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Raise the Roof: A film about an improbable dream

Artists Rick and Laura Brown are not Jewish and not Polish, and yet they set out to rebuild Gwoździec, a magnificent wooden eighteenth century synagogue in Poland that was later destroyed by the Nazis. Their vision inspires hundreds of people to join them, using their hands, old tools and techniques to bring Gwoździec’s history, culture, science, and art back to life.

Gwoździec Synagogue

Gwoździec Synagogue

Raise The Roof follows the Browns and the Handshouse Studio team to Sanok, Poland, as they begin building the new Gwoździec roof. The crew has only six weeks to hew, saw, and carve 200 freshly logged trees and assemble the structure. Working against a seemingly impossible deadline and despite torrential downpours and exhaustion, the team must create the structure, and disassemble it again for shipping and eventual installation.

To paint the intricate ceiling murals, the Browns face another challenge: the 1914 photographs of Gwoździec are black and white and there is only one, small color study called the Breier.  Using that as their Rosetta Stone, the Browns slowly build a library of Gwoździec’s colors.

Armed with pigments and rabbit skin glue, the Handhouse team sets up to paint the ceiling mural in what seems to be an art gallery in Rzeszów, Poland.  In fact, this building and those in seven other Polish cities where they will work during the summers of 2011 and 2012, are all former or active masonry synagogues. Each Handshouse-trained painting leader is tasked with creating the mural’s most iconic images, training students to paint thousands of flowers and vines and greeting visitors—creating a community throughout Poland.

In the city of Szczebrzeszyn, Evelyn Tauben paints a flower honoring her great aunt and namesake, Bluma, a Holocaust victim, explaining that she joined the project to encounter Poland in a generative way.  

When student Ariel Rosenblum agrees to paint the many inscriptions that wrap the mural, Ania Michalska, a Wrocław University Jewish Studies major, jumps in to help. Together they face the Rabbi of Poland and successfully defend their reconstruction of the texts.

1000 Years of Jewish Life in Poland

Raise the Roof provides a window into a time period that is often clouded by fictional representations like Fiddler on the Roof, and overshadowed by the tragic realities of the 20th century.  

The Jews migrated eastward in the 13th century and, “by the end of the 18th century, this community constituted about half of world Jewry.” Scholars Antony Polonsky and Thomas Hubka tell us that Polish nobility invited the Jews to Poland to be land-managers and allowed them rights they had not enjoyed in the West. New freedoms and the economic growth of Poland created a strong and stable Jewish culture.  In the years before their community broke down under the influences of modernism, the Jews called this land Polonia: “There, God gave the Jews a refuge.”

Raise the Roof, visits Warsaw in mid-January where Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the Program Director at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, is walking among the impressive gravestones of the Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery in deep snow.  She brushes snow from an intricately carved tombstone and explains that 70 percent of the world’s Jewish population can trace its ancestry to Poland.  

Gwoździec timber frame roof in the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Gwoździec timber frame roof in the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

“When people ask me, ‘What is the most important period in the history of Polish Jews?’  it’s usually because they already know. ‘Oh, yes. It’s the Holocaust.’ I have one answer," Kirshenblatt-Gimblett says. "My answer is, ‘The most important period in the history of Polish Jews is 1,000 years'” She argues that, if we can’t see past the Holocaust, “then the world will know more about how Jews died than how they lived.”

The reconstructed Gwoździec roof is now the centerpiece of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opened its doors to the public in October, 2014.

Gwoździec was nearly lost to history

Although Rick and Laura Brown chose to rebuild the Gwoździec because it was one of the best documented, the historic material they found was spotty. Many questions about the synagogue were left unanswered:

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What sparked this period of profuse and energetic construction and painting?  
Why were the Jews of this time willing to break the Second Commandment prohibition against graven images in decorating this building?
What cultural and artistic movements inspired artists to create these resplendent spaces?
Why did they build out of wood instead of masonry?  
How did an American turkey and African ostrich come to be painted inside a synagogue in a small Polish village?  

Raise the Roof takes us on a journey of discovery.  Follow our production blog at Trillium Studios.


Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw Unveils Its Core Exhibition

WARSAW — With anti-Semitism having become more prominent again across Europe, something quite different is growing in a huge, translucent building at the center of a vanished neighborhood in Warsaw.

After several days of concerts, seminars, festivals and hoopla, the core exhibition of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews — the most ambitious cultural institution to rise in Poland since the fall of Communism — will be unveiled on Tuesday. Poland’s top political leaders will be there, as will the president of Israel and other international dignitaries. The institution has been embraced across the political spectrum and has drawn only scattered, mild protest.

In eight sprawling galleries, packed with multimedia exhibitions and artifacts, the museum traces the history of Jews from their first appearance in Poland in the Middle Ages to the present day. The Holocaust, the part of the story that is most often remembered, fills only one of the eight galleries.

“I would see these young people from America and Israel making their visits to Poland,” said Sigmund A. Rolat, a labor camp survivor who grew rich in New York and became one of three American entrepreneurs to finance the project in its early years. “And what would they see? Death camps and cemeteries and empty places where synagogues used to be. Ours is not another museum of the Holocaust. We are more than victims. Ours is a museum of life.”  Read Full Article  —by Rick Lyman,  October 21, 2014

A video interview with Rick & Laura
during the bimah instalation

Laura and Rick Brown of Handshouse Studio share their thoughts while completing Gwozdziec Synagogue roof and bimah reconstruction project.  Click on the photo for a short video interiew.

Rick and Laura Brown and Jason Loik arrived in Warsaw, Poland in early March to install the Bimah below the Gwozdziec Synagogue roof.  Cary Wolinsky joined them to film the install and photograph the ceiling and bimah together before the other exhibits made it impossible view.



If you would like to arrange for a screening, please contact info@trilliumstudios.com or call 781-659-2839.