Paint What You Remember

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Mayer Kirshenblatt left Poland for Canada in 1934. Fifty-six years later, at age 73 Mayer began to paint his childhood memories of prewar life in Opatow. Before Second World War Opatow (or Apt in Yiddish) had 10 thousand inhabitants, more than half of them Jewish. Nowadays, little is remembered of the shtetl character of the town and of its Jewish population wiped out entirely by the Holocaust.

When in the summer of 2007 91 year old Mayer came to Opatow and organized a public showing of the images he paints, he was welcomed with incredible enthusiasm. The town officials were astounded by the reaction of the crowd, as no event had ever attracted so many people, who simply could not get enough of Mayer’s stories about a lost Jewish world. Today, there are no Jews living in Opatow and there are hardly any signs of its Jewish heritage.

Mayer was born in 1916. His nickname as a boy was ‘Tamez’, in Yiddish ‘July’, which more bluntly meant ‘crazy’ for people get a little crazy when it is hot – Mayer recounts – and it was always hot in July. So Mayer was an excitable hyperactive kid. He completed seven grades of Polish school and immigrated to Canada at age 17. He ended up opening his own wallpaper and paint store in Toronto.

After he retired over 20 years ago, his daughter Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, as well as other members of the family, began urging him to tell and paint whatever he could remember of his childhood. The images yielded by his memory exceeded everyone’s expectations, probably including his own. Mayer’s photographic memory allowed him to meticulously recreate Jewish life in Opatow, as it was before the war. He remembers every house, every store, and every street. He remembers all his friends and teachers. But, more importantly, this self-taught artist has found a medium to capture and to share his personal narrative of a world, which is no more.

Mayer painted over 300 large-format paintings on canvas. Each one of them is a story in itself. Through these stories the rich history of his shtetl comes to life many decades later. In his spare time Mayer joggs and works out. He speaks fluent Polish, English and Yiddish, and his energy and sense of humor are beyond remarkable.

In this film the audience is taken on a journey through a world, which existed 80 and 70 years ago, and back to the world, in which Mayer Kirshenblatt lives today. We witness how the local population in Opatow interacts with perhaps the first Jew they ever meet – a person who represents a heritage so central in the history of the place, and yet so obscure to the people who live there today. Just as the people of contemporary Opatow, the viewer are introduced to a rich and vibrant world of Jewish rituals, celebrations and sorrows, holidays and funerals, trade and poverty – all this told and painted by an eye-witness, one of the very few remaining descendants of a lost civilization.

The film takes us to Toronto, where Mayer lives today, to New York, where together with his daughter they launch a book/album of his paintings and stories, but also to Opatow (Apt), where he turns out to be a true sensation and is enthusiastically received by the crowd.

The camera follows Mayer during his daily routine, at his home with his family, his daughters, and his beloved wife who does not always recognize him, due to poor health. We accompany Mayer in his studio as he starts a new painting and as he shows us his numerous works. In New York we see a lively discussion between Mayer and his daughter Barbara, as she tries to retrieve every possible detail about prewar Opatow. Former inhabitants from Opatow show up at the book launch in New York. Once again, Mayer’s work is welcomed as a true phenomenon.

In Opatow, Mayer takes us around the town, remembering every square, alley, and backyard. As we walk along the streets of his hometown, we see what once was a synagogue and is now a piece of wall sticking from the ground on someone’s yard, and what once was a Jewish cemetery and is now a children’s playground. Incidentally, we end up finding a matzevah (Jewish tombstone), which is used today by a farmer as a tool sharpener. Nevertheless, Mayer’s vigor and sense of humor seem unshakable. As he runs into people his age he immediately provokes everyone to recall every last prewar memory they may have – about the school, about teachers, tailors, or thieves.

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