Kirshenblatt, Mayer (1916-2009)
The pisher, September 1994
Acrylic on canvas
24 x 30 in.
Collection of Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Max Gimblett, New York.
Photographed by Tom Warren, with the assistance of Anthony Fodero.
"The house was hermetically sealed at night. Sealing the house at night goes back many years, from the time of pogroms. Fear was a constant companion. Even in summer, when the heat was stifling, we still sealed the house at night. It was an oven. The last thing we did at night, before going to bed, was to close the wooden shutters. The windows were quite high off the ground, so mother or father would do this. They would go outside to secure the shutters with a big steel bar. The doors were locked with one big slide bolt, a lock, and a hook and eye. We also locked the vestibule door and the outhouse. There was no indoor toilet. No one wanted to go out in the middle of the night, especially in the winter, to use the outhouse. Who would undo all the bolts and all the locks and go outside to urinate?
As a result, everyone used the slop basin at night. It was in the middle of the kitchen floor. It was my job to empty the slop basin every morning. It was too far to go to the outhouse, so I just chucked the urine into a gutter that lead from the yard to the back street. People used to piss in the corner of our courtyard near the gate. We would get rid of the stench by spreading quicklime on the area. Our outhouse was at the very end of our courtyard, near the gate to the Narrow Street. The outhouse had two or three holes. Since it was locked at night, some of the neighbors would break the lock and defecate everywhere except into the hole. When I would come there in the morning, I had to be very careful where I stepped. We wiped ourselves with newspaper or with little squares of tissue paper that we got from Shmelzman, the landlord for my father's leather store. Shmelzman had a little grocery store and used to import oranges, lemons, and citrons--we used the citrons (esroygim) for the holiday of Sukes. Citrus fruit was wrapped in little squares of tissue paper. He would save the papers and give them to us.
We fought a constant battle against lice and bed bugs. As soon as I got home and my mother saw me start to scratch, she immediately made me change my undergarments and threw me into the washtub. To keep clean was a full time occupation. There were few facilities to wash and water and fuel were expensive. As a result, It was hard to prevent infection from lice. If you hung your coat up in a public place or school, you did not know whose coat was next to yours. Mother was on constant alert for vermin. It was a battle to keep us clean and to keep the house clean.
We were the first in town with many innovations. Father traveled extensively to large cities and would bring back new things. We were the first to own a pump with insecticide, called flit. Within a month, there were no more bed bugs. The house was built right on the ground without a basement. Our wood floors were right on the earth, without ventilation, so the floor would often rot and need to be replaced. One day I watched the carpenter rip off the old floor boards and underneath there were hundreds of bugs, called karaluchy in Polish. They did not look like our cockroaches in Canada. I never saw them in the house, only under the floorboards. We flitted them. Whether they came back I don't know. We left Poland before the floor needed to be replaced again."