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Reconstructing History

Story of the Wooden Synagogue Replication Project will be told in West Hartford

By Penny Schwartz


They tell their students, “You can make history.”

For the last decade, Laura and Rick Brown, artists and visionary educators who teach at Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, have led a synagogue replication project, uncovering the all but forgotten history of Poland’s historic 17th and 18th century wooden synagogues.

The Browns head an educational non-profit organization they founded called Handshouse, where they create projects that explore history through the building of replicas of large historic objects using original construction techniques and materials.

Centuries ago, there were some 200 wooden synagogues dotting the Polish-Lithuanian landscape. The Polish-Jewish structures reflected the influence of local architecture of the era, while the interiors were distinctly Jewish. None survived Nazi destruction.

Among the most magnificent was the Gwozdziec synagogue, built and renovated in a small but prosperous trading center during an extended period of relative peace for the Jews of the area. Today, the town is part of the Ukraine.

Looking up into the completed replica of  the Gwozdziec cupola, painted by hundreds  of students and Polish residents in workshops held in synagogues across Poland. Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

Looking up into the completed replica of the Gwozdziec cupola, painted by hundreds of students and Polish residents in workshops held in synagogues across Poland. Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

Through Handshouse, the Browns attracted an international team of hundreds of students, artists and carpenters to build a nearly full scale replica of the Gwozdziec synagogue’s majestic triple tiered wooden roof and recreated its intricately painted ceiling murals. All of the work was done using traditional methods and materials based on years of meticulous research conducted by the Browns and their students.

The exquisite and massive structure was installed last year at the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews set to open on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto in October, where it will be the central part of the museum’s core exhibit.

On Sunday morning, Feb. 9, local residents will get the opportunity to hear firsthand about this unique and compelling project from Laura and Rick Brown, who will speak at Beth El Temple in West Hartford.

The Browns will describe the challenges and joys of the unlikely journal of replicating the Gwozdziec synagogue.

The program also features award winning National Geographic filmmaker Cary Wolinsky, a friend and neighbor of the Browns, who will share a sneak preview of footage from “Raise the Roof,” a documentary he and his son Yari have filmed about the reconstruction. The film is currently in production.

Historians interviewed in the film shed light on the little-known yet rich period of Jewish Polish history that has been overshadowed by stereotypical images of later years of impoverished shtetl life depicted in “Fiddler on the Roof,” and the tragic destruction of the Holocaust.

The original Gwozdziec synagogue was built in the mid 17th century and was renovated in 1731, with a dramatic new ceiling structure with a towering tent-like cupola.

The religious iconography that covers the walls and ceiling of the synagogue is other-worldly, with images of 67 animals, including mythical beasts and a backward gazing deer as well as decorative vines and flowers in hues of reds, blues and ochres.  Text panels feature large black lettering against a white background.

Creating the museum replica was based on years of research, historical and artistic detective work and building small scale models that the Browns exhibited around the country including at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. Completing the museum replica took place in stages over two years, beginning in 2011, with work completed in summer workshops in Poland. Carpenters from the International Timber Framers Guild based in New Hampshire partnered with Handshouse to construct the massive timber frame exterior.

Savana VAgueiro, in Poland, painting a medallion for the Gwozdziec synagogue replica.  Handshouse Studio

Savana VAgueiro, in Poland, painting a medallion for the Gwozdziec synagogue replica.Handshouse Studio

Among the painters was Mass Art alumna Savana Vagueiro da Fonseca, who grew up in New Haven. Vagueiro first became involved with the project in 2005 when she enrolled in a class with the Browns where they replicated a small scale model of portions of the painted ceiling. Students used modern technology to analyze old photos to fill in the many holes in knowledge about the painted images and text panels. The collaborative team experience left a lasting impression on the film student, who now lives in San Francisco.

In 2011, a few years after she graduated, Vaguerio jumped at the invitation to join the painting team for the museum replica. The following summer, she was invited back and employed as a painting team leader.

Vagueiro, who is not Jewish, says that all the artists working on this project, whether they are Jewish or not, are here because they really believe in the project. Vaguerio painted many of the medallions that encircle the cupola, including the one that viewers see at the highest point of the cupola. She was fascinated to meet Poles of all ages who grew up in the shadows of the Holocaust or under Communist rule and are just beginning to learn parts of their country’s history or who are discovering that their families may have Jewish ancestry.  “I sensed a hunger for that. It was eye opening,” she says.

Rick Brown likes to say that he has many Ashkenazi Jewish friends all over the world whose ancestors worshiped in synagogues such as that in Gwozdziec, yet they know nothing of the history.

“It is so amazing to be part of a project that is bringing this back to life,” he says.


“Making History: The Wooden Synagogue Replication Project” Sunday, Feb. 9, 9:15 Breakfast buffet and program; at Beth El Temple, 2626 Albany Ave., West Hartford. For ticket information visit bethelwesthartford.org or call (860) 233-9696. For reservations email dr.eyesjoe@gmail.com.


For more information on the project visit www.handshouse.org; for more information on the film, visit, www.polishsynagogue.com.

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