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.
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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

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