Visu­al Arts

They Called Me May­er July: Paint­ed Mem­o­ries of a Jew­ish Child­hood in Poland Before the Holocaust

May­er Kir­shen­blatt; Bar­bara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett
  • Review
By – February 24, 2012

The title word Paint­ed” defines the unique­ness of this father-daugh­ter col­lab­o­ra­tion, recall­ing Jew­ish vil­lage life between the World Wars. May­er immi­grat­ed to Toron­to in 1934, age 14. With gen­tle appeal, the metic­u­lous, straight­for­ward remem­brances of May­er July (his birth month) have been pol­ished and cadenced by his emi­nent schol­ar-folk­lorist daugh­ter. She encour­aged his art (over 200 illus­tra­tions) which evoke not only his vil­lage, but por­tray­als of gen­er­a­tions of shtetl Jews, as in their life­times few changes occurred. 

Mayer’s sharp eye gives read­ers dia­grams and instruc­tions on mak­ing use­ful items with min­i­mal mate­ri­als — a wil­low sho­far, a book’s bind­ing, a tin whis­tle, a drey­dl. Spar­ing and for­get­ting no detail, he recalls phys­i­cal abuse by khay­der teach­ers, sneaky boys’ may­hem, along with unchang­ing rou­tines of wash­ing day, sex­u­al knowl­edge, hol­i­day obser­vances, san­i­ta­tion, car­ing fam­i­ly and neigh­bors, and lim­it­ed rela­tions with the Pol­ish com­mu­ni­ty (in a 2/3 ratio) of Apt/​Opatow.

To Kir­shen­blatt, the Shoah is sec­ond­hand: “…the Ger­mans took the whole fam­i­ly out…they lashed my grand­moth­er to a tree and, before her very eyes, they shot her whole fam­i­ly. Then they shot her.” For years, he couldn’t paint this sto­ry told to him. Well-print­ed, this book has mul­ti-age appeal — imag­ine Huck­le­ber­ry Finn illus­trat­ed by Grand­ma Moses. Acknowl­edge­ments, after­word, illus­tra­tions, index, notes.

Arlene B. Soifer earned degrees in Eng­lish, and has had many years of expe­ri­ence as a free­lance writer, edi­tor, and pub­lic rela­tions professional.

Discussion Questions