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Jewish-Polish artists embrace their history

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Aleksander Prugar and Helena Czernek, the creative minds behind Mi Polin (Courtesy Mi Polin)

Years ago, on a free weekend, Helena Czernek and Aleksander Prugar travelled from their native Warsaw to Sokolow Podlaski, a small town in eastern Poland, to find the trace of a lost mezuzah. Not the mezuzah itself, but the trace of it – the indentation left engraved into the wooden doorframe of its former home.

But when they arrived at the address, they found the old house under construction. Not wanting to waste the trip, they wandered around to the backyard, hoping to find something useful. That’s when they chanced upon the old wooden doorframe in the garbage. A local told them it was thrown out Friday, to be collected on Monday, which was less than 24 hours away. Arriving just in the nick of time, they ended up taking it home on the bus.

“A 90-year-old house. One weekend to save it,” Czernek recalls over the phone from her home in Poland. The story happened years ago, but it still amazes her. It is evidence, she believes, of a divine force supporting her work.

“There is this hand that helps us and shows us direction,” she says. “It’s more than luck.”

Helena Czernek feels the hollowed-out trace of a mezuzah in Poland. (Aleksander Prugar photo)

Czernek needed the mezuzah trace for an art project she launched with Prugar, whereby the duo – the creative minds behind the Jewish-Polish art team Mi Polin – find these etched-out mezuzah traces on old homes and create a bronze cast to exhibit in galleries and sell online. To date, they have visited more than 70 cities and towns across eastern Europe to create the mezuzot, some of which will be on display at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre in Toronto in November.

“We wanted to turn this emptiness into something opposite, to make a negative space that shows existence,” Czernek says. “It’s like a competition with time.”

Their JCC exhibit is just one part of the artists’ two-week Canadian visit, which coincides with Holocaust Education Week. They will be giving workshops and talks at the Danforth Jewish Circle, the Toronto Reference Library and Limmud.

Their most accessible work can be viewed publicly at Fentster, the street-facing art gallery near College and Bathurst streets in downtown Toronto. Curator Evelyn Tauben invited Mi Polin to Toronto after meeting them in Warsaw, during the opening of the city’s Jewish museum in 2013. Tauben, whose family roots are Polish, has long felt a kinship to the country.

Tauben kept in touch with the artists after their initial meeting, even commissioning them to create bookmarks resembling a yad (Torah pointer), which she gave away as gifts during her wedding. For the Fentster exhibit, Tauben tasked the duo with creating an original, site-specific work that would focus on the beauty of Poland, rather than its tragic history.

“We’re losing a part of ourselves by insisting Poland is a giant graveyard,” she says. “I want to counter the image that so many people are still walking around with.”

Czernek recalls that, “We were asked by Evelyn to make something that will tell about Poland.” She still wanted to incorporate a mezuzah, their hallmark symbol, which is immediately recognizable to Jews worldwide. But what would be behind the mezuzah? They considered a Jewish-Polish monument or a vibrant cityscape, but neither felt right.

When they considered the Vistula – the country’s longest river, which begins and ends its 1,047-kilometre flow entirely within the nation’s borders, something clicked.

So Czernek and Prugar designed Mezuzah Okno, a repeating video of the country’s prominent Vistula River, surrounded by lush forests, that’s only visible to pedestrians through a mezuzah-shaped lens.

“Water is something that can tell much more,” Czernek says. “That is something universal.”

 

Mezuzah Okno will run in the Fentster gallery from Oct. 29 until Mar. 1. The mezuzah traces will be on display in the Miles Nadal JCC from Oct. 31 to Nov. 27. To see Mi Polin’s full schedule in Toronto, visit holocaustcentre.com/mi-polin.

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