Friday, September 16, 2011

"Wooden Synagogues of Poland & The Florida Connection" Exhibit Now Open at the Jewish Museum of Florida

Gombin synagogue model
The Jewish Museum of Florida's newest public exhibition tells the stories of Polish shtetls (small towns in Eastern Europe with a sizable Jewish population) and some of their Jewish families who settled in Florida. 

The exhibit runs through March 18, 2012.

The genesis of the exhibit was the donation by Englishman Peter Maurice of 10 models of 17th-18th century Polish wooden synagogues. He researched and built the 1/40th-scale models  from 2003-2007.

Jews have lived in Poland for more than 1,000 years. About 80 percent of the American Jewish community has origins in Poland. That is not surprising, as we know that this was the center of the European Jewish world with more than three million Jews before the Holocaust. The focus of life for these Polish Jews was their synagogue. For 400 years prior to World War II, the Jews of the shtetls built approximately 1,000 wooden synagogues, because timber was plentiful. According to some art historians, the wooden synagogues of Poland, with their painted and carved interiors, were a truly original and organic manifestation of artistic expression-the only real Jewish folk art in history.

These beautiful and unique 17th and 18th century Polish wooden synagogues no longer exist. During World War II, the Nazis burned to the ground those still standing. Some synagogues built in the 19th and 20th centuries have been found in Poland and what is now Lithuania and are in deteriorated conditions.

This exhibit conveys the enormity of what was lost during World War II. Poland was the place where the Nazis built most of the death camps. This is the place where most of Europe's Jews perished.

The Museum's founding executive director and chief curator, Marcia Jo Zerivitz, said, "While we have various models in our collections, from a kosher bakery in Lakeland to a model of our very own Beth Jacob synagogue, this donation is so unique in that it brings a taste of old Polish Jewish life to modern day Miami Beach. So many Floridian Jews have a family history from Polish shtetls. These beautiful, unique models evoke memories of our heritage. When you look at them, you can almost hear the davening (praying) from within the walls and recall the pain of suffering of all Eastern European Jews from the period of the Holocaust when the Nazis destroyed these structures and most of the Jewish people. Through the creation of these models, Peter Maurice ensured that an element of Jewish life in Poland would not be forgotten. And we are so honored that Maurice chose the Jewish Museum of Florida from all the museums in the world to tell this compelling, significant story."

Dombek Family, Sosnowice, Poland, c.1910
Many Floridian Jews have a family history from Polish shtetls. To make the Florida connection, the Jewish Museum of Florida invited Jewish families to submit material evidence of their Polish roots for this exhibition. The curatorial staff researched each of the towns represented by the wooden synagogue models and by the families, so the story includes photographs, artifacts and documents from more than 30 towns and nearly 40 families.

The Jewish Museum of Florida on South Beach is housed in two adjacent lovingly restored historic buildings that were once synagogues for Miami Beach's first Jewish congregation. The focal point of the Museum is its core exhibit "MOSAIC: Jewish Life in Florida 1763 to the Present" and temporary history and art exhibits that change periodically. Current exhibits are "Seeking Justice: The Leo Frank Case Revisited" through August 14 and "Isaac Bashevis Singer & His Artists" through August 28. A Collections & Research Center, several films, Timeline Wall of Jewish history, Museum Store and Bessie's Bistro complete the experience for visitors of all ages and backgrounds.

Accredited by the American Association of Museums, the Jewish Museum of Florida is located at 301 Washington Avenue, South Beach and is open daily 10am-5pm, except Mondays and Civil and Jewish holidays. Admission: Adults/$6; Seniors/$5; Families/$12; Members and children under 6/Always Free; Saturdays/Free. For information call 305-672-5044 or visit

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