The Story of MI POLIN: Being a Jewish Entrepreneur in the Contemporary Poland
MI POLIN is the first Polish Judaica company since World War II. It was founded by Helena Czernek and Aleksander Prugar in 2014 to design and produce contemporary Judaica from Poland with the mission of making Judaism tangible.
Katia Kobylinski talked with Helena and Aleksander about what it means to be a (Jewish) entrepreneur in the contemporary Poland.
How does it feel like to be a Jewish entrepreneur in the Poland of today?
Aleksander Prugar: First of all – MI POLIN is a way of preserving and reinforcing our ”Polish-Jewish” identity, which gives us strength and inspiration. The question should be – how to be an entrepreneur at all? I don’t think that being an entreprenur means that you have to be stress-resistant and work much more than 8 hours per day. Entrepreneurship is a matter of attitude. It can be described as being ready for change, creating values and a market. This is what we do.
At MI POLIN we create Jewish stories that emphasize Jewish symbolism. Behind this activity is pure freedom. We create objects based on the principle that the ideas behind them must be tangible. Nowadays, customers want to be told a story not just own a”nice” product. Therefore, we do not sell mezuzot, chanukiot and so on. Our products are the memory and the history with the aim to enrich Jewish life and strengthen Jewish identity.
Helena Czernek: The pre-WWII Poland was home to many companies and factories producing Judaica. The famous Norblin’s factories were producing gorgeous items. With the end of the war and the death of three million Jews, these companies disappeared as well. What is important to us is the fact that we come from here and that we offer judaica from Poland. This is how we show to our customers that Poland is once again a place of Jewish creativity. Moreover, it is important to us to send a message to the Jews living abroad. We are demonstrating that Jewish life in Poland is working and developing. Many people who have not visited Poland are not aware of this rebirth. That is why we called our brand MI POLIN, Hebrew for “From Poland”.
Is there anything that makes Jewish entrepreneurship unique?
Aleksander Prugar:Yes, interpretation. Interpretation is at the very essence of Judaism. For centuries interpretation was done through writing. We interpret Jewish tradition and symbolism through our contemporary objects. We observe hiddur micvah, the biblical commandment ordering that ritual objects should be beautiful.
Helena Czernek: To me, it is a constant and ongoing pursuit of the dialogue between tradition and modernity, and the reference to history. We bring together cultural content and symbolism through which we create new meanings.
Your company MI POLIN is the first Judaica company in Poland since WWII. What does this fact mean to you personally and to the business itself?
Helena Czernek: It’s both a challenge and creation of something new. At MI POLIN, references to tradition and history are important but everything we do is given a local context. The very fact that we are working here [in Poland] is actually important to many of our customers. They are often descendants of Polish Jews and as such feel a sentiment for their former “home”. They would like to transfer part of this world to themselves, to other countries or to other continents. But at the end of the day there is one meaning – Poland. Therefore, we feel like we give a continuity to the world that vanished, but which we are bringing alive, not allowing it to sink into oblivion completely.
Aleksander Prugar: When we first sent our offer to US retailers, they were surprised and shocked. They had no idea that someone was designing, producing and offering Judaica from Poland. This market is nowadays dominated by Israeli products. We had to answer many questions about ourselves but in the end, everyone was very excited.
Your project ‘Mezuzah from This Home’—bronze casts of imprints of mezuzah cases from around Poland—links the past and the present in a very deep and meaningful way. How did this idea come to you?
Helena Czernek: I was walking once in Cracow and noticed mezuzah traces on old town houses. It is much more difficult to notice them in Warsaw. 80% of Warsaw was completely destroyed by the Nazis during the war. Mezuzah traces are the witnesses and the evidence of the existence of that ancient world. These traces are disappearing quickly due to home renovations. I ask myself: how can these traces be preserved? Photographs are a form of documentation, but not of preservation. Alexander and I created the idea of preserving these traces in a tangible way with the aim of reviving them.
Aleksander Prugar: For four years we have been traveling throughout Poland, preserving the mezuzah traces we found in bronze casts. We have made 78 casts so far. By inserting a klaf (a mezuzah scroll with the Shema Israel prayer on it) that has not existed here for years, the bronze-cast mezuzot get a new life. The touch of such a mezuzah symbolically takes us to back to that ancient Jewish world. Part of this project is a historical research about the places where we found the mezuzah traces. In the cooperation with the Department of Genealogy of the Jewish Historical Institute, we reconstruct the fate of the former owners of these mezuzot. Our mezuzot are cast in bronze. They are indestructible and eternal.
Why a mezuzah?
Helena Czernek: MI POLIN designs not only mezuzot, we also offer a candlestick that combines chanukiah (a Chanukah candlestick), a menora and a Shabbat candlestick, a Havdalah set for besamim, and jewelry. We are also working on more ritual objects. Yet, the theme of the mezuzah truly inspires us somehow.
When it comes to the project “Mezuza from This House,” our special interest mostly comes from the fact that the mezuzah traces have not yet been developed in any way. Since they are not worthwhile to the conservationists of historical monuments, they are disappearing fast. However to us, they carry a great sentimental value, and are to some extent proof of the Jewish life flourishing here. Every time we find a mezuzah trace in a town that was once home to a flourishing Jewish community, I ask myself – “How can this be everything that remains?” Mezuzot were placed on almost all Jewish homes, on the doorsteps of all doors in the apartment. Sometimes we fail to find something. Time blurs the traces. Our project is in a sense a race with time.
What are your favorite Jewish sources that you derive motivation and support from on the days when you feel like you need it?
Helena Czernek: There are some parts of the Torah that affect both MI POLIN and myself. Shema Israel is certainly one of them, the part that is inscribed on the scroll inserted in the mezuzah. We are paying attention to the memory and passing it onto the next generations. This gives me the strength to work further and supports the sense of a kind of a mission that I see in MI POLIN.
Aleksander Prugar: History.
What’s the business plan for 5778?
Aleksander Prugar: This year we are heading for Belarus in search of more mezuzah traces. It will be a long journey. We want to tour all important Jewish places such as Pinsk, Homiel, Mogilev, Słonim, Dawidgródek and others.
Helena Czernek: This year we are also changing our approach to design by expanding the scale of our operations. We are going to focus on a few selected Jewish issues and create an exhaustive collection of several products.
Favorite Judaica piece and why?
Helena Czernek: It is impossible to hide that it is the mezuzah, for sure. Perhaps it is the peculiarity of the Shema Israel prayer as well as the touch of the mezuzah itself but it is also about the personal. The mezuzah is inseparably connected with home, private life and the individuals. In the past, mezuzot were not placed on the doors of synagogues. The mezuzah immediately points out that the house is Jewish. Attached to the doorframe, it leaves a trace even after the home changes its owners. It is part of the house.
Chamsa is another symbol that is very important to me although it is difficult to claim it as Judaica. Yet, it is an important element of the contemporary Jewish symbolism. It is a symbol that keeps on inspiring me and that I am trying to develop it in different ways.
About Helena & Aleksander
Aleksander Prugar (b. 1984, Gliwice) studied Journalism and Mass Comunication at Warsaw University, Social Sciences at Katowice School of Economics and film course in National Film School in Łódź. For 5 years he worked as a photojournalist with the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. In 2009, critics, art historians and photo-editors associated with the Month of Photography in Krakow included him in the top hundred of the most significant Polish artists of the decade working in the field of photography.
Helena Czernek (b. 1985, Warsaw) studied Product Design at Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem and Hebrew Studies at the University of Warsaw. Combining her interests in design and Jewish heritage, her work is concerned with representing the relationship between the past and the present. Her project (a collaboration with Klara Jankiewicz ) a crosswalk in a shape of pianokey was awarded 1st place in a competition for designs promoting the 2010 “Year of Chopin” in Warsaw.
You might also like:
Katia Kobylinski is an avid brand strategist & social entrepreneur. To merge her passions for causes, stories and arts, she founded ‘creative: for good’ – a virtual ad agency that connects millennial artists and nonprofits for advertising for the good – at JCC Chicago’s start-up incubator Seed613. Katia loves city life, hummus & company.