When Mayer Kirshenblatt was born, the town of Opatow in south-central Poland was known to most of its inhabitants as “Apt.” That’s because most of the population was Jewish, and Apt was Opatow’s name in Yiddish.
The Holocaust left Yiddish Apt a distant memory, glimpsed dimly in sepia-tinted photographs or locked up in the hearts of the few people still alive who had known it before the destruction.
Kirshenblatt was one of them until 1990 when, at the age of 73, he taught himself to paint and began to record in colorful detail the vibrant lost world of his childhood hometown.
“I only paint one thing — that’s Apt,” he said. “I paint not from my imagination but what actually happened.”
Sprightly and bespectacled, with twinkling eyes and a bristly moustache, Kirshenblatt turned to painting at the urging of his family.
Since 1967, his daughter, the scholar Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, has conducted interviews with him on prewar Jewish life in Apt.
The recollections were published last year along with nearly 200 of Kirshenblatt’s paintings as a book, “They Called Me Mayer July.” The title stems from Kirshenblatt’s childhood nickname, “Mayer Tamez,” or “Mayer July” — slang at the time for “Crazy Mayer.”
The book has won several awards and brought international attention to the work of Kirshenblatt, who left Poland for Canada in 1934.
In recent months Kirshenblatt’s paintings have been exhibited in San Francisco, and in the coming two years they are slated to be shown in Atlanta, New York, Amsterdam and Warsaw. This summer, for the second year in a row, Kirshenblatt’s work was featured at the annual Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow.
And on June 28, Kirshenblatt and his daughter brought his memories of Apt back to present-day Opatow with an exhibition of 50 full-scale digital prints of his paintings, on display at the Opatow District Office building.
“It was absolutely fabulous,” Kirshenblatt later said. “We had over 200 people and they made a tremendous display. The event was well advertised all over the city with posters — even the priest mentioned it.”
He added, “I’ve had exhibitions elsewhere, but here the people, the atmosphere, was absolutely the best I ever had.”
It was, Kirshenblatt said, a far cry from the first time that he returned to his hometown. That was in 1988, when Poland was still in the grip of communist rule. “I was crying,” he recalled. “I came to the town and there was not a sign of Jewishness.”
Since then, Kirshenblatt and his daughter have returned on other occasions and established good relations with Opatow’s residents.
“I enjoy going back there, and Opatow is beautiful,” he said. “But it’s not Apt.”
Displaying the energy of someone far younger than 91, Kirshenblatt and his daughter have toured extensively, accompanying slide shows of his paintings with lively discussions of the incidents and people portrayed.
“At my age,” he said, “to have another career like this is most terrific.”
Detailed, wry and often witty, Kirshenblatt’s paintings are peopled by sometimes crudely drawn characters, each of which seems to come to life as an individual. They crowd around dinner tables or cluster in the synagogue. They peer into windows, carry water in wooden buckets, play music, walk to school, mourn the dead, even commit a crime.
To a certain extent, the paintings recall the work of the American Grandma Moses, another self-taught artist who took up the brush in her 70s and created remembered scenes of rural life in 19th-century America.
History, though, has given Kirshenblatt’s work a special edge.
The titles of his paintings alone reflect complex, even convoluted tales that defy common stereotypes. Some examples: “The Kleptomaniac Slipping a Fish Down Her Bosom,” “Boy with a Herring,” “The Hunchback’s Wedding,” and “Jadzka the Prostitute Shows off her Wares at the end of Market Day at Harshl Kishke’s Well.”
“What I’m trying to say is, ‘Hey! There was a big world out there before the Holocaust,’ ” Kirshenblatt told his daughter in one recent conversation. “There was a rich cultural life in Poland as I knew it at the time. That’s why I feel I’m doing something very important by showing what that life was like.”
“It’s in my head,” he said. “I will be gone, but the book will be here.”
Opatow’s official Web site offers scant mention of the town’s Jewish past. Most of those who live there now settled in the town from elsewhere after World War II. Knowledge about the town’s prewar past is sketchy.
Things are changing, though, says Kirshenblatt-Gimblett.
At the exhibition in Opatow, she said, she met a young local man who wants to specialize in Jewish studies in college. And as part of a nationwide project of “adopting” historic places, a group of local people is attempting to document the destroyed Jewish cemetery and recover uprooted tombstones.
The high profile accorded her father and his work, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said, are part of this process.
“They have really embraced him,” she said. “They consider him really one of the people who holds the memory of the town.”
Significant, too, she said, was the title given by town authorities to her father’s exhibition.
“They called it ‘Old Opatow,’ not ‘Old Jewish Opatow,’ ” she said. “And when we dedicated the book, we dedicated it to the people of Apt. So it’s everybody, Jews and non-Jews alike, but we dedicated it to the town with its Jewish name.”