BOSTON – It’s been almost one year since Israeli president Reuven Rivlin delivered a stirring speech at the opening ceremonies of Warsaw’s glistening new POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
“It is not a museum of the Holocaust, it is a museum of life,” Rivlin proclaimed, echoing the mission of the museum that tells the 1,000-year history of how Jews lived in Poland, and not only how they died.
Since then, more than 350,000 people from around the world, including thousands of Israelis, have visited the museum and the widely hailed centerpiece of its permanent exhibit — the recreated roof and painted ceiling of the 18th century Gwozdziec Synagogue and its intricately painted, hand-carved eight-sided bimah.
Now, a new documentary, “Raise the Roof,” takes viewers behind the scenes with the unlikely and inspiring story of how Rick and Laura Brown, a husband-wife team of artists and visionary educators from Boston, led an international movement of more than 300 students, artisans and scholars to recreate this magnificent architectural gem, a little known but significant piece of nearly lost Jewish history.
At one time, there were some 200 of these wooden synagogues built during a period referred to as the golden age of Polish Jewry. None survived destruction during the German Nazi occupation of Poland.
All of the work for the recreated synagogue roof and ceiling was done by hand, with rotating crews of students from around the world working with the guidance of skilled artists using methods, tools and materials that would have been used at the time the original was made. The roof reconstruction was led by the International Timber Framers Guild.
“The recovery of this lost object is an epic story,” according to Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, program director of the core exhibition of the Polin Museum, which partnered with the Browns for the reconstruction along with the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, one of the scholars interviewed in the film, described the painted ceiling as a “celestial canopy,” reflecting a rich period of Polish Jewish history that contrasts sharply with the stereotypical images of impoverished Polish Jewish shtetl life.
Already screened around the globe, the riveting, exquisitely shot 85-minute film by Yari Wolinsky (editor and director) and his father, Cary Wolinsky (writer and producer), debuts in Israel at a screening on Friday, October 2, at the Haifa International Film Festival. Sharon Pucker Rivo and Lisa Rivo of the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University, the film’s distributor, will lead a post-screening discussion.
In the opening frame of the film, Rick Brown holds an old photograph of the Gwozdziec Synagogue, the intriguing image that first attracted him and Laura to the little-known world of Poland’s wooden synagogues. From that moment, at a 2003 conference on annihilated history held in Poland, the couple, American Southerners who are neither Jewish or of Polish descent, were drawn to the beauty and tragic destruction of the synagogues. They were determined to help bring this nearly lost history back to life, Rick Brown said.
The Browns, faculty members at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, are the founders of an education non-profit called Handshouse that specializes in projects to recreate large historic objects using traditional methods.
“By looking closely at a historic object and trying to build it as accurately as possible, you inevitably learn about the social, political and economic forces that were present at that time,” Rick Brown said in an interview.
The photo that sparked their curiosity is part of the Alois Breyer (Breier) collection at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Breyer (1885-1948) was a young architectural student at the Vienna University of Technology, who traveled to Galicia in 1910 to document some of the region’s wooden synagogues.
His color study of the north portion of the ceiling panel of the Gwozdziec Synagogue’s interior, made around 1914, is the only known existing visual example of the ceiling colors and was a key source for the Browns and their team to determine the colors used by the original painters.
The Breyer study “shows the palette and where every board is,” Laura Browns explains in the film. “It gave us the basis of blue and red,” she says, helping to discern one of the most persistent challenges in the complex project. From those clues, they examined other sources including Kabbalistic texts and dyes used in local textile and tent making industry that played a central role in the economy of the region at that time.
The Tel Aviv Museum acquired the Breyer collection in 1937, sent to the museum at the beginning of World War II, according to Dr. Batsheva Goldman-Ida, curator of special projects. It was exhibited in 1941 and then not again for nearly three-quarters of a century, until last year, as part of a show curated by Goldman-Ida that juxtaposed the unique synagogue architecture with the work of 20th century artists El Lissitzky and Frank Stella.
The Browns also drew on the scholarship of Kazimierz Piechotka and his wife, Maria Piechotka. Their work was based on surviving synagogue documentation begun during the interwar years under the direction of Oskar Sosnowski and Szymon Zajczyk, who perished during the Nazi occupation of Poland. The documentary, “Raise the Roof,” includes an interview with Maria Piechotka.
“We tell our students that they are continuing the work of the scholars and these students that preceded them,” Rick Brown says in the film.
Filmmaker Cary Wolinsky, whose Jewish ancestors were from Poland, says the film highlights how the Handshouse project engaged young people with the complexities of Polish-Jewish history.
He strikes a note of cautious optimism.
Up until recently, he adds in a phone conversation, young Israelis and Jews from the United States, experienced Poland largely through visits to death camps. The museum and the Browns’ project reflect a willingness to open a new dialogue between Jews and Poles, he observes.
The film comes at “a magic moment where there are now opportunities for young people [from Israel and Poland] to meet each other, talk and be curious,” he says.
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