The film Raise the Roof follows a ten-year project to rebuild an iconic wooden synagogue in Poland. Rick and Laura Brown, a husband-and-wife team of artist-educators who are neither Polish or Jewish, lead a host of participants as they rebuild a structure, recover history, and preserve both for future generations. I have never seen an art form quite like the Polish synagogue highlighted in the film. I recommend this film to artists, historians, anyone remotedly interested in Polish-Jewish culture, and more. The resulting structure now stands as the centerpiece of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.
The Gwozdziec Synagogue Was one of 200 Destroyed in the Nazi Invasion of Poland
The movie trailer for Raise the Roof begins with this statement – “Over two hundred of these synagogues were built in Poland over the 17th and 18th centuries. But by 1942, every single one of them had been destroyed during the Nazi invasion. Nothing was left but ashes.” Rick and Laura Brown, a husband and wife team of artist-educators, are neither Polish nor Jewish. Yet they set out to rebuild the iconic Gwoździec synagogue based solely on a small, single black and white photograph, and their belief that history must be preserved. Their search to reconstruct the colors, artwork and wooden architecture stands worthy of first-class detective work.
Acclaimed Artists and Educators Rick and Laura Brown Have Impressive Credentials
The Browns are both university professors with multiple graduate degrees in fine arts and sculpture and each has an impressive curriculum vitae. They lead students in project-based reconstruction projects. A sampling of previous projects includes the reconstruction of a medieval crane at a Prague castle, an Egyptian obelisk, and even a 1776 wooden submarine built during the American Revolutionary war. On a fun and practical note, Rick Brown designed a “Toys for Elephants” workshop and led design students to design engaging toys for elephants at a nearby zoo.
The Reconstructed Synagogue stands as the beautiful, central exhibit at the newly opened Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.
There is something organic, and far more meaningful, about a structure painstakingly built by hundreds of hands, of multiple faiths, using only original tools, hand-ground paints, and strict attention to historical accuracy. In the full-length film the museum director said “we could easily have hired set designers to recreate the synagogue. But that wouldn’t have the same depth and heart of what’s been created here.” (paraphrased.)
Count me a huge fan of Rick and Laura Brown. But even more importantly, as acts of anti-Semitism are increasing around the world, I find it reassuring that the stunning artwork and symbolism embedded in the Gwozdziec Synagogue stands safe and preserved for all faiths to visit and appreciate, for generations to come.
Additional Links and Resources: – The film is not in theaters, but is offered through film screenings around the country. The DVD version is available for purchase at polishsynagoge [dot] come.
Story of Raise the Roof
Handhouse Studio Making/History
Rick and Laura Brown Sculpture
Museum of the History of Polish Jews
Post updated 12/26/2017.