Last summer I travelled for the first time to Poland, where my grandparents were born, to help recreate murals from an 18th-century wooden synagogue in the town of Gwozdziec, now in Ukraine.
This synagogue replication is one part of a multi-phase decades-long exploration into Polish wooden synagogues by the Massachusetts-based organization, Handshouse Studio.
The newly built roof structure and painted domed ceiling of the Gwozdziec synagogue were recently unveiled in the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Located on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto and in the prewar Jewish neighbourhood of Warsaw, the museum opened a new building this month on April 19 to mark the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
For years, I followed the museum project with great interest. With the announcement that hands-on workshops would be offered in Poland, I eagerly applied, seeing a chance to play a small role in the museum effort and to finally travel to Poland with a creative purpose.
The trip became an expression of a deep and complicated desire to connect with my Polish roots. I shaped an experience that was about being generative and collaborative – a curator curating my own experience. But life rarely conspires to be packaged so neatly and I was challenged in unforeseen ways.
In July, I joined a group of artists who were primarily from the United States, along with a handful of young Poles, for one of 12 Handshouse workshops hosted over two summers. Each two-week stint was based out of a different historic synagogue.
We worked in the southeastern town of Szczebrzeszyn, replicating the vibrant south dome murals of the Gwozdziec synagogue ceiling. The ceiling features two mythological creatures wrestling – a griffin and a dragon – surrounded by a network of vines and stylized flowers. A lower band includes an enigmatic combination of a leopard, turkey and deer. With awe, I observed the lead team, which has spent years dedicated to this project. Only one member has Jewish heritage. Among them, I felt both bolstered and weighed down by my background. Their passion was for making historical objects anew, practising their motto of learning through doing, but my desire was to enter into history and to appreciate more vividly a past that is personal.
Szczebrzeszyn is 113 miles from Lutsk, where my grandfather was from. As a teenager, instead of fulfilling his dream of attending art school, he was fleeing to the Soviet Union with his father and uncle. After the war, he opened an engraving shop in Los Angeles and supported his family by the work of his fine hands. I inherited his eye, if not his raw talent, and channelled the family business of colour, line and form into a career as a curator and producer. Instead of going to Lutsk, I imagined bringing my zaide with me.
As the Handshouse team doled out tasks, it was suggested that I help with the Hebrew text. But I desperately wanted to paint a flower. My Hebrew name is Vered or “rose,” after my zaide’s sister, Blumeh – “flower” in Yiddish. When the men in the family fled, Blumeh followed but was sent back to her mother and little brother to wait out the war. Instead the war came for them. Blumeh was 15. Now she exists only through threadbare memories and through me. Among the blossoms on the ceiling would be my quiet tribute – a blumeh for Blumeh.
A peculiar flower was assigned to me – a bulbous green pod with curled tips, resting on wide red petals. Through practise on test boards, I became connected with its curving shape, refining the technique of layering colours and blending them using rabbit-skin glue. When the time came to work on the actual panels, my hands trembled and I recalled my initial poetic notion of invoking my zaide’s assured artistry to guide me. But in actuality, it was not easy painting with ghosts at my back.
The Handshouse synagogue replication, helmed by Rick and Laura Brown, is fuelled by curiosity and conviction resembling faith. Ritual abounded in this shul-turned-studio – not the recitation of Shema or standing for the Amidah but gathering daily for opening words of inspiration and spending hours carefully, rhythmically tracing out shapes, laying down background colours, mixing powder pigments into paint, and mimicking the markings of Isaac and Israel – the original mural painters.
Talmudic debates were replaced by a sort of “colourscape chevrutah,” as painting leaders argued over the quality of a brushstroke or the saturation of the overall palette while huddled around archival black-and-white photos and the few remaining pre-1914 colour sketches. These artists share much in common with the devout: patience, dedication, fidelity to tradition, and commitment to legacy. While they were devoted to the solemnity of the process, I was yearning for a deeper connection to a place that I wanted to claim as my own.
With all energies devoted to figuratively looking up at the decorated ceiling, we often forgot to “look down” to the space that cannot be recreated – where the congregation gathered, where their voices lifted to meet the fanciful forms gracing that ceiling. I wanted to be with those people, to grasp why they built this elaborate house of worship, not just how. However, solely meditating on the massive devastation brought upon the Jews, or on the fact that no wooden synagogues still stand in Poland, obscures the reality that new synagogues are regularly built around the world and new Jewish communities continue to rise up, even in Poland.
The project’s name is “Making History.” I wondered what that meant. In remaking a historical object, what is drawn out of the recesses of the past? What is left behind? Expertise in painting a flower that once adorned a shul does not translate into appreciating what a shul actually is. As a descendant of makers of the everyday stuff of life, from my seamstress great-grandmother and my mother, a designer, I tried to enter fully into the process of making, but a feeling of incompleteness tugged at me. One day, a well-known teaching from Pirkei Avot came to mind, providing new perspective: “It is not your responsibility to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
The Browns enthusiastically began the task, launching a huge team effort and insisting on hosting educational workshops across Poland. (The less complicated, more reliable route would have been to carry out the project with the core group in their Massachusetts studios.) But it is not up to them to take on all the complex pieces that are hard-wired into this narrative. And it is not up to me. Neither am I free to desist from the challenging, vital task of bringing people into meaningful engagement with history and Jewish creative expression.
Producing Jewish arts events in recent years, I understood this in a broad sense, often encountering a self-conscious attitude that our culture could not be of interest to others. But now I feel it more acutely after immersion in a project of great significance to modern Jewry that was not spearheaded by Jews. Given the reservoirs of hurt still gathered around all things Jewish and Polish, it is not surprising that it took two sculptors from the East Coast of the United States to highlight what an artistic treasure had been built by Jewish communities in Poland before the war. Yet there was an essential quality – a Yiddishe neshama – missing from the process, which I felt acutely.
Between the push-pull of doing and discovering, at any given moment with the Handshouse team, I felt a mixture of pride and frustration, admiration and isolation. Perhaps what I was looking for – a textured experience of a Jewish past and present in the place where my entire family came from – could not be found in this art project.
But I did find Blumeh. After carrying her name with me since birth, I finally spent time with her while painting a funny little flower. And I found a new understanding of my grandfather – of his loss, his resilience, his courage and of his pressing impulse to create art. Clearly, there is no perfect “return to Poland” itinerary. But among our group there was an imperfect striving to tell and know one another’s stories. In doing so, we were making history.
Evelyn Tauben is an independent curator, producer and writer with a focus on new Jewish culture. A version of this article appeared in the Jewish Daily Forward on Oct. 5, 2012.