If You Rebuild It, They Will Come: ‘Gwoźodziec Re!construction’

Putting finishing touches on the cupola.
Putting finishing touches on the cupola.

By Deahn Berrini Leblang

Published January 29, 2015, issue of January 29, 2015.

During the Second World War, the last great wooden synagogues throughout Eastern Europe were burnt to the ground by the Nazis. These elaborate structures, built mostly in the 17th and 18th centuries, represented both local architecture and centuries worth of evolving Jewish synagogue high art.

One synagogue in Gwoździec — located in what was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, an area that became Galicia and is now western Ukraine — has been lovingly reconstructed by a team of artists, architects, and artisans led by two Massachusetts College of Art and Design professors, Rick and Laura Brown.

The tale of how, over a decade, the reconstructed roof, cupola, and bimah was built and then came to sit in the Polin Museum of the new History of Polish Jews in Warsaw is told in the beautifully illustrated book “Gwoździec Re!construction” by Rick and Laura Brown of Norwell with Penny Schwartz of Medford, in English and in Polish.

The story is fascinating both because of the beauty of the work and the spirit of the community that came together to build it.

Exquisite photographs of the brightly colored and intricate interior painting reveal the considerable level of artistry and craftsmanship that once flourished. Using only the tools and materials available at the time, with a cache of old photographs and drawings as a guide, the Browns and their team rediscovered what the building was as they reconstructed it.

Gwoźodziec Re!construction, by Rick and Laura Brown with Penny Schwartz, Handhouse Studio, 2014
Gwoźodziec Re!construction, by Rick and Laura Brown with Penny Schwartz, Handhouse Studio, 2014

For example, when they put together the pieces of the ceiling, they had more insight into how the motifs in the painting were laid out. “The upper part has arabesque forms on four sides, carpet-like and Ottoman, with flower patterns. [These patterns are] very organized, not narrative in the sense of Christian churches, and have subtle messages,” said Laura Brown.

The photographs also chronicle the community that flourished around the project. The Browns coordinated and led a series of workshops over the past decade, at Mass Art and in Poland. Through the work “people really become deeply connected to Polish Jewish history and art and life and culture in a way that takes root,” said co-author Penny Schwartz, who has covered the project as a journalist for eleven years, including for the Journal.

The many hundreds of artists, builders and students involved created a network that goes beyond the physical structure of the synagogue.

“The dynamic energy, the way [the Browns] involve others in a collaborative and creative learning process just is energizing for a lot of people. I have seen young people stay with this project form the time they were 21 and 22 years old until they were 31 or 32. They started as college students and are now professional artists. They structured their professional lives around the museum project. Many of these people who came back as leaders, started as students,” Schwartz said.

By reconstructing the physical synagogue, the group has also constructed a “worldview that has become real,” said Brown. “This is a surprise, the opening of a new perception.” Brown, ever the teacher and mentor, points to the mysteries the project unearthed. “The lion and the unicorn,” painted on the ceiling, for example, “what are they doing?” There is so much research yet to be done, she added, an opportunity for someone else to “take off on their own journey.”

The book is available in limited edition in the U.S. For more info on the synagogue project and the Brown’s other work, visit handhouse.org. “Raise the Roof,” a documentary about the project by Cary and Yari Wolinsky, will screen in Boston as part of the National Center for Jewish Film Festival in May.

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