Mi Polin, founded by Helena Czernek and Aleksander Prugar in 2014, is a contemporary Judaica design studio, the first of its kind in Poland since the end of World War II. Now available in the Jewish Museum Shop, Mi Polin’s Mezuzah From This Home is a series of bronze mezuzahs cast from imprints left by those that once hung on doorposts throughout Poland before the Holocaust. Czernek and Prugar travel across the country in search of such traces, researching the buildings and original occupants. This compelling series weds the Polish-Jewish experience of yesterday and today, with each mezuzah bearing witness to what happened there and honoring hope that lives anew.
We teased an excerpt from our Q&A with Czernek and Prugar in the Museum’s recently released Fall 2015 Members’ Newsletter. In the following complete interview, Czernek and Prugar discuss the history and development of the Mezuzah From This Home series, Mi Polin’s social responsibility and engagement with Jewish traditions, and Mi Polin’s other profound products.
The Jewish Museum: What inspired you to produce these mezuzahs?
Helena Czernek: We first saw many of the traces in Kazimierz, a district of Krakow. We decided to commemorate them, saving them from destruction or ignorance by casting the imprints and turning them into new bronze mezuzahs.
Aleksander Prugar: Before World War II, 3.5 million Jews inhabited Poland, and at least one mezuzah hung on almost every Jewish house. As Jews perished in the war, so did their mezuzahs — leaving empty voids, or traces, on the doorways where they once hung. By affixing a mezuzah from the Mezuzah From This Home series to your home, you commemorate what was lost and renew the holy function of these sacred cases.
JM: Why did you elect to manufacture the mezuzahs in bronze?
AP: We decided to use bronze because it is a metal of antiquity and is known to be completely resistant to external conditions or rust. Our casts will survive for 1,000 years; they are eternal.
JM: How do you go about finding the doorposts marked with such imprints?
HC: We check every doorframe of every building that is still standing in former Jewish quarters or wartime ghettos. We have found traces in 18 Polish cities so far, including Krakow, Warsaw, and Lublin, and we plan to visit Lodz, Klodawa, and Lomza. Included with every mezuzah we craft is the address of where the impression was taken and a booklet that tells its story. This connection to pre-war Poland enhances the mezuzah’s symbolic meaning while activating a direct link between the past and the present.
JM: How does Mi Polin differ from other design firms?
AP: Mi Polin connects three of our passions: Judaism, design, and enterprise, and we focus on the Jewish legacy and historical responsibility. This unique combination of influences truly sets us apart.
JM: You mention that Mi Polin is also a social responsibility business — what role does Mi Polin play in your community and society at large?
HC: We make an enormous effort to preserve Jewish history and educate people through our work. We give lectures about Jewish art and design, and we run all kinds of workshops. For our Mezuzah series, we hold training workshops on how to search for such traces.
AP: We collaborate with local and national museums, donating mezuzahs we buy on Allegro [a Polish online auction platform similar to eBay] to their collections. We also collect as much information as we can about the pre-war buildings and the owners of flats where we find the imprints, which we send to museums and include in the brochure that accompanies each mezuzah. In this way, we increase our chances of rescuing other traces, while also furthering Jewish knowledge and education.
JM: Beyond the clear connection to Jewish history, in what other ways do your designs relate to Jewish traditions?
AP: Our work has a significant relationship to Jewish law and tradition. All of our designs refer to the construct hiddur mitzvah, said to be derived from Rabbi Ishmael’s commentary on Exodus 15:2 that calls for ritual objects to be made both beautiful and functional.
HC: While always considering tradition, we do engage in some reinterpreting of Judaism. We want our products to be more than just objects and for the many layers of Judaism to be tangible, so we are always reimagining tradition.
AP: For instance, we are working on a besamim box — a spice box that is used to fulfill one of the blessings in havdalah, the prayer that ends the Sabbath each week. In Eastern Europe, these boxes were very popular, and traditionally were constructed in a cylindrical shape to resemble the Tower of David and made out of openwork patterns. However, we decided to renew the tradition and refresh the shape by using ceramics and platinum decorations.
JM: Can you tell us about other projects that you are developing now?
HC: We recently produced a crystal mezuzah for the blind that contains the word Shaddai, one name of G-d, in Hebrew Braille. These products are almost invisible to those with normal vision, but we hope they can help bring a blind person into closer contact with G-d.
Mi Polin’s Mezuzuah From This Home series is now on sale at the Jewish Museum shop. Visit the website for more information and images of these stunning objects.
— Julie Reiter, Marketing Associate, the Jewish Museum, and Samantha Sharon, Marketing Specialist