Tracing Poland’s Past, And Its Future


It was the last workday before Passover, and I was at my desk when the receptionist interrupted my menu planning to tell me my guests were here. I was expecting no guests. I almost never have guests. So I tiptoed out to the waiting area, embarrassed, curious and, yes, a little scared about Charlie Hebdo.

Fortunately, I had never seen these people in my life, and they were reading our newspaper. Even the most devious terrorists would surely be too angry to read The Jewish Week.

“Helen Chernikoff, meet Helena Czernek!” the man announced.

What? Her name is … and my name is … Could she be my European relation? And she has such a nice smile, and is wearing such adorable yellow shoes!

But: No. This was no family reunion. They wanted me to write about them. This couple, they revealed to me, spent their time prowling around Poland like a pair of Indiana Joneses, tracking the traces of long-ago mezuzahs.

A little over two years ago, my doppelganger Czernek told me, she was walking through Krakow’s Old Town when she glimpsed the trace of a long-gone mezuzah raised in the paint of a nearby doorframe. Then she saw another, and then another and then still more.

The sight inspired her. Czernek is a designer. Her boyfriend, Alexander Prugar, is a photographer and studied film. She pulled out her phone and called him at home. They talked about how they could “do something” with these traces, something more than just documenting their existence. Out of that excited conversation emerged an exhibit of new mezuzahs created from bronze casts of seven mezuzah traces.

And then a funny thing happened. People wanted to buy them.

Today, Czernek and Prugar are on a mission to turn mezuzah traces back into mezuzahs. Their project is both mystical quest and serious business: It’s a powerful part of their process of conversion to Judaism, and their livelihood.

“During each mezuzah trace trip something special happened,” Czernek said, recalling scrolls preserved and unfurled, a prewar door rescued from the dump, interfaith connections made. “We recognize these situations as miracles.”

Czernek and Prugar, both 30, met cute during a Havdalah gathering at a Moishe House, in 2012. Moishe House is the international organization that helps Jews in their 20s build community by subsidizing their rent and facilitating programming and education.

Czernek was living in the Warsaw house and Prugar hung about constantly, calling himself an unofficial member. She has a Jewish grandfather who fought in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising and became involved in Jewish life when she started to study in Warsaw at age 20; she went on a Birthright Israel trip and also studied for a year at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem.

Czernek and Prugar’s work with mezuzahs is like other public art projects that map the places where victims of a tragedy once lived, but it also does more. Every year on March 25, volunteers chalk the names of garment workers who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire onto the pavement near their homes. In Europe, people embed in the ground “Stolpersteine,” or “stumbling stones,” bearing names and dates — birth, arrest, deportation and death — of those killed in the Holocaust. Czernek and Prugar are also making a map, and memorial objects. But instead of leaving something at the site, they take something, reclaim it and use it.

Prugar came to Judaism through a sudden epiphany much like that described by Nathan Englander in “For The Relief Of Unbearable Urges,” when WASP-y Upper East Side finance guy Charles Luger suddenly realizes that he’s Jewish and feels compelled to share the news with his taxi driver: “‘Jewish,’ Charles said. ‘Jewish, here in the back … Oddly, it seems that I’m Jewish. Jewish in your cab.’”

Like Luger, Prugar has no Jewish ancestry. But he experienced a similar moment about a decade ago when he was sitting alone in his room. He kept his realization a secret. Instead, he read about Judaism. He felt that what he read was already a part of him.

He bristles a bit when people ask him how he became interested in Judaism, because the question itself makes his journey sound unserious, like he watched “The Pianist” too many times, or pursues Judaism the way some dilettante would hunt butterflies with a net.

“It’s not a hobby,” he said. “I was keeping this feeling in secret because I didn’t want to be rejected.”

Still, his interest led him to Moishe House, and Czernek. They went on Moishe House retreats together, and are now studying for conversion under the rabbi of Etz Chaim, one of four synagogues in Warsaw.

They take classes and celebrate the holidays with their community. When they are ready, their rabbi will send them to the Abraham Geiger Kolleg in Berlin for their official conversion. They find it funny in light of history that they must go to Germany for this, and shrug.

On non-holiday weekends, Czernek and Prugar hit the road. They’ve made 26 new mezuzahs from traces found in 21 towns in Poland, from Warsaw to tiny Krynki on the Belorussian border. A Jewish town of almost 10,000 before the war, Krynki now numbers less than 3,000. On the eve of the Nazi occupation, more Jews lived in Poland — 3.3 million — than in any other country in Europe. Three million died during the war.

“Krynki was 85 percent Jewish, and there is no one left,” Prugar said. “This is something that gives me motivation to rebuild this Jewish life.”

But Prugar is emphatic: Their mezuzah work is also their livelihood. He and Czernek are entrepreneurs in the classic millennial mold, crafting a meaningful living that sustains them financially and spiritually.

“We are doing what we are,” Prugar said.

After members of their community began expressing interest in buying the mezuzahs from the exhibit, Czernek and Prugar started “Mezuza z Tego Domu,” or “Mezuzah From This Home.” They started adding mezuzahs to the original line by accepting commissions from Poles like Katarzyna Markusz, a Jewish journalist who wanted a mezuzah from a building Sokolow Podlaski, a small city about 40 miles east of Warsaw.

When they arrived at the building on a summer Sunday last year, a resident of the building told them that the door had been replaced on Friday, and would be hauled away on Monday. Czernek and Prugar decided to save it, carrying it home by bus, bicycle and on their backs. Now it lives with them. While we were Skyping one night for this story, Czernek scurried out of the frame and dragged it back to show me.

Mezuza z Tego Domu grew into “Mi Polin,” which means “From Poland” in Hebrew. Mi Polin offers other Judaica, like candlesticks and menorahs, in a sleek, modern style.

Indeed, the strongest demand for the mezuzahs comes from outside the country, from the descendants of Polish Jews, like Julie Hermelin, an Internet entrepreneur in Los Angeles. For her, Czernek and Prugar traveled to Lowicz in central Poland, where Hermelin’s great-grandfather grew up in a small apartment with 11 brothers and sisters at Zdunska 25. They couldn’t get into number 25, but found three traces in a nearby building.

Czernek and Prugar “go the extra mile to find the story and do their best to not just create an artifact but build a story around the artifact. What they do is give you another way to add to that story of your heritage,” Hermelin said.

Hermelin discovered Mezuza z Tego Domu through a friend who carries their mezuzahs in one of his quirky L.A. shops. From there, word of mouth carried the small company to Stacey Zaleski, buyer for the gift shop at The Jewish Museum in New York.

“I haven’t come across any people coming out of Poland producing Judaica, so it was exciting to see that rebirth of the Jewish-Polish ceremonial object,” she said.

The price of the mezuzahs cast from traces varies depending on their size and who is selling them; at The Jewish Museum, they cost about $300.

Jewish museums in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Warsaw also carry Mi Polin Judaica.

Before the war, of course, Poland had been producing Judaica for hundreds of years. Jews started to settle there not long after the country itself was founded in the 10th century. For most of that time, a Jew in need of candlesticks, say, would commission a silversmith, sometimes also Jewish, sometimes not, said Jonathan Greenstein, the founder of an eponymous Judaica gallery and auction house in Cedarhurst, on Long Island. Some noted artisans survived the war, but none stayed, Greenstein said.

Mi Polin also has another line of business: event design. Czernek and Prugar have created ecumenical “Trees of Light” with hundreds of mirrored ornaments to celebrate Christmas and Chanukah in a Krakow square; they’ve conducted Judaica-making seminars. Czernek designed the official logo and paper daffodil for the Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Daffodils are a symbol of Polish Jewry; Marek Edelman, the last surviving leader of the uprising, would place them at Warsaw’s Monument to Ghetto Heroes every year on the uprising’s anniversary. Hundreds of volunteers hand out hundreds of thousands of Czernek’s paper flower, which evokes the yellow stars the Nazis forced the Jews to wear, on the anniversary day.

Many say it must be a new era in Poland when thousands of ordinary citizens will go about their business wearing Jewish stars on their jackets. The Museum Historii Zydow Polskich, or The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, opened in Warsaw almost a year ago after decades of well-documented resurgence of interest in things Jewish that put gefilte fish on restaurant menus and klezmer in nightclubs.

This mainstream fascination with Jewish culture helps make Czernek and Prugar’s work possible, said Karina Sokolowska, the Joint Distribution Committee’s country director for Poland. The JDC estimates Poland’s Jewish population at about 25,000.

“The Jews are less afraid,” she said. “There are so many Poles who are embracing Jewish history, Jewish culture, trying to understand. When I was in school you would be afraid to say the word ‘Jew.’ My children can say that, and they don’t go to Jewish school.”

The community’s culture has transcended the “revival” stage into a new period of growth and creativity, and Czernek and Prugar’s work is an example of this, Sokolowska said.

Still, some of the couple’s mezuzah-tracking trips reveal disturbing traces of Poland’s past. In Ostroleka, a city of about 60,000 in the northeast, a woman told them that she’d found a mezuzah scroll, and burned it.

She just said, “‘It’s funny that Jews wrote something like that,’” Czernek said, sadly; Prugar injecting a sardonic “Ha, ha.” “It wasn’t: ‘Let’s destroy anything that was Jewish.’ She just didn’t know that she could do something with it. She just wasn’t interested … We felt emptiness. Something bad happened in this home.”

Over a third of Poles harbor anti-Semitic attitudes, like believing that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust, or have too much power in international financial markets, according to the Anti-Defamation League’s 2015 poll of 100 countries.

But Czernek, Prugar and other young, hungry Jews have created in Poland a new scene, said Alejandro Okret, Moishe House’s director of international development.

“Jewry is not about what happened in the ’40s,” he said. “And I don’t want to be disrespectful, but there is a very different story happening right now.”

Czernek likes to tell the story of a friend whose husband is Jewish. Her friend is studying Judaism, and together with her husband is giving their son a Jewish education. When he was small, he thought all the Christmas lights around him were for Chanukah.

But back in April, as we were talking, I started to fret that these two so far from home might not have a seder to go to. I decided that I would somehow magic up enough food and space if they needed a place.

I need not have worried. Czernek and Prugar were flying to California the next day, and of course they had a place for Pesach, with a teacher from their Moishe House days who now lives in the Bay Area.

“We want to give our children the chance that we missed, to live as a normal Jewish family,” Prugar said.