This summer I traveled for the first time to Poland, where my grandparents were born, to help recreate an 18th-century wooden synagogue from the town of Gwoździec. This trip was an expression of a deep desire to connect with my own “Polishness.” I wanted to engage in a creative activity in a place often associated only with destruction and loss. I was compelled, also, to make a tangible contribution to Polish life; the Gwoździec replica, which includes a roof structure, a painted dome ceiling and a bimah, will be showcased in the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, opening in Warsaw in 2013.
In July, I joined a group of mainly art students from the United States and a handful of young Poles for a workshop in the town of Szczebrzeszyn hosted by Handshouse Studio, a Massachusetts-based arts organization conducting a decades-long project to rebuild Polish wooden synagogues that were destroyed by the Nazis.
The Handshouse core team, a group of about 15 professional artists, led us in recreating the vibrant ceiling murals of the Gwoździec synagogue. The section we worked on features a griffin and a dragon in a fighting embrace surrounded by a network of vines and stylized flowers. A lower band of the mural depicts several beasts including a leopard, a turkey and a deer.
With awe, I watched the Handshouse team, who had spent years dedicated to remaking the Gwoździec synagogue. Only one of them had Jewish heritage. Among them, I felt both bolstered and weighed down by my background.
Szczebrzeszyn is 113 miles from Lutsk, where my grandfather was born. He was an artist who never realized his dream of attending art school. He escaped the Nazis by fleeing with his father and uncle to the Soviet Union. After the war, he opened an engraving shop in Los Angeles, supporting his family by the work of his fine hands. I inherited his eye, if not his raw talent, and channeled the family business of color and form into a career as a curator and producer.
As the Handshouse team doled out the tasks, someone suggested I help with Hebrew text. But I desperately wanted to paint a flower. My Hebrew name is Vered, or “rose.” It is a reference to my zayde’s sister’s name, Blumeh, which means “flower” in Yiddish. When the men in her family fled, Blumeh followed them but was sent back home to her mother and little brother to wait out the war. Instead, the war came for them. Blumeh was just 15. Among the blossoms on the ceiling would be my quiet tribute — a bloom for Blumeh.