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Lest future generations know more about how Jews died than how they lived, Mayer Kirshenblatt (1916-2009) made it his mission to remember the world of his childhood in images and words. Born in Opatów (Apt in Yiddish), Mayer left for Canada in 1934 at the age of 17.

He had always told his family stories about growing up in Poland before the Holocaust. After his family begged him to paint what he could remember, Mayer finally picked up his brush in 1989 at the age of 73. To his amazement, the town of his childhood emerged in living color. Painting by painting, story by story, he had recreated the entire world of his youth. He created hundreds of paintings and drawings during the last 20 years of his life.

Image above: Mayer Kirshenblatt, Synagogue interior, 1991. Acrylic on canvas. Gift of the Kirshenblatt Family. Taube Family Mayer July Art Collection at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Warsaw.

Mayer Kirshenblatt, Boy with Herring, 1992. Acrylic on canvas. Gift of the Kirshenblatt Family. Taube Family Mayer July Art Collection at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Warsaw.

Mayer Kirshenblatt, Water Carrier, 1990s. Acrylic on canvas. Gift of the Kirshenblatt Family. Taube Family Mayer July Art Collection at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Warsaw.

The paintings and stories capture the curiosity of a boy who was fascinated by the world in which he lived, unaware of the tragedy to come. He passed away in 2009 at the age of 93 and was one of the last to have first-hand experience of Jewish life in Poland before the Holocaust.

This lecture by the artist’s daughter Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, an acclaimed scholar of East European Jewish culture, will present the artist and his work in the context of two exhibition, one at the Jewish Museum in New York (2009) and the second at POLIN Museum (May 17–December 16, 2024). The exhibition at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw is staged as a dialogue between Mayer’s shtetl as represented in his paintings, and today’s Opatów as a post-Jewish town.

Mayer Kirshenblatt, Friday Men’s Day at the Mikve, 2001. Acrylic on canvas. Gift of the Kirshenblatt Family. Taube Family Mayer July Art Collection at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Warsaw.

Mayer Kirshenblatt, Synagogue exterior, 1990. Acrylic on canvas. Gift of the Kirshenblatt Family. Taube Family Mayer July Art Collection at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Warsaw

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is the Ronald S. Lauder Chief Curator of the Core Exhibition at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw and University Professor Emerita of Performance Studies at New York University. Her books include They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of Jewish Life in Poland Before the Holocaust (with Mayer Kirshenblatt), and Image Before My Eyes: A Photographic History of Jewish Life in Poland, 1864–1939 (with Lucjan Dobroszycki), among others. She has received honorary doctorates from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, University of Haifa, and Indiana University. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, was decorated with the Officer’s Cross of the Order of the Republic of Poland for her contribution to the creation of POLIN Museum, and received the 2020 Dan David Prize. She has served on Advisory Boards for the Council of American Jewish Museums, Jewish Museum Vienna, and Jewish Museum Berlin, and is Vice-Chair of ICMEMOHRI, the International Committee of Memorial and Human Rights Museums. She advises on museum and exhibition projects in Lithuania, Belarus, Albania, Israel, New Zealand, and the United States.

Mayer Kirshenblatt, Purim Play: The Krakow Wedding, c. 1994. Acrylic on canvas. Gift of the Kirshenblatt Family. Taube Family Mayer July Art Collection at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Warsaw.

Mayer Kirshenblatt, Slaughter of the Innocents, 2, late 1990s. Acrylic on canvas. Gift of the Kirshenblatt Family. Taube Family Mayer July Art Collection at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Warsaw.

This event is part of the online series “Flight or Fight. stories of artists under repression.”

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The Fritz Ascher Society is a not-for-profit 501(c)3 organization. Your donation is fully tax deductible.

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