Mayer Before the Nightmare


The Power of White Pajamas: The Angel of Death is cheated by a wily rabbi.
The Power of White Pajamas: The Angel of Death is cheated by a wily rabbi.

By Dan Friedman

Published May 20, 2009, issue of May 29, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Born in 1916 in Opatów (Apt in Yiddish), Poland, Mayer Kirshenblatt was 73 when he began to paint, but his pictures have the sunny guilelessness of a peaceful childhood in Poland.

They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust, currently at the Jewish Museum in New York, is an expanded version of the one accompanying Kirshenblatt’s 2007 book of the same name at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, Calif.

Encouraged by his daughter Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, scholar of Jewish folklore and culture at New York University, Mayer Kirshenblatt began to put his memories on canvas to supplement the recollections she had elicited from him in two previous decades of interviews. He left Poland for Canada in 1934, so unlike other survivors of that community, Kirshenblatt can portray that world untouched by the horrors that were to follow.

Originally reluctant but finally persuaded (by being enrolled in a non-refundable art class!), Kirshenblatt began to paint using only the rudimentary art skills he had learned in high school. And he has continued to paint and paint. The result is hundreds of one-point perspective canvases representing pre-Holocaust Poland and providing, if not artistic innovation, profound anthropological insight into the daily life of the 20th century Polish-Jewish culture destroyed by the Nazis.

Kirshenblatt thinks, as he remarks in one of the two new videos on display, “Every canvas is a story.” But that’s not entirely true. The paintings provoke stories if you ask the artist more about them.

Each of his frames contains an insight into the practicalities and suppositions of a young boy’s life in 1920s Opatów but doesn’t reveal the story. The piece titled “Kleptomaniac Slipping a Fish Down Her Bosom” shows a glimpse of life, but the context is hidden until Kirshenblatt speaks. There is no clue to the identity of the kleptomaniac’s husband (Yumsha Levinstein, rich enough to pay off everyone) or the reason she, or others, were buying fish, no clue even that those things might be important.

Another painting, “Boy in the White Pajamas,” shows the eponym almost lost in the middle of a cobbler’s shop, leading us to a story that tells us volumes about contemporary life. A mother had lost previous children in infancy, so to foil the Angel of Death, the rabbi suggests that she dress the child in white so that it looks to have the burial shroud on already, and then the angel will leave. This worked until, so Kirshenblatt heard, the boy (now a man) was rounded up and killed in a camp by the Nazis in 1942.

Great Small Works, a collective dedicated to reinventing lost theater techniques, adapted this latter painting and its story into a puppet theater. Puppet theaters like this were common through the 19th and early 20th centuries as children’s entertainment and the form is perfect for Kirshenblatt’s art, which captures moments that are emblematic but not exhaustive of entire situations. Both the theater and the video of the puppet show are also on display, allowing the stories to tell themselves.

This exhibition is the graphic section of an extraordinary oral history, but like other oral history projects, it falls down when, as in the exhibition’s Section X: A Heavy Heart, it attempts to represent events beyond the scope of its experience. “The Slaughter of the Innocents: Execution at Szydlowiec” (I and II) shows the execution of Kirshenblatt’s father’s family eight years after the painter had left. Again the picture is an invitation to ask about the story but this time Kirshenblatt is neither a witness nor an artist like Goya (whom he cites as helping to “figure out how to paint this terrible scene”), who can evoke profound tragedy through art.

What works perfectly is the video of Kirshenblatt’s trip back to Opatów. As with the puppet theater the stories come to life, but unlike the puppet theater, the set is fully realized as a 21st century town. At a reception for Kirshenblatt, a woman leans over the table to whisper, “There are lots of people here who are a bit Jewish but they don’t want it to be said.” When they or their children are ready to know, Mayer has remembered their history for them.

Contact Dan Friedman at

Find us on Facebook!
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.