In 1980, my mother and I moved into an apartment in the neighbourhood where she had spent a large part of her childhood. 47 years earlier she’d been brought home from the hospital five blocks south of where we now lived, just north of Spadina and College in Toronto, Ontario. In 1933, Cecile Street and its environs, The Kensington Market area of Toronto, was still primarily Jewish, home to a good many immigrant families who had fled Europe one or two generations previously.
Although by that time some families had gained enough success to establish Jewish enclaves in slightly more affluent areas of the city, Kensington Market was still home to a large percentage of the city’s Jewish population. Many families had children who, like my mother, represented a second generation born in Canada. But life remained hard for them. It was the middle of the Depression and work was scarce, especially for minority immigrants.
When I used to walk through the neighbourhood in the early 1980s, you could still see traces of the old community. A sign on an old building advertised a kosher butcher, or a house on a back street was still an active synagogue. These were reminders of an earlier time when a village had emigrated together and its people had done their best to create a familiar atmosphere in a foreign environment.
In the years from my mother’s birth up to September 1939 when the Germans invaded Poland, a trickle of new immigrants arrived in Toronto whispering of a new pogrom, far worse then any the Tsars had conducted, being carried out by the Nazis. It is to Canada’s and the US’s eternal shame that they refused to lift their quotas on Jewish immigration, in spite of having impartial reports confirming the round-up of Jews in Germany and the confiscation of all their property.
Mayer Kershenblatt was one of the lucky ones who got out before the war started. He came to Canada in 1934 from the village of Apt in Poland. Later when he had his own family he would regale them with tales of life in the Jewish community in that small city, to the point where his daughter, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, encouraged him to try and bring the people and places to life through paintings.
One day, talking with some friends, he realized that no matter what happened, his friends’ conversations would always turn to reliving their days in the concentration camps. It was as if no life existed before the war for any of them. In his introduction to They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories Of A Jewish Childhood In Poland Before The Holocaust, Mayer describes those conversations as the motivation for finally surrendering to his daughter’s wishes, and setting brush to canvas in an attempt to preserve the memory of pre-War Jewish life in Poland.
At the age of 73, he started to attend drawing and painting classes. His method for a painting was simple, he says: first he needed a subject, and then the subject had to have a story attached, one that Mayer either knew first hand, had been told by fellow citizens of Apt, or knew from the Apt Chronicles, the town’s memorial book.
When people began to show significant interest in the paintings – and an exhibition and offers to buy work surely count as interest – Mayer and Barbara began to piece together the stories he had been telling her since her childhood, as complements to the paintings. They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories Of A Jewish Childhood In Poland Before The Holocaust, published by University Of California Press, is the end result of their joint efforts to ensure that the life of a vibrant community doesn’t vanish from our memories like smoke from a chimney dissipating in the wind.
The narrative and the paintings are all from the viewpoint of a child, but filtered through an adult’s understanding of how the world works. What could have easily turned into an exercise in sentimental nostalgia for something that never existed, is instead a steadfastly honest depiction, filled with a child’s excitement and wonder.
On the one hand, we experience the author’s joy at venturing into the millpond in a small skiff with his friends, pretending to be pirates, much as children the world over create imaginary worlds for themselves. On the other, we read of tenements where families sleep five to a bed and share a room with two or three other families. This is no simplistic singing of praises to the good old days. It does not suggest that we would all be better off if we lived like they did back then.
Things that we take for granted now, such as a ready and easy supply of water, aren’t available to the people of Apt. Either they hire a porter to carry water to them, or they make the trip to one of the town’s two wells. Mayer describes in detail all the people who congregate at the water: the town prostitute, the soldiers from the local barracks, and of course the housewives who would stay to exchange the latest gossip.
At first glance, the illustrations appear to be simplistic work that any grade school student might have done with the fridge door as the intended gallery. But on closer inspection you realize you are looking at work of a sophistication that belies its surface appearance. The detail included in each work is astounding, from the wall murals that decorate the interior of the synagogue to the elaborate ritual of the Black Marriage staged in the Jewish cemetery.
Among my mother’s family, it was her father’s Romanian people whose stories I was most familiar with. Her mother’s Polish family was always something of a mystery. I never heard stories of what their life was like back in Poland, though all my grandmother’s brothers and sisters had been born there. But after reading and experiencing this book, I can picture the streets they may have walked down before coming to Canada.
In the past century there have been attempts to erase whole peoples from the annals of world history. Witness the Armenians and Kurds in the Middle East, the Holocaust, and various indigenous peoples throughout the world. As a result, we run the risk of losing the stories of these people in their specific places and times. Each people is a unique strand in the tapestry that makes up who we, as a world population, are today. To allow those stories to vanish would be to throw away a piece of ourselves.
Mayer Kirshenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett have given the world a precious gift by bringing the town of Apt back to life. Leafing through the pages of They Called Me Mayer July you can almost hear the klezmer band accompanying the Purim Play A Krakow Wedding. As Mayer peeks through a window – in his painting of this scene – to try and catch a glimpse of the performance, so we are peeking through the windows of his eyes, catching glimpses of what life was like in Poland for Jews before it was ended so horrifically.
No one can bring the past back to life, or reverse the course of time and history. But we can strive to ensure that people and cultures are not forgotten, and their memories cherished. As long as one copy of They Called Me Mayer July exists, the people of Apt, Poland will live on. Now that’s a blessing.