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

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Boy with herring

I was named after my greatgrandfather Mayer Makhl Gutmakher. Everybody in town had a nickname. Mine was Mayer tamuz, Mayer July, because July was the hottest month of the year. Mayer tamuz means Crazy Mayer. People get excited when it is hot and I was an excitable kid. I was always on the go. I was very smart and very hyperactive. Of course, they wouldn't call me Mayer tamuz to my face. They were afraid to do that. There were a bunch of Mayers. So to tell them apart each had a nickname. Which Mayer do you want? Mayer tamuz? Mayer treyger--Mayer the Porter? Or, Mayer droybe--Mayer the Goose Carcus?

In this painting, I am wearing the unofficial uniform for boys from non-Orthodox homes who attended the Polish public school. Only the hat was compulsory. It was four-cornered with a patent leather peak. Religious Jews didn’t want to wear those hats because the seams on the top of the hat formed a cross. They wore the Jewish hat, a peaked cap, and long dark coat. We wore a navy blue jacket, gray plus fours, and a white shirt with a Slowacki collar. The plus fours were wide enough to look like a skirt. When we stood in a row, it looked like the whole line was wearing one great skirt. The wide collar was named after Juliusz Slowacki, a nineteenth-century Polish national poet who wore that kind of collar. He was a contemporary of Adam Mickiewicz, whose poetry I had to memorize at school. Sporty fellows like me had red ski boots with brass eyes and wide yellow shoelaces. My red ski boots were my favorite shoes. They were sportowa, sporty, but they were not made in Apt. We wore two pairs of white socks, knee socks and a second pair that folded over the shoe like a collar. We looked pretty smart with those nice shoes and knee high socks.

Mother sent me to my grandmother's store to buy a herring. They did not wrap herring in paper as paper was in short supply and even newspaper was precious. One newspaper would be shared among several families, rather than each family buying their own daily paper. The shopkeeper wrapped a little piece of newspaper around the middle of the herring, just big enough for my hand, so I could hold it. That's how precious even newspaper was. Brine would drip from the head and tail of the herring. On the way home, I would lick the dripping brine.

A herring was an important part of the diet. A woman could make a whole banquet from a herring. When purchasing a herring, you always asked for a male. After washing the herring and opening it up, mother would remove the milt or milekh, a long sack of semen. She would open the milt and scrape the semen away from the membrane, which she threw away. To the semen she added minced onion and a little vinegar and sugar to taste. Some people added a little oil. This sauce was called a krats borsht or scratch borsht because the milt had been scraped. Everyone got a little piece of herring, a small piece of bread to dip in the krats borsht, and maybe also a boiled potato. That was supper.

In Canada the head of a herring or fish is discarded. In the Old Country, it was considered a delicacy. It was reserved for the head of the family. Sometimes the head was thrown onto the hot coals of the stove and roasted. Then you ate the head and sucked out every tiny little bone. A few boiled potatoes, a slice of bread, and a piece of the herring made an excellent meal for a poor family. My mother had to be a gourmet cook to make a herring into a meal for the whole family. One herring would feed a family of four or five. Many people did not even have that and went to bed hungry.

This is the outfit that I brought to Canada in February of 1934. I awoke to a very cold morning on my first day in Toronto--it was the coldest winter on record--and went out in these clothes to explore the city. As I walked along Spadina and College Street, people looked at me like I had arrived from the moon! A fire truck came rushing by. I thought to myself, "How big could a city be?" and started running after the fire truck. A mile down the road I gave up running after it. Toronto was definitely bigger than Apt.

You can see me in many of the paintings. I am wearing this outfit and observing what is going on.