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Colors of memory

They Called Me Mayer July Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust; Mayer Kirshenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett; University of California Press: 412 pp., $39.95

September 16, 2007|Louise Steinman | Louise Steinman, author of "The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War," is writing a book about Poland.

Ladies and gentlemen! Behold the Human Fly (ludzka mucha in Polish) as he scales the cornerstones of Layzer Mandelbaum's house, then performs three handstands! Take pity on lovely Malkele Drek, who acquired her unfortunate name after falling into a military latrine! Learn how to inflate a goose bladder, stuff a chicken neck and whip up a tasty sauce out of herring sperm!

All these wonders (and more!) are illuminated in "They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust," a collaboration between Mayer Kirshenblatt and his daughter, the noted folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett.

Mayer Kirshenblatt, nicknamed Mayer tamez (Crazy Mayer) or Mayer July (because July is the hottest month and people get excited when it's hot), grew up in Apt, Poland (Opatów in Polish), before World War II. He was an irrepressible kid who played hooky from school and, as part of his "self-designed curriculum" (his daughter's phrase), roamed his town observing everyone and everything.

He watched old Mr. Lustman, the goldsmith (who invented a device for getting rid of lice that could also fix a gramophone). He observed prostitutes and professional mourners, bookbinders and wig makers. He slipped into an abattoir to watch how a non-kosher butcher slaughters a pig.

Kirshenblatt emigrated from Poland to Canada in 1934. What stood out from this exodus was his first encounter with a flush toilet in Warsaw and, in Hamburg, the huge portrait of Hitler on the office wall of the Hamburg American Steamship Co.

As an adult in Toronto, Kirshenblatt supported his wife and daughters as a house painter. His artistic talent manifested itself in faux-grain finishes, wall stencils and an inexhaustible supply of stories about Apt. Early retirement led to a serious depression; his wife and daughter begged him to "paint his memories." He resisted. How do you paint a memory? They never stopped asking. Finally, at 73, he took up the brush. "How satisfying, particularly at my age," he writes, "to have found my calling."

This book is a celebration of two callings. Mayer Kirshenblatt is a gifted storyteller and painter. His daughter, who interviewed him over four decades, is a brilliant listener.

We know a lot about the cataclysm that ended a way of life. But what did that life smell and taste like? We've all seen black-and-white movies of the Holocaust. Who ever imagined prewar Poland in lemon yellow, cyan red, cobalt blue, pale lavender?

Young Kirshenblatt had Christian friends who were "not anti-Semitic or hateful." That said, more than two-thirds of Apt was Jewish: "A Jew could live out his whole life in the Jewish community, and many never went beyond the town's boundaries."

Kirshenblatt attended Polish public school (in addition to attending khayder, Jewish religious school) and spoke flawless Polish. Like all Polish schoolboys, he could recite Adam Mickiewicz's great poem "Pan Tadeusz." He considered himself "a Jewish Pole, not a Polish Jew."

Writer Rafael Scharf -- himself Jewish and a native of Krakow -- left Poland, as Kirshenblatt did, in the early 1930s when Polish nationalism was on the rise. In his essay collection, "Poland, What Have I to Do With Thee," Scharf poses a question to Polish-born Jews who excoriate, but also long for, their homeland: "[W]hen I am thinking of those times as I often do," Scharf writes, "the idea occurs to me -- when it was so bad, why was it so good?"

Kirshenblatt's book answers that question. Prewar Apt is a rich and textured world held together by human improvisation and the rhythms and obligations of religious observance. Life was difficult, going to bed hungry the norm. Most homes lacked basic conveniences like indoor plumbing or insulation.

But people looked out for one another, and life came in vibrant flavors: brined herring, sour sorrel soup, fresh caraway bread, potatoes roasted in the field during harvest. There wasn't money for toys and gadgets, but young Mayer made his own ice skates, tin whistles and slingshots. He raced snails, swam in the Opatówka River and expressed his genius for raising mayhem.

At the "holiest of moments" during Yom Kippur services, while others piously hid their eyes, Mayer and his cohorts busily tied the fringes of prayer shawls together, "causing pandemonium at the end of the service, because all the prayer shawls fell to the floor and everyone was scrambling to untangle his fringes from those of his neighbors. By that time, we were gone."

"The subjects I decide to paint are those that have a story to tell," Kirshenblatt writes. His painting titles give you an idea of the range of his stories, from the tragic to the hilarious. Some favorites: "The Kleptomaniac Slipping a Fish Down Her Bosom"; "The Hunchback's Wedding"; "Funeral of the Father of My Christian Friend"; "Washing the Floor in Wedding Gown on Friday Afternoon"; "Bringing Food to Grandfather in Jail"; and "The Mysterious Boy in the White Pyjamas."

Certain subjects took heroic will to approach, much less complete. "Slaughter of the Innocents I and II: Execution at Szydlowiec, 1942" -- a diptych -- is based on an eyewitness account of the murder of Kirshenblatt's paternal grandmother, aunts and cousins by German soldiers. Kirshenblatt was present when his father got the letter: "He was hysterical: he immediately started shaking from the shock and never stopped until the day he died." How to paint this story eluded him until he saw Goya's "Disasters of War" series at the Prado Museum in Madrid. Over these hideous scenes, Kirshenblatt paints a bruised purple sky.

In the Bible, Noah collects for his ark two of each species to preserve from annihilation in the Flood. In this glorious ark of a book, Mayer Kirshenblatt has accomplished a project of no less epic proportions: He has rescued from oblivion stories of his town of Apt as it lived and breathed before the war.

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