Mezuzahs from Holocaust victims’ homes reforged by artist couple
To celebrate Polish Jewry past and present, the Mi Polin duo creates art based on imprints from the past
For Eric Silberman and his family in Chicago, this Passover was a double occasion to celebrate. In addition to a family reunion, just prior to the Seder, the Silbermans held a special ceremony in which they affixed a new mezuzah on their home’s doorframe.
This mezuzah, which contains piece of parchment inscribed with the Jewish prayer “Shema Yisrael,” came from Poland, where all four of Silberman’s grandparents were from. It was manufactured from an imprint of a family mezuzah that is still barely visible on the entrance of a building in Szczebrzeszyn. The city, located in southeastern Poland, is the place where Eric’s grandfather, Tobias, lived before World War II, when he was imprisoned in five concentration camps before his eventual liberation and journey to America.
The mezuzah is a product of the project “Mezuzah From This Home” by the Judaica design brand Mi Polin (the Hebrew words for “From Poland”). The company was founded about a year ago by a young Polish couple: Helena Czernek, 29, a designer, and Alexander Prugar, 30, a photojournalist.
“Mi Polin marked the first time Judaica objects are designed and produced in Poland after the Second World War,” Czernek told The Times of Israel in a Skype conversation from the couple’s home. Both discovered an interest in Judaism in their twenties, and are active members of the Warsaw Jewish community where they attend the city’s Reform synagogue.
More than 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland before 1939, of which over three million were killed. Most of the survivors left the country, and those who stayed faced a harsh life under the Communist regime, which denounced religion and especially Judaism.
Since 1989, however, Jewish life in Poland has experienced an inspiring revival and it is the goal of Mi Polin to link the Jewish past to the present in Poland — both in remembrance of what happened and a thirst for life and hope for the future.
“We design both for people here who are in need of Judaica for their own practice, and for people abroad who do not have any knowledge of Jewish life in Poland today and look at Poland only thinking about the Holocaust,” says Czernek.
Czernek explains they got the idea for “Mezuzah From This Home” by walking around Krakow and seeing mezuzah traces on the doorposts of numerous buildings.
“I thought we could design something truly inspiring using the traces, and we started by making a series of seven mezuzot for an exhibition. But then people began to order them,” Czernek recalls.
When they realized how meaningful it was for many to have a mezuzah from an old Jewish home, they began to research the families who used to live in the buildings where they found the traces.
One day, they got the email from Silberman, 24, asking them to make a mezuzah from the building where his grandfather used to live, which he and his family had visited a few weeks before.
“All my grandparents were from Poland. A few years ago I started to research my father’s father, Tobias. He had passed away in 1996, without really ever talking about what had happened to him during the war,” Silberman tells The Times of Israel. “We found out that he was born in 1904, 10 years before he had told us, and that he had had a wife and a child, who were both killed, before he met my grandmother. We even discovered that he had a cousin in Israel whom he had never mentioned.”
In his research, Silberman also discovered that his grandfather had wanted to move to Israel.
“His cousin told us that after the war he wanted to reach her in the kibbutz where she was living, but that in an escape attempt he had jumped from a train and broken both his legs and therefore he feared that working in agriculture would not be suitable for him,” Silberman says, showing Tobias’ ID issued by the Allies in 1949.
Silberman is so driven by his Polish origins that he learned Polish and spent last year in Warsaw on a Fulbright scholarship. When his parents visited him, they travelled to southern Poland together to visit the town where his grandfather lived.
“When I heard about the Mi Polin project, I immediately got in touch with them. I think that what these two young Jewish artists are doing is a great way for making people understand that today there is a vibrant Jewish life in Poland to reconnect to.”
In the past months, the couple has scouted all over Poland in search of mezuzah traces, with many unbelievable surprises.
Once, in Przemyśl, they found an intact mezuzah with the scroll still inside after 70 years. Another time, they were extremely disappointed to discover that a mezuzah trace they had spotted in Sokołów Podlaski was gone before they had had the chance of taking the cast. The door had been replaced. But then they realized that the old doorframe was sitting in the garbage only a few meters away.
“We took it with us and now we keep it in our living room!” says Prugar, pointing to a long piece of wood in the corner.
The process of creating these mezuzah is quite complicated, with multiple steps.
“First of all we need the imprint, which we take using special paste,” says Prugar. “Afterwards, we preserve it in plaster, then we use silicon and wax and finally we send it to the foundry and they turn it into bronze. Every piece is handmade.”
Contrary to what many people think, the couple dismisses the idea that anti-Semitism is a major issue in Poland.
“Poland is no more anti-Semitic than other countries. For instance, we never encountered any problem with the people who live in the houses where we took the casts of the mezuzah traces. The reaction of the residents has always been friendly, sometimes even more than friendly,” Prugar says.
A “Mezuzah From This Home” is not the only Mi Polin project. Among the items designed and produced by Czernek and Prugar is the “Menokiah” (a combination of a double branch for Shabbat candles and a Menorah with seven lights).
“Our design wants to be a message from Poland to the Jewish world: we are here, we have a normal life, we have a future,” the designers say.
This message is already traveling to California, where Mi Polin creations will be exhibited at the PJCC Foster City through June 25, 2015.
A desire for greater understanding of the Polish Jewish reality today is why Evelyn Tauben and her fiancée Jordy Koffman, who both have Polish roots, decided to buy Mi Polin Judaica as gifts for wedding guests at their May marriage. They ordered menokiot for family members and a special bookmark for friends.
“All my grandparents came from Poland, and growing up, Polish culture was a strong presence in my life, although I did not know a lot about it. Eventually, I spent time there in Poland to reconnect with my roots and I wanted to share them with my guests,” says Tauben.
“We thought that these objects, so creative and beautiful, and created by a young couple, are the right way to communicate something that is important to us: the rebirth of Jewish life in Poland,” says Tauben.
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