A Window to the Past

This week I have a guest blog over on Jewish Art Education’s website. The piece, “Moshe Rynecki: A Window to the Past” is a short piece – about 500 words – about the Moshe Rynecki project, with an emphasis on looking to the works as an opportunity for educators to use the pieces to broach issues of Jewish history, religious studies, art history, ethnicity, identity, and the Holocaust.  I’ll share it here too:

My great-grandfather, Moshe Rynecki (1881-1943), used his paintbrush and palette to chronicle the life of his community – the Jewish people of Poland. He painted Jewish worship and religious study, as well as cultural and lifetime milestones such as wedding celebrations and death. Most of all, he had a special affinity for portraying people at work in their everyday tasks. More than merely recording the scenes he painted, he features details that are often lost in the background of day to day life, illuminating and making plain the essence of his subjects. In painting a group of men sitting at a table studying the Talmud, Moshe highlights the Rabbi gesticulating as he speaks and men’s spines curved from hours of studying. Instead of showing a dark interior scene with a contrasting window, he emphasizes the window as the sole source of illumination, rays gently streaming from the window to highlight men reading the Talmud. His talent was to respectfully and intimately convey private moments of the world he knew and loved. His work is a window to the past, bringing back to life a people whose lives and culture were torn asunder.

I am pleased and proud to share my great-grandfather’s works with others because I believe his oeuvre of work opens interesting gateways for educators. The subjects of his pieces lend themselves to Jewish history, religious studies, art history, and ethnicity and identity issues. For example, Moshe often painted the religious community, but painted himself in western garb, more as ethnographer or observer than as part of the community he portrayed. The physical paintings open up an even more interesting discussion of Holocaust studies as they themselves have their own Holocaust story of separation, destruction, loss, and partial redemption.

Museum curators often think of the Moshe Rynecki story either as a Holocaust story or as the tale of a Jewish painter and his legacy of fine art. Today I believe there is an opportunity to reframe the entire discussion. As the world loses more Holocaust survivors, there are fewer people to bear witness and share their experiences, so there must be other ways to pass on their legacy. The children of survivors cannot speak for the survivors, but we can carry their stories forward. My great-grandfather once hoped his original collection of 800 paintings would be reassembled after the war, but that was not to be; my family has just over 100 paintings. I know the collection will never be whole again, but today I search for the lost and missing canvases and share the work we do have because his story, and the larger story of the paintings, is an important part of the Jewish cultural tapestry.