More than 70 years after the last congregants prayed in it, the beautiful Gwozdziec Synagogue in Poland is once again inspiring awe — in the hundreds of visitors coming to see the recreated bima, roof, and painting ceiling of the historic wooden structure in the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.
How that recreation came about was captured in the documentary, Raise the Roof, which will be screened at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey in Summit on March 11, in collaboration with the Film Society of Summit.
The documentary follows the progress from the massive effort to turn 200 fresh-cut logs into a structure, to its dismantling and eventual reassembly as the centerpiece of the new museum in 2014.
The synagogue, built in the 17th century and renovated in the 18th, was one of hundreds of wooden synagogues constructed throughout Poland during the six centuries in which Judaism flourished there. According to the filmmakers, by 1942, virtually all had been partially or completely destroyed by the Nazis and their allies. All that was left of the Gwozdziec Synagogue — once famous for its magnificently ornate murals and painted decoration — were black and white photographs, and one color image.
The effort to recreate it began with artists Laura and Rick Brown, who did years of research to establish the design and decorative details. Working with students from their Handshouse Studio in Norwell, Mass., and many others, led by master timber craftsmen and experts in traditional woodwork and polychrome painting, they undertook the reconstruction of the roof, the ornamented wooden ceiling, and the magnificent bima that had graced the synagogue.
While the Browns are not Jewish, they described the commission to replicate the synagogue as “a real thrill and an honor.” Seeing it finally in place in the museum in Warsaw, Rick Brown says in the film that he and his wife “didn’t have words to describe what we had done; it was such an overwhelming feeling.”
Alison Kruvant, a Brooklyn-based painter who is Jewish, was one of the students who worked with the Browns. She will be present at the screening in Summit and will lead a discussion about the project.
She told NJ Jewish News she got involved while a sophomore at Oberlin College. “My ancestors were Russian Jews. I was curious about my Jewish cultural heritage, which I investigated through the lens of art history. Handshouse Studio’s approach to learning was directly in line with one of my educational goals in college: to learn about history and cultures through the art they produce.
“Physically recreating the murals was an ideal tactile way for me to engage history,” Kruvant said. “I used my technical skills to help salvage what I consider one poignant aspect of my layered, complex cultural legacy.”
She said, “It was an art, historical, cultural project open to all students, not a Jewish identity project. We discussed Judaism only as it related to the ceiling paintings and wooden synagogue structure we were recreating.” Each of the groups working on the project “visited Auschwitz and learned about Polish history and culture,” Kruvant said. “Most of the learning occurred through the process of making.”
The local screening was the idea of Lisa Reznik, director of the Film Society of Summit. She is working on a documentary herself, on the hidden child survivors of the Holocaust, and came across Raise the Roof during her research. She said, “I was fascinated by the reconstruction, and by this beautiful film.”