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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

He left before the Holocaust, that's how he remembered his town

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70 unique paintings showing the life of the pre-war town were included in the exhibition “(post)JEWISH… Abbots Shtetl through the eyes of Majer Kirszenblat” at the POLIN Museum. In vivid colors, the amateur painter immortalized what he remembered from childhood, not avoiding difficult topics.

– This exhibition is absolutely unique because it tells what the Jewish world looked like before the Holocaust. This is possible thanks to the creation of a whole series of interesting paintings painted by Majer Kirszenblat at the instigation of his daughter, Professor Barbara Kiershenblatt-Gimblett. He was a man with a special memory, he remembered everything down to the smallest detail and reproduced it faithfully. In this way, he preserved the Jewish world, said Zbigniew Stępiński, director of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, during Wednesday's conference.

Colorful memories from Opatów, without avoiding difficult topics

Majer Kirszenblat is the main character, but also a guide to the exhibition. He was born in Opatów in 1916, from where he emigrated to Canada in 1934. His childhood memories were meticulously recorded by his daughter, Barbara Kiershenblatt-Gimblett, a historian, folklorist, retired professor at New York University, associated with POLIN for many years, and one of the creators of the permanent exhibition.

– It all started in 1967, when I started interviewing him. I recorded these conversations for almost 40 years, she said. My father fondly recalled that he only started painting in the 1990s, as an older man. – I knew he could do it, but it took us years to convince him to do it. For the last 20 years of his life, he painted what he remembered, Kiershenblatt-Gimblett described.

And she noticed that her father's paintings were special for one basic reason. – He left in 1934, which means he was not directly affected by the trauma of the Holocaust. His memories of Poland were not filtered by the experience of this trauma. It's an extraordinary gift. He left when he was 17, so these were childhood memories, not the memories of an adult who has to face a number of challenges and problems – said the daughter of the self-taught painter.

Majer Kirszenblat was able to closely observe the life of his town thanks to going beyond the Jewish community. All thanks to education, received not only in the cheder. – When I was working on the book, I discovered that he even went to a Polish primary school. I was shocked! – recalled Barbara Kiershenblatt-Gimblett. She also expressed pride that her family donated all of her father's paintings to the POLIN collection.

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett with her father, 1990Frédéric Brenner

As we read in the curatorial text: “His painting will allow us to discover the world of a Jewish child from the pre-war shtetl, but also to face the difficult history of the entire community. The seemingly joyful images are not free from criticism of the social relations and economic realities in which he grew up. They also provoke questions about what happened to the Jewish world.

Break the spell of the “shtetl”. “Post-Jewish”, meaning what?

– Shtetls were very poor. At this exhibition, our priority was to disenchant the shtetl as a land flowing with milk and honey. You will see that this daily toil, the hardship of people with professions such as a water carrier, a bagel maker or a brush maker, who lived on the verge of poverty – explained Dr. Natalia Romik, curator of the exhibition “(Po)JEWISH… Abbots' Shtetl through the eyes of Majer Kirszenblat”. She added that apart from a critical look at the past, what was also important was what is happening today to the towns that were once shtetls, and how much of the material heritage of the former inhabitants was left. And this is physically reflected in the exhibition.

– Traveling to Opatów with the curatorial team, we wondered what was left of Jewish architecture. At some point, we started thinking about how to show this exhibition based on the material from Opatów. We built wooden frames from the collapsed Polish-Jewish school in which we show the obverse and reverse of our history – on the one hand, what Majer remembered critically, and on the other hand, our research, for example geodetic research – explained Romik.

And the second curator, Dr. Justyna Koszarska-Szulc, explained the origins of the name of the exhibition. – The first geodetic maps of Opatów were prepared in 1944-48. We received these extraordinary documents. The plots contained records with the names of the owners. Where plots of land previously belonged to Jewish owners, there was usually an entry in pencil saying “post-Jewish”. Then we were inspired that if we wanted to say something more about Opatów than Majer, we had to enter these geodetic maps and take the viewers to the present, to today's Opatów. It seemed to us that the word “post-Jewish” would best connect the obverse and reverse of this story, said Koszarska-Szulc.

In addition to the recovered wood from which the exhibition's scenography was created, it also included unusual objects obtained from collectors and private donors, such as wooden menorahs and hanukkiahs. We also managed to find photos from pre-war Opatów and compare them with contemporary photographs.

The exhibition “(post)JEWISH… The Abbots' Shtetl through the eyes of Majer Kirszenblat” w The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews will run from May 17 to December 16, 2024. Opening during the Night of Museums.

Author:Piotr Bakalarski

Main photo source: Collections of the POLIN Museum

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