Excavating Poland’s Last Remaining Mezuzas From Before the Holocaust
Helena Czernek and Aleksander Prugar have been trekking around Poland both as artists and as archaeologists: They’re searching for traces of mezuzas on Jewish homes that were abandoned or destroyed during the Holocaust.
For the artists’ project, “Mezuzah From This Home,” the duo first identifies what Prugar calls “marks of existence” on doorframes across the country. In many cases these marks are now nothing more than empty, hollow holes in the wood. The artists then craft bronze mezuzas which are castes of the originals. The mezuzas, many commissioned by relatives of the Polish Jews who lived in those very homes, are meant to transform a story of family loss into one of survival and revival of Jewish tradition.
There were roughly 3.5 millions Jews who lived and thrived in Poland before the Holocaust, and “we plan to go to and find as much as we can,” said Prugar, 30. “We plan to check village by village, to find these traces town by town.”
“The mezuzas are important because they’re symbols of individuals and families that are not well documented,” added Czernek, 29. “Having the tracings, we can do deep research to find the owners’ names. We can re-create and discover the family history of those who used to live in the building.”
Czernek and Prugar founded Mi Polin, a contemporary Judaica design studio, in 2014. They developed the idea for “Mezuzah From This Home” after Czernek took a trip to Krakow where she noticed remnants of mezuzas around the city and suggested to Prugar that they take a closer look. They began with locales important to Jewish religious and cultural life before the war, such as Krakow and Warsaw. “But now, people sometimes write to us from small towns we haven’t heard of,” Czernek said. The artists have re-created 22 mezuzas to date.
But the project hasn’t been without obstacles. “Sometimes, the history is really possible to reconstruct, and sometimes [it’s] very hard,” Czernek said.
There’s an urgency to the project, too: Czernek and Prugar feel they’re continually racing against the clock. “We can’t wait,” Prugar said. “These are the last years the mezuzas are still there.” As the buildings age, he explains, traces of mezuzas become increasingly difficult to find. Some of the buildings have decayed, and others, having undergone renovation, have had their doorframes demolished entirely. And on the homes that are still standing in Poland, most of the mezuzas have actually been cut out from the doorframes, leaving grooves or gaps in the wood. Even so, each empty space speaks volumes about the lost lives of the Jewish families that used to live there.
Eric Silberman, a medical school student in New York, contacted Mi Polin to commission a mezuza. Silberman, 24, a Princeton alum, had traveled to Poland on a Fulbright scholarship to research and write about his family’s experience in the Holocaust, and when he showed up at his grandfather’s doorstep in the town of Szczebrzeszyn, he was shocked to find remnants of the mezuza there.
“We were skeptical that this was the place where he had lived, but once I saw the spot where the mezuza had been, I was sure,” Silberman recalled. “It was an amazing feeling to put my finger on that spot, to imagine my grandfather’s family being [there], touching their hands to that [same] spot and then kissing their finger before exiting and entering the house.”
Czernek and Prugar, who happened to have plans to search for mezuzah traces in that area the very same day, made a mezuza imprint for Silberman that very same day. The mezuza now graces the entrance to Eric’s childhood home in Lincolnwood, Illinois.
Another patron, Ruth Elias, who lives in Minneapolis, met the artists in Krakow last year, at the Jewish Culture Festival. She commissioned Mi Polin to make a mezuza from what was her father’s home in Czestochowa. The mezuza imprint has become, for Elias, what she calls a “reparative” means of healing. “My parents suffered immensely,” she said. “But they went on to make a new life, and it’s important for me to remember their experience, to pass the knowledge down and to honor the memory of the family I never got to know.” Elias plans to frame the mezuza in Plexiglas and to hang it in front of her house in Minneapolis, with an inscription that reads in part, “It is a very powerful experience to move forward from the Holocaust while retaining the memory of our lost loved ones encapsulated in this Mezuzah.”
A selection of these Mi Polin mezuzas and Czernek’s paintings of Jewish life in Poland are on display in an exhibit at the Peninsula Jewish Community Center, in Foster City, California. The mezuzas can also be found at Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews and at shops in several museums in the United States, including San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum and the Jewish Museum, in New York.
“It is a mezuza fossil, a fossil of a real mezuza that Jews, who died 72 years ago or more, touched,” said Harriet Zeiner, a neuropsychologist from California who, having lost more than 30 relatives at Auschwitz, commissioned a Mi Polin mezuza from Czernek and Prugar. “I once had someone describe to me that when a woman died in her family, they divided candles amongst the surviving women, and when she lit the candles she had a mental image of all the women in her line beside her, saying the blessing. It is that kind of a feeling. It’s almost a subconscious thing when you put your hand up to touch and kiss it, but when I do, there is a line of other people that I am touching.”
Laura Hodes is a writer and attorney living in Chicago.