of each shtetl.

Opatów was just one of them and differed little to all the others. Before the war, out of a population of about 9,600, more than 5,200 were Jewish. Only around 300 Opatów Jews survived the Holocaust.

What made Opatów different was that it had its own visual chronicler in Mayer Kirshenblatt.

Born in Opatów in 1916, his father was the owner of a leather business as well as a shoemaker. In the 1920s, a shipment of hides for his workshop was stolen, which plunged the family into poverty, and ultimately to their departure in 1934 to Canada, where they settled in Toronto.

In Opatów, Mayer attended cheder and later a Polish school. However, he would skip classes and even had to repeat a year.

His real passion was observing the life of the town. His unusual inquisitiveness gained him the nickname Crazy Mayer among the townsfolk.

“I would spend hours observing the blacksmith and the tinsmith, the ropemaker and the cooper, the mills and the carp ponds, and the town square on market day, when all the peasants came to town,” he said.

His gift for memory may have remained locked in his mind if it were not for his daughter, Barbara Kershenblatt-Gimblett, historian, folklorist, professor emeritus at New York University, and the chief curator of the permanent exhibition at POLIN.

“It all started in 1967, when I started doing interviews with him. I recorded these conversations for almost 40 years,” she recounted. The recordings continued almost until his death in 2009. When he retired from running his own paint and wallpaper store, after much persuasion, she convinced him to paint what he remembered. At the age of 73, the memories started to flood onto canvas, and he did not stop painting for the remaining 20 years of his life.

Mayer’s first painting, which opens the exhibition, was of his family kitchen. “There was always a pot of soup on the stove,” he recalled.

“When mother set about cooking, she would first light the fire. The two front hearths were the hottest.

“On one of the back ones, she would put a pot for soup, which would percolate on a slow flame all day. Andso, every now and then, she would throw various additions into it, a little carrot, a potato, or a handful of groats, pieces of chicken and even beef. At the end of the day the soup was ready. This pot wasn’t even washed, to preserve the little bit of flavour that remained on the bottom and on the sides”.

Professor Kiershenblatt-Gimblett says that her father’s paintings are special for one basic reason: “He left in 1934, meaning he was not directly affected by the trauma of the Holocaust.

“His memories of Poland were not filtered through the experience of that trauma. This is an extraordinary gift.”

“He lived in a time before helicopter parents so he would wander and explore every nook and cranny.

“The town was his playground,” she said.

One of his paintings features the ritual bathhouse, or mikvah. Mayer recalled that men used it on Fridays, women on Thursdays, or on the days after menstruation, because only the ritual cleansing allowed them to have sex again.

Of course, the mikvah no longer exists, but the building does, and it is used today as a factory for “Opatówek” fudge.

The curators of the exhibition wanted to know how the building had changed inside, so they scanned the interior with a laser.

“By doing so, we discovered where exactly the pool was located. It turned out that today this is where the ladies wrap fudge by hand,” said Dr. Natalia Romik, one of the curators of the exhibition.

When Mayer lived in Opatów, Jews made up about 60 per cent of the population and the town was an important centre of Polish Hasidism.

In 1940, the Germans established a ghetto, and from October 20 to 22, 1942, approximately 6,500 Jews were sent to Treblinka and murdered.

In today’s Opatów, there is no shtetl anymore and almost no material remains of it.

The 17th-century synagogue is now just a pile of rubble, even though it survived the war.

The Jewish cemetery was turned into a park after the war.

In recent years, a small lapidarium with matzevot found in the area has been created in the park.

Only the building of the cheder and the mikvah have survived.

In an act that combines salvage and art installation, the exhibition curators purchased timber beams from a former Polish-Jewish school in the town that was already half destroyed.

Back in Warsaw it was used to create the exhibition’s scenography.

Its use is symbolic as the buildings of the old shtetls were made mainly from wood, impermanent buildings of which fewer and fewer traces remain.

Housed in display cases made from the wood are thought-provoking artefacts borrowed from people from the town, including unique wooden menorahs from the war, probably made after silverware was looted, a Seder plate, a fragment of a destroyed Torah scroll, a key to the synagogue, and fragments of candelabras from the synagogue, which actually feature in one of Mayer’s paintings.

The exhibition includes photos of pre-war Zydowska Street, as well as photos of local people, such as one of a woman carrying water.

Mayer’s collection is now held permanently by the POLIN museum, and it plans to display them in a mobile exhibition that will tour some of today’s former shtetls.

(post)JEWISH… Shtetl Opatów Through the Eyes of Mayer Kirshenblatt is open at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews until December 16



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