Bellingham man helps create replica of ancient Polish synagogue

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 6, 2012 

Bellingham timber framer Jackson DuBois couldn't resist the opportunity to work six days a week in Poland hewing logs for a history project that warmed his heart as much as it warmed his muscles.

DuBois, a tall and lean 36-year-old, works for Cascade Joinery of Ferndale, but he spent last May and June using old-style hand tools to help recreate part of a famous 300-year-old wooden synagogue. An 85-percent-scale replica of the synagogue's roof and ornately painted cupola will become a major display at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, now under construction where the Warsaw Ghetto once stood.

The synagogue was in Gwozdziec, a town that's now in Ukraine but that used to be part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

For DuBois, the trip meant a chance to learn and work with ancient tools and framing techniques, to work with an international crew, and to help mend a culture decimated by hate.

While the original Gwozdziec synagogue, the one that inspired the project, was destroyed during World War I, its replacement wooden synagogue, and several hundred others in eastern Europe, were later burned by Nazis.

During the Holocaust, Nazis killed an estimated 3 million Polish Jews, 90 percent of Poland's Jewish population at the time.

"The Jewish heritage of the region has been systematically erased," DuBois said.

The project is a joint effort by the museum in Warsaw; the Timber Framers Guild, an education group based in New Hampshire; and by Handshouse Studio, a Massachusetts-based program that fosters community-service projects to reconstruct historical buildings and objects.

DuBois and about 20 other timber framers, plus several dozen students, spent weeks and months turning silver fir logs into rafters, beams, trusses and curved ribs for the roof and cupola.

They worked in a grassy corner of an outdoor architectural park in Sanok, a town in southeast Poland. Think of the park as a large version of Ferndale's Pioneer Park, but with buildings dating back to the early 1600s.

DuBois said many residents of Sanok and tourists at the architectural park were unfamiliar with local Jewish culture and the area's old synagogues. Discussions with those people and with the timber framers and students often turned to such topics as history, hate, regret and renewal.

"Every day, something brought a tear to your eye," DuBois said. "It was hard to come back to normal life after that."

Wooden synagogues were common in the 16th and 17th centuries because wood was readily available and didn't cost much. The synagogue at Gwozdziec was built in the early 1700s.

In 1728, members of a Jewish painters guild covered the remodeled cupola above the prayer hall with ornate, brightly colored images: Hebrew inscriptions, vibrant animals, Jewish symbolism and other decorative art.

The quality of the artwork, plus the new style of cupola, made it one of the greatest and best-documented ancient synagogues in Poland, said Thomas Hubka, a professor of architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the author of "Resplendent Synagogue: Architecture and Worship in an Eighteenth-Century Polish Community."

"There are about 10 of them that are the masterworks, and this is one of them," he said.

For DuBois, his two months in Poland left such an impression that he plans to visit the replica once it's on display in Warsaw.

"It was a wonderful experience," he said. "It's a builder's dream come true."


MORE INFORMATION

Handshouse Studio: handshouse.org.

Museum of the History of Polish Jews: jewishmuseum.org.

Timber Framers Guild: tfguild.org.

Virtual tour of Gwozdziec synagogue: Go to youtube.com and enter "Gwozdziec synagogue."

Reach DEAN KAHN atdean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

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