Painter Kirshenblatt Dies at 93
Recaptured prewar Poland with vivid memories and brilliant canvasses
Mayer Kirshenblatt, a painter and chronicler of prewar Jewish life in Poland, died at his home in Toronto on Friday. He was 93. Kirshenblatt was born in 1916 in the Polish town of Apt, and in 1934, at the age of 17, he, his mother, and his three siblings immigrated to Toronto to join his father, who’d made the trip six years earlier. The family ran a paint and wallpaper store.
In 1990, retired and at loose ends, Kirshenblatt picked up a paintbrush and began painting images from his youth. The images served as a complement to an extended series of interviews Kirshenblatt began with his daughter, New York University folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, in the late 1960s. These conversations culminated with the 2007 publication of They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust, a panoramic, profusely illustrated portrait of Kirshenblatt’s hometown, compiled by father and daughter. The volume served as a companion to an exhibition first shown at the Judah L. Magnes museum in Berkeley, California, and, later, at The Jewish Museum in New York. The exhibition is still to travel to Amsterdam and Warsaw.
As I wrote in a review in 2007, the book managed to offer a new visual language for describing prewar Eastern European life. In stark contrast with the black-and-white record that had made up our vision, Kirshenblatt’s paintings were untainted by the horrors to come. They offered a picture not of Polish Jewish life as it was before tragedy struck, but simply as it was. The book was a unique achievement: the product at once of scholarly rigor and a boy’s sense of wonder, respect for the dead, and an even greater respect for the living, ethnographic exactitude and artistic style.
At a time when the scholarly establishment is often at odds with the survivor community, Kirshenblatt and Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s collaboration offered a rare synthesis of memoir and scholarship—and we are the richer for it.
Related: Portrait of a Lost Town [Tablet]
Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180
WAIT, WHY DO I HAVE TO PAY TO COMMENT?
Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.
I NEED TO BE HEARD! BUT I DONT WANT TO PAY.
Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at email@example.com. Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.
We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.