Exhibition
17.05-16.12.2024

(post)JEWISH… Shtetl Opatów Through the Eyes of Mayer Kirshenblatt

In our new temporary exhibition, we will present the less-known history of Opatów, one of the many Polish towns which prior to World War Two were inhabited by Poles and Jews. Painter Mayer Kirshenblatt will be our guide through this no longer existing world. With the example of Opatów, we will have a chance to realize how many stories of our former neighbours from small Polish towns are still waiting to be rediscovered. 

There were over a thousand shtetls in today’s territories of Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania and Belarus. Shtetls are towns where Jews and Christians used to live side by side. The Second World War and the Holocaust obliterated the world of shtetls completely. Today, in Opatów—as well as in tens of other Polish towns—there are no more Jews left.

Our new temporary exhibition titled (post) JEWISH… demonstrates that Polish towns hide two parallel histories. The history of their Polish inhabitants is well known and remembered. The one of their Jewish neighbours who are no more is forgotten or left unsaid. 

Our guide in the exhibition will be Mayer Kirshenblatt, a painter who emigrated to Canada with his mother and brothers as a teenager, in 1934. Mayer recalls the shtetl of his youth, restoring vivid memories of the people, events, daily life and customs. His paintings—full of color, imagination and humor—show us a world that is no more. Looking at them, we learn about our shared Polish-Jewish history.

The exhibition also features a documentation of artistic interventions carried out in today’s Opatów, aimed at discovering and restoring the vestiges of the pre-war Jewish life.

A painter, chronicler, guide

The (post-)JEWISH… exhibition is inspired by the paintings by Mayer Kirshenblatt, a Jew born in Opatów in 1916, from where he emigrated to Canada in 1934. In the 1990s, encouraged by his daughter Barbara, Mayer began to paint what he remembered from his childhood. Thanks to his phenomenal memory, he recreated the non-existent world of Opatów Jews in great detail. His paintings testify to a close relationship with the place where he grew up.

Mayer Kirshenblatt is the exhibition’s main protagonist and our guide. His paintings allow us to discover the world of a Jewish boy from a pre-war shtetl, but also to face the difficult history of the entire community. The seemingly joyful paintings are not free from criticism of the social relations and economic reality in which the painter grew up. They also provoke questions about what happened to the "post-Jewish" world. 

Mayer Kirshenblatt was an amateur artist and his work is regarded as non-professional or folk art. In the exhibition, however, we refer to him as a vernacular artist and historian of his community—familiar and local, recalling the past of a community with which he himself identified.

Traces of the Jewish past in today’s Opatów

Today’s Opatów is on many levels very far removed from the place emerging from Mayer’s memories. The town has preserved few examples of wooden architecture typical of pre-war Jewish shtetls. With the help of local activists and enthusiasts, (post-)JEWISH… exhibition authors followed in Mayer’s footsteps—they came across a number of transformed, but still visible signs of life of the former shtetl. The curators were most interested in the buildings, most of them already in ruins—often awaiting demolition, collapsed or stripped down to individual wooden boards. Timber recovered from the houses in Opatów was used to build the exhibition space design.

The need to educate about the buildings and characteristic architectural details typical of former shtetls as well as to respect their remains is a vital element of the exhibition. Destruction of the wooden heritage that we witness in Opatów concerns almost all of Poland.

What does one need to be aware of as far as the urban fabric goes? How to look after the traces that have survived and how to wisely cultivate their memory? We will seek answers to these questions in the exhibition and in its accompanying program.

The material past

Preserving timber from Opatów is just one of many activities related to collecting vestiges of the material past of the Jews from Mayer’s hometown. In the exhibition, we also display artefacts acquired from collectors and private donors—both everyday objects and sacred and precious ones, now orphaned. The post-Jewish objects.

The exhibition is enriched with present-day photographs documenting traces left by mezuzot, sukkot, or the cheder building which today houses a construction material market and communal apartments. We also get acquainted with photographic documentation of the local cemetery and the matzevot, some of them still paving the Opatówka riverbed. Footage presenting the results of geodetic scans carried out in the former Jewish mikveh—today a fudge factory—is yet another important element of the exposition.

We also present artworks that enter into a dialogue with Mayer Kirshenblatt’s paintings. These include graphics printed on fabric by Justyna Sokołowska. On the obverse of each work, the artist placed a selected scene inspired by Mayer’s paintings; on the reverse, a wartime or contemporary equivalent of the stories that occurred later in the same place. Israeli artist Varda Meidar, daughter of Mayer Lustman, a Jew from Opatów who had survived the Holocaust, recreated the map of Opatów in the form of embroidery. Her inspiration came from the town plan with a legend in Yiddish published in the Memorial Book of Opatów.

(post-)JEWISH, meaning?

The term “post-Jewish” almost automatically brings to mind a connotation with "property". This is an important, albeit not the most important theme of the exhibition’s narrative. Above all, we want the term to be understood by visitors in the context of restoring memory. We want to remind them that the places or objects presented in the exhibition served specific functions and were once someone’s property. A property orphaned, abandoned, without legitimate heirs turns into a void left by its former owner, deprived of the memory stored in objects and spaces.

In the exhibition, we are also restoring the names of people whose memory has been in some way obliterated by giving the label "post-Jewish" to everything that was left of them. We fill the "post-Jewish" void with individuals whose lives were cut short by the Holocaust. We restore the memory of the former residents of Opatów.

Putting the prefix "post-" into brackets allows us to move beyond political disputes about the past and retrieve the most important element out of the term "post-Jewish" (post-)JEWISH… spins a tale about JEWISH places and their inhabitants. A title that is formulated in this way restores their identity, respect and memory.

Paint what you remember

There will be a place for the visitors to rest within the exhibition space. Tish-table installation refers to the Jewish tradition of spending joyous time at a table eating, drinking, talking and singing together. Here, the visitors will get more closely acquainted with the figure of Mayer Kirshenblatt and learn about his special relationship with his daughter. They will listen to excerpts from the recorded conversations Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett held with her father over the period of more than 40 years. They will also find Mayer’s personal keepsakes at the table—photographs and documents from the painter’s school years.

Inspired by the idea of painting from memory, we will place a screen not far from the table so that each visitor is able to paint their own memories from childhood on it. To be able to do that, we will use a special app which mimics the process of painting on canvas. Ready-made sketches of fragments of Mayer’s paintings will help our guests adopt the role of painters.

An audio guide for families

We also encourage you to view the exhibition with a family audio guide. Justyna Bednarek, a renowned author of children’s literature, wrote a text for a special walk—a tour of a pre-war Jewish town if you will. Little Mayer, an inquisitive and witty boy in a sky-blue coat, will be our guide. With his help, visitors will learn about elements of Jewish holidays, family customs, and old games. They will venture into a world of memories, images, and sounds. Some features in the exposition will also encourage the youngest visitors to engage: assembling pictures from magnetic puzzles or an educational cube. Children will also try their hand at being painters.

Family audio guide is intended for children aged 4-10. It will be available free of charge with each ticket to the exhibition in the following languages: Polish, English and Ukrainian.

  • Curators: Dr Natalia Romik, Dr Justyna Koszarska-Szulc in cooperation with Prof. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett.
  • Managing curator: Katarzyna Tomczak-Wysocka.
  • Exhibition design: "SENNA" Kolektyw (Natalia Romik, Piotr Jakoweńko, Sebastian Kucharuk).
  • Art installation: Varda Meidar, Justyna Sokołowska.
  • Co-organizer: Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland.

 

The exhibition is produced with the support of Taube Philanthropies, The CBRAT Foundation in loving memory of Joseph and Miriam Ratner.