Uncovering the Past

Uncovering the Past to Make Room for the Present - Rebekah Thornhill, Bronfman Center Assistant Director

We wrapped up yesterday afternoon with what I, and I think most of the participants, consider the highlight of the trip - a "mezuzah treasure hunt" of sorts with two Polish artists who have made it their mission to find all of the traces of mezuzot in Poland (and soon the Ukrainian cities which used to be Poland), cast them in bronze and make new mezuzah covers out of them. In addition, they research the people who lived in the apartments where mezuzah traces are found and pay tribute to them by engraving the address on the covers. (Side note: these are sold at the Jewish Museum in New York and the business is called "מי פולין"). Anyway, they took us to a condemned pre-war building in the Praga neighborhood of Warsaw, a building which a friend of theirs bought and is heading the renovation/construction project. He noticed several mezuzah traces on his own and called them so they could come check it out -- in addition to the molds they've already taken, the builders have agreed to keep the door posts intact and give them to museums for exhibition. We were the first (and will be the only) group they had taken there and we got to walk around looking at all of these Jewish apartments in this beautiful, massive European building and imagine the life that went on inside them. Some of these mezuzah traces were deep, deep imprints and I couldn't help but think to myself, having just put up mezuzot in my new apartment with my husband, "how long do you have to live somewhere for a mezuzah to leave such a mark?" These people lived here for a long, long time. They cooked, fought, loved, laughed, borrowed sugar, and eventually were forced out. The building was owned by Jews and bought by a non-Jewish owner in 1940 which obviously means it was acquired for a very low price, almost definitely at a loss to the original, Jewish owner who by that point was being transported/relocated/resettled/forced into the Warsaw ghetto across the river. 


After 5 days of exploring the complicated, frequently/mostly painful history of Poland by spending time in Krakow, Auschwitz and Warsaw, walking through rooms that captured live, human moments was the perfect way to end our time together. This group of American Jewish and non-Jewish NYU students learned so much in such a short amount of time. Not only that, many reflected that the highlights of this trip for them were 1) the friends they made and 2) learning more about Judaism than they ever had. Our time at the new POLIN Museum with Dr. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett was also a hit -- by the way, I heard through that they have funding to send just about every single Polish classroom to that museum during the academic year. A total game changer when it comes to teaching Polish history! We can talk more about that.


Rebekah Thornhill is the Assistant Director of the NYU Bronfman Center and a co-founder of Bronfman Global. Click here to view pictures from Bronfman Global's Poland Seminar