Helena Czernek and Aleksander Prugar are creating Judaica that connects the past with the present. They are turning fragments from prewar Polish Jewish life into mezuzot that commemorate this once vibrant community.
Czernek and Prugar are the co-founders of the Warsaw-based Judaica company, Mi Polin. They produce bronze mezuzot from the hollow imprints of the mezuzot that were placed on the doorposts of the homes of Polish Jews before the Holocaust. “We wanted to turn the nothingness into something,” Czernek said.
She and Prugar were in Toronto from Oct. 27 to Nov. 12 for an artist residency. They ran workshops and attended the opening of Mezuzah Okno, their installation at Fentster, the storefront window gallery at 402 College St. That show continues until March 1.
This site-specific Mi Polin installation – it can only be viewed from the street – is housed at Makom: Creative Downtown Judaism. Evelyn Tauben curated this exhibit. She and Rachel Libman were the co-curators of the MNJCC show that displayed some of the Mi Polin bronze mezuzot. It closed on Nov. 27.
Mezuzah Okno – Mezuzah Window is the literal Polish translation – is a window in the shape of a large-scale mezuzah. When one peers through this “mezuzah” one sees the constantly changing images of the verdant Polish countryside and the mighty Vistula River.
Tauben pointed out that the landscape of Poland is beautiful and a contrast to the stereotypical image of the impoverished shtetl or prewar village, that many Jews associate with Poland.
Mezuzah Okno also includes the outline of a Hebrew prayer with moving images mounted behind the lettering.
So how did the Polish business partners – they’re both in their mid-30s – come up with the idea of conserving and creating the mezuzot from the hollow door-post imprints?
Czernek, who is Jewish, said she had never seen any empty mezuzah spaces in Warsaw, where she resides. However, in 2014 she came across one of the hollow indentations in Krakow. “I was very excited.
“I’m a product developer. I think in terms of products. I didn’t know how to make something tangible from the indentation, so I called Aleksander.”
Prugar, a photographer and journalist with a background in business management, quickly came up with a plan. “I told Helena we could trace the empty space to create a mould and then we would have the mould cast in bronze at a foundry.
“It was an hour and 30 minutes that has changed our lives.”
Locating a foundry was a challenge, but they were lucky to find a supportive establishment, he recounted. “When the owner (Waldemar Gornicki) was told about the project, he was amazed. He believes in the project so he personally does all the finishing.
“Finding the right material to make a mould of the imprint, was achieved through trial and error,” Czernek said.
She explained that the old-style mezuzot were basically hollowed spaces in wood that contained the parchment with the prayer. A metal plate attached to the doorpost covered the parchment and held it in place.
Czernek and Prugar formed a Judaica company to sell the bronze mezuzot along with a selection of contemporary Judaica.
In fact, Mi Polin – it has become internationally known – is the first Judaica company to be founded in Poland since the end of the Second World War.
Today their original ritual objects are featured in many prominent Jewish museums.
Czernek had already designed a menokiah, a menorah that converts to Shabbat candles, but she did not have the business acumen for marketing, Prugar recalled. “I decided I would try to help sell the menokiah. We had many ideas. At the time we were business partners and life partners. Now we are just business partners.”
Their work has taken them all over the Poland. They have now amassed more than 100 mezuzot moulds from traces they have found in 90 cities, among them, Krakow, Warsaw, and Lublin.
The couple comb through former Jewish residential areas to find the mezuzah imprints and they research each address to uncover the personal history associated with a particular mezuzah.
“My home has become Mi Polin headquarters,” Prugar joked. “The company has developed much faster than we expected.”
In Canada, Mi Polin is carried at Yofi Bazaar, an online Judaica company (www.yofibazaar.com).