Healing a Painful Past

October 23, 2015

Amanda Nagy

a decorated ceiling
The painted ceiling and bimah (a platform on which the Torah is read) of the recreated Gwoździec synagogue roof, which is part of the core exhibit of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.
Photo credit: Trillium Studios

Dozens of alumni over the course of six years participated in a history-making effort to replicate an 18th-century Polish synagogue that was burned to the ground by Nazis. They worked shoulder to shoulder with an international crew of master timber craftsmen, artisans, historians, and other experts specializing in traditional woodwork and polychrome painting to reconstruct the ornamented wooden ceiling and roof of a synagogue that for 300 years stood in the town of Gwoździec, now in Ukraine.

The Gwoździec Reproduction Project is now a centerpiece of the core exhibit of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw that opened in 2014.

The reconstruction was a collaboration between the museum, the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, and Handshouse Studio, a nonprofit organization based in Massachusetts. Oberlin’s contribution was facilitated by Associate Professor of Cinema Studies Rian Brown-Orso, who has a familial connection to the project: Her parents, Rick and Laura Brown, are founding directors of Handshouse and professors at Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

Oberlin students were also instrumental in the research phase of the reconstruction. In 2006 and 2009, Handshouse and Brown-Orso led winter-term workshops in which Oberlin students created half-scale replicas of the painted ceiling. A documentary about the project, Raise the Roof, follows Handshouse and the international team—including 11 Obies—working on site in Wroclaw, Poland. The film is screening at festivals around the world.

“The students were always amazed at what they could accomplish, and were moved by how they could be a part of bringing back a piece of lost history,” says Brown-Orso, who is an associate producer of the documentary. “The film really captures the way this monumental project brought hundreds of people together in deepening their awareness of a place and culture, as well as healing a painful past."

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