A Great-Granddaughter's Legacy

Chasing Portraits Visits Krakow

I visited Krakow on Saturday (25 October) and Sunday (26 October). The purpose for my visit was three-fold: to see Krakow Market where Grandpa George was arrested in September 1944 in a sweeping Gestapo round up, to give my talk, “Chasing Portraits: A Great-Granddaughter’s Quest for her Lost Art Legacy” at JCCKrakow, and to visit the historical Jewish district of Krakow, Kazimierz. Today’s post is mostly a photo montage.


Krakow Square where we filmed segments for Chasing Portraits


The Jewish Historical district of Krakow: Kazimierz.

Wondering about the photo of the “Lucky Jewish Figurines” in the bottom right hand corner? They’re rather, shockingly, in many places. I confess, I even bought a few. Read up a bit on in here: “Hey, Poland, What’s Up With Those Lucky Jewish Statues”


My talk at JCCKrakow


And then the return train trip to Warsaw for the grand opening of Polin: The Museum of the History of Polish Jews (which will be the subject of my next post!)


The Return

archiwumallegro found on lineI first discovered photographs of Moshe Rynecki paintings for sale on Allegro.pl, a Polish auction site, a few years ago. I don’t speak or read Polish, but the wording in one of the listings was “Rarytas,” a cognate for “rarity” or “collector’s item,”information I could piece together from context.   These pieces, the various sellers proclaimed, were real paintings by Moshe Rynecki, a Jewish artist from the interwar years who had perished in the Holocaust. I strained to learn something…anything…from the thumbnail photos included with each of the postings, but they were too small and grainy, yielding little insight about the work.

I eventually worked up the courage to write to the sellers and buyers of each of the pieces. My emails to the sellers were all pretty much of the same form: I am the great-granddaughter of Moshe Rynecki. You listed a piece for sale on Allegro that he painted. Can I please have better quality images of the paintings you’ve posted? How did you get these works? To the buyers I said I knew they’d bought the work. I pleaded to know more. Could they send me photographs? Why had they purchased a piece of my great-grandfather’s work? Were they collectors of Jewish art from the interwar years?

My emails were, perhaps, too aggressive. Or maybe the mere fact that I am the great-granddaughter of Moshe Rynecki frightened off most people. Only one man, Edward N., wrote back to me, sending me photos of the piece he had bought on Allegro. When I asked if I might come to his home to interview him, he responded affirmatively, but said I’d need to bring a translator.

A few days ago, on Saturday, I went meet Edward. He lives in what one might call a pleasant, leafy suburb of Warsaw. The homes, many of them pre-war homes, are elegant but simple. The street is lined with trees, the grounds of the homes are spacious; it is a quiet, peaceful place where a walk in the autumn yields lovely vistas of fall leaves.

When we arrived, the gate to Edward’s yard was locked. I rang a bell, and Edward came out almost immediately. An avuncular looking man with almost shoulder length gray hair, he seemed relaxed, at ease with himself. “Dzien dobry,” I said, a phrase I’ve grown comfortable with over my time in Poland. It’s a friendly greeting. It seemed particularly important to try to say something in Polish. I stuck out my hand, saying “Elzbieta Rynecka,” (Elzhbyeta Rinetska) I said, choosing to use the Polish pronunciation of my name. He said something in Polish which I didn’t understand, but gestured towards his home. I followed him to the front door along with my film team, Slawomir Grunberg, Catherine Greenblatt, and the Diuna translator, Mateusz Majewski, all climbing the stairs to the top floor of his home.

Edward’s house is a home in the truest sense of the word. It’s been lovingly decorated with a gentle accrual over time of art, books, and family photographs. In the front hallway his wife and daughter greeted me. “Please, please, come in,” Edward’s wife said, gesturing toward the table in a sitting room library, and then asked what we would like to drink. As we sat, she left the room, but quickly returned with a tray of tea and classic Polish apple cake.  Drinking tea, and eating the truly amazing homemade apple cake, we made small talk about the lovely drive to their home, about the family’s expansive collection of books, and about the family dog, Buenos. And then it was time to see the Moshe Rynecki piece and begin filming.

Edward had the black and white drawing in a mat and a protective plastic cover. He gestured to me to remove it from the plastic so that I could look at it more closely. He spoke in Polish and the translator said, “He wants to know if you think it’s real.” I paused. I’d thought about this moment a great deal before coming to Poland. “I’m not really sure,” I said. The piece is a lot like one held by ZIH (The Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw) and while it’s possible that my great-grandfather made different studies of the same image, something about the signature seems not quite right.” I waited for the translator to explain this to Edward and I took a moment to plan what I wanted to say next. “But I’ve signed my name a lot in my lifetime, and it doesn’t always come out exactly the same,” I explained. “I just really don’t know.” Edward nodded his head and pointed to my laptop. The translator explained that Edward wanted to know if I had a photograph of the piece like his that is held at ZIH. I opened the file and we held Edward’s piece about the screen of my laptop. Edward looked contemplative as he stared at the two images side by side.


Edward asked to see other pieces held by ZIH. He wanted to know more about my great-grandfather’s life, his body of work. He asked me to tell the story of how my family managed to recover some of the art after the war.

Edward and I spoke for about an hour across a gap of language, but feeling like we understood one another in a way that surpasses translation. He clearly understood my dedication to finding my great-grandfather’s lost work. And I understood, not just from the translated words, but from his gestures, mannerisms, and other Jewish art displayed in his home, his profound dedication to the world of Jewish culture and art. Our primary connection was not through language; we understood each other more through art.

After about two hours it was time to wrap up the interview. I thanked Edward for allowing me to visit him in his home. “Dziękuje,” I said, “Thank you.” We stood up and hugged. Then Edward picked up the painting off the table and held it out toward me. “He wants you to have the piece,” the translator said. “Really? Are you sure?” I asked. “He says it’s yours. It belongs to your family.”

The truth is that I’m not sure if the painting Edward gave me is truly a work by my great-grandfather.  Before I came to Poland, this question haunted me. I met with an attorney friend for advice, I read articles about the prevalence of fakes entering the art market, and ultimately I tried to understand whether, if it was a fake, why someone would bother with my great-grandfather’s work. While my great-grandfather was somewhat known in Warsaw in the interwar years, he was never famous. His name is “well known” only within the relatively small circle of those who study Polish Jewish culture from the 1920’s and 1930’s. But in that moment, the moment Edward placed the painting in my hands, none of that mattered. What mattered was Edward’s gesture – an effort to right a wrong from history – to take what may have been looted in the aftermath of the Second World War and to return it to the heir who had come searching for answers.  It was a moment that moved me beyond the power of words.



Kazimierz Dolny – An Art Colony Retreat

[Today's blog is written by Catherine Greenblatt. Cathy is part of the Chasing Portraits documentary film production team and has been with me in Poland for the past two weeks.]

At the turn of the 20th century, artists and writers from Warsaw and other Polish cities discovered the charm of Kazimierz Dolny, a village that lies on the Vistula River between Warsaw and Krakow. Kazimierz Dolny became a regular summer destination for artists, a colony or retreat where they could practice their craft without distraction. Artists visiting the town would stay with local families and participate in domestic life and rituals. Painters would paint in plein air; easels were set outside to catch the warm summer light, often capturing scenes of the marketplace, which still functions today, and the countryside, which remains beautiful, and the castle of King Kasimir, which still sits atop a hill at the end of the road leading from the market square. Moshe Rynecki was one of the many artists who regularly visited Kazimierz Dolny, and four of his watercolors of the town are carefully kept at ZIH (Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw).

None of this would be terribly extraordinary, except for the fact that Kazimierz Dolny was not simply a picturesque town in the Polish countryside. Kazimierz Dolny was a shtetl, a small Jewish community that observed the traditional customs and practices of hasidic Jews, who composed 80% of the town’s population. It would have been, more than likely, into the houses of these Orthodox Jews that visiting artists and writers stayed; more than likely kosher food that they ate and shuttered shops that they encountered in the market square on Saturdays. The artists who visited Kazimierz Dolny, Jew and Pole alike, went there not simply to paint but to explore this other culture, which also became the subject matter of many paintings. When we visited the National Museum in Kazimierz Dolny, we had the pleasure of speaking with Director Agnieszka Zadura and former Director Waldemar Odorowski, who shed light on this complex topic. When Odorowski assembled a 2007 exhibition of Jewish painters for the museum there, he did quite a lot of research about the Jewish communities where artists like Moshe Rynecki lived and worked. He found that it was impossible to speak of a singular Jewish world of Warsaw. There were assimilated Jews who spoke Polish and lived in gentile neighborhoods; there were semi-assimilated Jews who spoke Yiddish and Hebrew at home but who did business with Poles; and there were Jews who lived and worked in Jewish neighborhoods exclusively; and there were Hasidic Jews who lived very traditional lives and did not engage at all in modernity. The artistic groups that emerged from these differing strata of interwar Jewish life had sharp differences, and each one would often work in exclusion to the others. Except in Kazimierz Dolny, where all of the usual differences would, at least for a time, give way to looser, more generous explorations.

The case of Moshe Rynecki is interesting:  we know that he lived outside the Jewish quarters of Warsaw and spoke Polish. We also know that he was from a very religious  Jewish family. He spoke or wrote Yiddish but also Russian, and his children learned German and Russian as well. Though he painted scenes of traditional Jewish life, in his self-portraits his image is that of an urban, worldly man, a modern European. The brush strokes of those self-portraits are stark and bold, expressive and contemporary. How do we make sense of this difference between his self-portraits and his depictions of traditional Jewish life, which are more lush and colorful and detailed?

self portrait weddingThe self-portrait with wedding scene shows some of these dynamic qualities at work in Moshe’s imagination. There he is, in the lower right hand corner, confronting us with his gaze. The painter as self-conscious ethnographer. The majority of the canvas is given over to the wedding scene, an archetypal celebration in the life of Jewish family and community. The painting has two idioms, so to speak, one belonging to the painter and the other to the painted. Two cultures. Two separate spaces. Two identifications. And yet there they are, in the same frame finally, together making sense of what it is to be a Polish Jew.


Elizabeth’s Corner… I thought you might enjoy some photos of our time at Kazimierz Dolny

Grodzka Gate – Lublin

[NOTE: Today's post is written by Catherine Greenblatt. Cathy is part of the Chasing Portraits documentary film production team.]

IMG_6497One bone-chilling, digit-numbing afternoon in Lublin, after visiting the concentration camp Majdanek, an experience I’ve yet to metabolize, we visited The “Grodzka Gate – NN Theater” Center. Grodzka Gate – NN Theater occupies a building that is a literal bridge between what once was the Jewish and what is still the Gentile quarters of the town, where different cultures and religions could meet and pass into one another’s neighborhoods. Architecture becomes metaphor in Grodzka Gate, as the organization fully embraces the actual and figurative space of the bridge. The Jewish part of the city is now completely gone, the streets that once were busy with commerce and life are now silent, paved over, their vitality slipping away from the collective memory of Lublin.  It is difficult to categorize simply the work that “Grodzka Gate – NN Theater” does. It researches, explores, documents, and makes present again the lives of people who before the war made up one third of the town’s inhabitants. Their alchemy is part urban archaeology, part performance art, part gallery installation, part photographic archive, all filtered through the medium of public education and civic engagement. All of these gestures and research are then communicated through the ethical imperative of communal mourning and memory. Through photographs, maps, civic records, and other historical documents, “Grodzka Gate – NN Theater” finds remnants of lost lives and then animates them with conversation, live performance, and storytelling. Learning about this intelligent, heartfelt work warmed us as much as the hot milled wine and mushroom soup we had eaten earlier for lunch at a nearby traditional Polish restaurant.

Grodzka Gate began as a theater company, and though its mission took a turn when it fully realized the meaning of its location, there is no doubt that its work continues in a performative vein. In one civic performance, the stories of survivors commingle with those “righteous” Poles who rescued or hid Jews, each of the storytellers forming a line on each side of the Grodzka Gate, each one becoming witness for the other. As each person spoke, a lit candle would pass between each individual all along the line, and a handful of earth would be collected. Into each pile of earth a plant would be planted, a sign of life in a city that lost too many. I have long been fascinated by the speech of ghosts and have trained my ears to hear what it is they have to say. Poland is overwhelmed by ghosts, the airwaves are choked by their broadcasts, and not all of them are speaking in Yiddish. In the West, we don’t really learn about the suffering of Poles during the war, especially under Soviet occupation. The example of Grodzka Gate gives us an ethos of compassion and empathy and, above all, a desire to know what all of us are missing.

Majdanek – The Cruelty of It

I visited Majdanek on Thursday (23 October 2014) to pay respects to what is believed to be the site of my great-grandfather’s death. It rained all day and the wind was cold and bone chilling. I won’t write much here because the visit was emotionally powerful and I’m still trying to understand what I saw and experienced. I’m including a few photographs as well as an excerpt from my grandpa George’s book that talks about why my family believes Moshe Rynecki perished at Majdanek.

“The fact that my father died in Majdanek came to our knowledge in this manner. When the Germans started to make so called Jewish resettlements, they were afraid of resistance. They (the Germans) knew, of course, what kind of resettlements they were talking about. Death camps and crematoria. In the beginning, once they would fill up a camp, let’s say Treblinka, they would try and succeed to quiet down the Jews by giving them a bit more food for a few days and encourage them to write to families or friends that everything is well and that they have good food and peace. The Germans would declare that anyone writing a “good” letter would be immediately given work and better conditions to live. The Jews invariably would fall for it. They would write letters or cards and wait in queue to deliver them. The Germans would pick up the writings and send the writers to the gas chambers at once. The cruelty of it is of enormous dimensions. As a fact, the ones who wouldn’t write would have been sent back to the barracks to do it, and come back to get what they have been promised. Whole towns were deceived this way. This is how my father’s card came to Warsaw to my mother’s address, and made many people believe that he was well, and that he was actually painting in the camp. We know now that the minute he delivered his letter, he was killed by gas. Deception made the Jews be peaceful and believing in German lies.

   For some reason or another, I never believed the Germans. This is probably why I am still alive.

   Where Hitler found all these diabolic people to execute at his will, none will ever know. The Germans, and I am talking about 95 percent of them, were proud of their Fuhrer, and how smart he was. He committed genocide on the Jewish, Polish, Russian people, and nobody knew about it until it actually was too late, and even then in 1943 nobody did a thing for the poor condemned. Here Hitler knew that no country would help. The Jews were alone. So were the Poles. The Russians didn’t care. They are not much off the barbarian German character anyway. The world was with Hitler, but the strategies of Churchill, Roosevelt were wrong and too late. Some day history will prove the West was wrong from 1939 on.” Surviving Hitler in Poland: One Jew’s Story by George (Jerzy) Rynecki

More Pieces of the Rynecki Puzzle

Today’s blog is written by Catherine Greenblatt (travel companion extraordinaire and a core member of the film production team)

IMG_7018For the last 9 days, we have been visiting many sites in Poland that each play some part in piecing together the puzzle of Moshe Rynecki’s life and work. We have relied upon the memoir of his son, George Rynecki, to guide us through the streets of Warsaw. We have also relied upon curators and art historians whose institutions have collected, held, and cared for Moshe’s work. Along our way, we have had some remarkable surprises–several paintings we thought we knew but really didn’t, a newspaper image of a painting we had never before seen–a detailed scene of a passover seder (at right), but was it destroyed or does someone somewhere in the world still hold it?–and a few more puzzles and some enticing leads. These tempting, mysterious fragments spur us on to know more. In the archival records of ZIH (Jewish Historical Institute) and in the MNW (National Museum in Warsaw), we read the names of people who somehow rescued Moshe’s works. And next to their names, dates of sale/purchase: at ZIH: 1946, 1949, 1964, 1984. One of them, from the handwritten ledgers of MNW, is a J. Zebrowski, who sold two watercolors to the MNW in 1963.







Along the way of this project, Chasing Portraits has made a great number of friends through Elizabeth’s tireless and brilliant use of social media. One of them is Piotr Nazaruk who has done a great number of things for Chasing Portraits: he has found archival materials, including

IMG_6553newspaper articles and images, written a letter in Polish on our behalf, translated some legal materials, and he even traveled to Lublin, where we had the great pleasure of meeting him in person. We spent a lovely afternoon together there and after lunch learned about the work of Grodzka Gate. When Piotr read Elizabeth’s last blog, about this mysterious J. Zebrowski, he did some remarkably quick and excellent research and found some very interesting materials indeed. There was in fact a caricaturist by the name of Julian Zebrowski, somewhat younger than Moshe Rynecki, who lived in Warsaw during the interwar years. Some of his work was anti-semitic, but he apparently had some remorse after the war. Now, when we were visiting the MNW to see the two watercolors there, we interviewed Piotr Ripson, the deputy director of the museum, who is also a great admirer of ZIH and who described the boldness of their exhibition program, providing the example of a recent show of anti-semitic cartoons. Julian Zebrowski was one of the artists featured in that exhibition.

Before we leave Warsaw, we hope to fill in a little more of the picture. We know (thanks once more, Piotr!) that Julian Zebrowski died in 2002.  If indeed this Julian Zebrowski is the J. Zebrowski in the ledgers of MNW, how did he end up with the paintings? Did he find them? Did he buy them in the interwar years before Moshe hid them? Were they part of one of Moshe’s original eight hidden bundles? Did he find them among the ruins of Warsaw? Are there more? Why did he sell them to MNW, which has no other collection of Moshe’s work? Did he approach ZIH with sale, which did already have an established collection and an overarching mission that centrally includes Moshe’s life and story? And if he did approach ZIH, why didn’t the transaction take place? And then there are questions about Zebrowski’s own life and work: Does he have heirs? Might they have more paintings? Did he have a publishing house? An editor who might familiar be with his work and might know something about his estate? Why would an anti-semite collect Jewish art? What was the nature of his postwar remorse and what form did it take? Does ZIH have archival records about Zebrowski that might reveal information about Moshe?

Nat’l Museum of Warsaw, a Train Ride, and Lublin

Wednesday October 22nd

We’ve been pushing hard for a week, and the drive seems to have caught up with me a bit in the form of a cold. So today I’ve decided to just post a montage of photos with a few brief labels.

Street scenes in Warsaw taken from our cab on our way to the National Museum of Warsaw (MNW)

The National Museum in Warsaw has two of my great-grandfather’s paintings in its collection. These are some behind the scenes shots of hallways not normally accessible to the public as well as conservator and storage spaces. The two paintings were prepared and waiting for me on a table. You can see me pull off the covering sheet and looking at the two pieces below.

When a museum takes in a piece of art into its collection, it records the item into its log book. The log contains a description of the painting (e.g. four men sitting on a park bench, three holding canes, behind them are trees, etc….), information about the condition of the work, and the name of the person who either sold or donated the work. In the MNW log book, these two Rynecki paintings are shown to have been sold by a Mr. J. Zebrowski to the museum in 1963 for 2,000 zloty. I wish I knew more about this person, but I haven’t a clue. If you’ve got ideas of how to find him or his heirs to learn more about the history of how they came to have the pieces, please email me: [elizabeth@rynecki.org]

A few miscellaneous shots from our time at MNW. Our bags, two shots out front (in one Slawomir is filming me walking) and the last photo is a poster for a Holocaust Era Looted Art conference happening in November in Krakow.

We caught a 6pm train out of the central train station in Warsaw towards Lublin. One shot here is me in line buying tickets, the rest are from the train and views outside the station at Lublin. It started to rain last night and between the clacking of the train wheels along the track, the cold, and the wet, I started to get quite emotional.

In Lublin there is a sort of passage way called Grodzka Gate. This is what actually separated the town in the interwar years into a Jewish and non-Jewish side of town. It was dark and rainy when we arrived so I couldn’t see a lot, but the streets have old European style bricks and the buildings are all close together. We walked to a Mandragora, a restaurant which has positioned itself as a Jewish themed restaurant. Given that I was feeling sick, the chicken soup with dumplings tasted awfully good. The latkes were quite delicious as well, although I could have used some applesauce…

Two New Discoveries

I have now been in Warsaw for about a week, and I am super excited about all the filming we’ve been able to do so far! We’ve had fabulous interviews, looked at original Moshe Rynecki paintings, and filmed at locations that hold significance and meaning to my family’s pre-war and wartime story.  The days are long, and then the nights are a bit longer still because Cathy and I come back to our apartment and, a la Hollywood style, review the dailies. Living in the moment is one thing, but knowing you caught a great expression or a wonderful statement means you KNOW you’ve got a great film. We are getting there!

For Tuesday 21 October, first on our agenda was a return visit the Jewish Historical Institute (ZIH) to see the 8 paintings in restoration being prepared for the opening of the exhibition: SALVAGED. A Collection of paintings, drawings and IMG_6880sculpture from the holdings of the Jewish Historical Institute.  The exhibit itself is not yet up, but I’m hoping for a sneak peak of the exhibit before I return to the States. In the meantime, I got to take a look at the Rynecki paintings they are thinking of including, one of which is a self-portrait of my great-grandfather. I love this painting! He painted himself in a contemplative pose, holding his head in his hand (something I do quite often when I’m at my desk!), he’s not dressed in traditional Jewish clothing (instead he’s wearing a button down shirt and a tie), and in the background and around the edges he’s used pinks and purples to frame the portrait. I asked if it might be possible for me to put on gloves and pick up the painting. To my surprise and delight I was told, “yes, yes, of course.”

There are a LOT of really great moments in each day of this Warsaw trip, but this particular one is special and I will treasure it for a very long time. The moment was caught on film by my lovely and fabulous cameraman, Slawomir Grunberg, and captured in this behind-the-scenes shot by Catherine Greenblatt who wears many, many hats on the Chasing Portraits docfilm production team including working a second camera, taking stills, helping me to do interview prep work, cross checking historical information, and much, much more.

IMG_7012At four o’clock we were to join a two hour tour of Polin: The Museum of the History of the Polish Jews. We did, and the tour guide was great, but what I really want to share are some documents Renata Piątkowska, who once worked at the Jewish Historical Institute, but is now at Polin, recently discoveIMG_7014red while doing some archival research. The first document here is an application Moshe Rynecki made in 1934/1935 to to the Institute of Propaganda (which should be read not with a negative English language connotation, but is more about the promotion of the arts) to have two paintings  included and sold at in a Salon (an exhibition). On the application you can even see the price he is asking for each of the works: I think it says 74 złotyand 150 złoty. Clearly the paintings haven’t sold because on the back of the document is a handwritten note from Moshe Rynecki indicating that the organizationis to please give the Rynecki paintings to his wife, Perla Rynecka.



The other very exciting document Renata brought me is the cover of a magazine made for cantors. On the cover is a Rynecki painting showing the scene of a Passover Seder. You can see the Haggadah, the stack of matzah, and it looks like the youngest at the table is asking the four questions. The big mystery now is, did this piece survive the war, and if so, who has it?


And then it was onto the museum tour. This new Museum of the History of the Polish Jews is a massive exhibition space with an incredibly ambitious plan to show a 1000 years of Polish Jewish History. Our guide was great at highlighting the importance of each room and of pointing out some of the more unique objects on display. My favorite room, of course, is the one of Jewish life because it is the case where the photographic print of a Moshe Rynecki painting will be displayed. This is the case where it will hang [presently the big white spot!] along with the text to be included:

And last, but not least, a photograph of myself with Renata at a King’s chair in an earlier part of the exhibition. Even serious days need some whimsy.














My Day at ZIH – The Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw

Before I left California, I was convinced that my visit to ZIH, the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, would go one of two ways: I would arrive and the sign on the door proclaiming that the museum is closed (which it actually is, until the end of the

IMG_6220month) would mean no visit for me, OR… everything would go as planned and I would go inside to see the 52 Moshe Rynecki paintings held by the Jewish Historical Institute. I’ll spare you the long drawn out story and drama of my sitting on schpilkas for months, and let you know that yesterday I was given a private viewing of 44 of the paintings! Today I go back to see the rest. [By the way, here's a photograph of Slawomir Grunberg - a very interesting and successful filmmaker in his own right and, lucky for me, cameraman for my project - filming the sign that says the Institute is closed. Oh, and check him out on Twitter: @SGrunberg]

We arrived at ZIH a bit before the art curator staff and so took some exterior shots as well as some footage inside the main hallway.

We met on site with Director Paweł Śpiewak, who took a few moments to speak to me about the institute and its mission. And then we were off to spend several hours with Teresa Śmiechowska and Jakub Bendkowski, both of whom were kind, accommodating, and knowledgeable about the Moshe Rynecki art at ZIH.

Next up?  The art itself. First a quick look at the archival storage facility which is, much like other museums, neat, clean, and temperature controlled. Then Jakub brought up the Rynecki artwork into the room where we were to view the pieces. The room was small, and others were working in the space, so in some respects it was not ideal. On the other hand it was an intimate space making it possible for all of us to interact with the pieces so easily.

To say that I am obsessed with finding my great-grandfather’s lost art is probably an understatement. I spend A LOT of time tracking down information about his work. This means that I regularly browse the internet for postings, look for conference papers with images, and request Polish books through my local library. Before arriving at ZIH yesterday, I had a spreadsheet of the institute’s holdings with a corresponding thumbnail sketch of each of the pieces I’d found online and in books. I had done my homework so that when I looked at each piece as it was shown to me, I was familiar with the work. Of course seeing a work in person is far more powerful than looking at a low quality reproduction of the image in a book, but at least one knows what to expect. The first piece came out, I nodded my head, yes, the blind man. The second piece came out, yes, the people painting toys. The third piece came out, some street performers. Nothing surprised me except for the fact that I was standing there, RIGHT THERE, with my great-grandfather’s paintings. It was a profound and important moment for me. I’ve waited YEARS to stand in the same room as his works at ZIH.

But then something happened. Jakub put the next package (all the pieces are wrapped in acid free paper) down, and began to unwrap it and I gasped and leaned forward. “I’ve never seen this piece!” I proclaimed. Slawomir moved closer and focused in on me. I gasped inwards, my breath momentarily caught midstream. I raised my hand to cover my mouth. My eyes grew big. How can it be? How can I have missed this piece? It’s an astounding work. It’s rich in detail, in texture. I may not know this piece, but I instantly recognize the style. There is no doubt in my mind that this is my great-grandfather’s piece.

It is THESE moments that I live for in this project; to find the unknown pieces! And as rare as they are, yesterday there were three such moments. Here they are:

[A note about the Hebrew in the painting at the top from my cousin Nana Meyer: It reads "hu ha-Elohim,"  two words from a three word phrase in the liturgy. The complete phrase reads "Adonai hu ha-Elohim" which translates as "Adonai is G-d" or, "The Lord is G-d." Moshe has only written "hu ha Elohim." Literally that translates as "G-d is" or "He is G-d." About the men placing their hands over their eyes, it's traditional to cover the eyes when reciting the Sh'ma. At the very very very very end of the Yom Kippur service, the Sh'ma is recited followed by reciting "Adonai hu ha-Elohim" seven times. It's sort of the grand finale to the long day of prayer.]

And as if finding three paintings I didn’t know existed wasn’t enough, yesterday had one other rather large surprise in store for me…. On the backs of several paintings we discovered a tag indicating that my great-grandfather’s work showed at theIMG_6731 International Exposition in Brussels in 1935. The search now is to figure out how many paintings went to the exposition, how many were sold, and how many returned to Poland. This is the part where I ask you, my followers and supporters, for help…. Anyone have access to archival information with exposition installation photographs? Or perhaps an exhibition catalog showing information about the Polish exhibitors? This stamp I’m showing here at the right is the tag on the back of one of the paintings. [if you have any ideas or answers, please email me: elizabeth@rynecki.org]

To say that my day at the Jewish Historical Institute was a good one is really an understatement. I feel jubilant about what I saw and buoyed by the interpersonal connections I’ve made with the staff at the museum. I’m looking forward to returning today. There are 8 pieces I still have not seen and I have a few interview questions to film.

Here are some behind-the-scenes photos by Catherine Greenblatt. I hope these give you a bit more flavor of the day. A shout out to Catherine, who snapped all of these documentation shots. She’s also working the second video camera and the iphone camera. Even more importantly, she is making sure all interviews reflect all of our historical research, and reviewing footage with me at the end of each day. Cathy makes sure I do my daily video log when all I really want to do is be done with the day! Cathy’s POV section has appeared in the last two blogs. There’s another one today below these photos. Be sure to read it! Oh, and you can follow her on Twitter: @catgreenblatt)

Cathy’s POV

Today, we spent the day at ZIH, the Polish acronym for the Jewish Historical Institute. The Institute has collected Jewish artifacts since the Second World War. The building has been closed for some time, since it is undergoing major renovation. When it opens again at the end of the month, it will feature an exhibition called SALVAGE, which will contain two pieces by Moshe Rynecki. Today, we get to see which pieces ZIH has chosen to show and where they hang. But in the meantime, yesterday morning, as we began our morning, we walked into a construction zone: building materials everywhere, paint cans, displaced furniture, plastic buckets, the smell of fresh paint. Historical photographs of the building mounted from the ceiling are blocked by bookcases. Construction workers hammer and drill. Dust is everywhere. Into a small reading room we go, which doubles as temporary office for four ZIH employees; and there, we spend several hours poring over the Moshe Rynecki collection. One of the great anxieties of knowing that such a large number of Rynecki pieces live in someone else’s home is the fear that they are deteriorating, stored in boxes without proper archival protection. But yesterday we were able to let go of that fear entirely. ZIH has cared for its Rynecki collection with utmost care and attention to detail. Many pieces were torn and water damaged when ZIH received them (they are survivors of war, after all), and they have been carefully restored. Everyone wears gloves when touching them, and each piece is protected from the others with acid free paper. Today, we will go to the restoration studio to see how several more Rynecki pieces are being restored. Stay tuned.




















Koło Bazaar, Krasinski Park, Umschglaplatz, and Śląsko-Dąbrowski Bridge

Sunday morning we trekked off to Koło Bazaar. I had been told that Jewish ephemera often appears in this Sunday market and I wanted to see if I might find a Moshe Rynecki painting. I never thought I would find an original piece at the market, but I was optimistic that I might find a replica or a fake piece. (Yes, there seems to be growing interest in my great grandfather’s art and we are now aware that replicas and fake pieces do exist.) The market is a sprawling street fair/flea market selling everything from fur hats and traditional Polish costume to silver ware and dinner plates and, of course, art. There’s a lot of art, but none of it very impressive. I spoke to a man whose friend was selling paintings at the edge of the market and asked him if he knew the work of Moshe Rynecki. He told me “everything here is bullshit.”

Here are a few photos of the morning at the fair. The selfie-photo is myself, and my Warsaw film production team Catherine Greenblatt (a long time friend and an important part of the film production team! Read Cathy’s POV included in this blog post below), and Slawomir Grunberg (my cameraman, guide, interpreter, advisor, and so much more!). It’s important to eat apples in Poland these days [Russia band their import for “sanitary reasons,” so eating apples has become a rallying cry of support for Polish farmers and Poland, in general. In the photos along the bottom row I’m closely examining some pictures I’ve found. The painting I’m holding is some sort of Jewish image, but it’s clearly not a Rynecki piece. The question is whether it’s even an authentic piece of Judaica….doubtful.


We left the market by cab to go and grab lunch in another part of town. After lunch we took a walk toward our next destination and happened upon these intriguing murals. The yellow wall includes many famous people, Hollywood actors, and intellectuals. The man with glasses who looks like the lampfixture is coming out of his head is Zamenhof, the inventor of Esperanto (yes, he’s Polish and Jewish). Other folks pictured here include Dirty Harry (Clint Eastwood) saying “go ahead, make my day”, Donkey from Shrek, and Yoda. It’s really quite a collection of figures!

Our next destination was Krasinskich (Krasinski) park, but first we made a brief stop at Więźniów Politycznych Stalinizmu (loose translation: A Square remembering Stalin’s Political Prisoners) because who doesn’t enjoy a chance to pound out “chopsticks” on an abandoned piano?! Across the street, near the entrance to Krasinski Park is another Warsaw Ghetto Monument. Park of the ghetto wall ran through the park during the war. Today the park is a lovely place. Families were strolling with young children, couples were enjoying the view of the lake, and I sat down to admire the fall leaves. I’d come to Krasinski park searching for the six old men of my great-grandfather’s paintings. I didn’t see anything like them, but I found benches beneath the lovely trees and amidst the folliage. As I took it all in, I felt like I had a glimpse through time of why Moshe’s painted here – such a calm and beautiful spot in the center of the busy city.

Next up was a visit to the Umschlagplatz Memorial. You can read the post of my experience there in a separate blog, “A Negative Encounter at the Umschlagplatz Memorial.” The first two photos here show Slawomir filming me at the memorial. The photo of the memorial site itself is not my photograph. It is from the Wikipedia page about the memorial – link provided.

The last site of the day was a trip to a bridge grandpa George writes about in his memoir:

“After a day or two, I decided to move to Warsaw. I was stranded and desperate. I could depend on my parents. They still had the large apartment on Krucza. The railroad was out, the car was gone, and the only way to get there was to walk. Along the rails in sandy ground. We started one morning to walk. It was tedious. Sand and more sand. Alex got very quickly tired and I had to take him on my shoulders with a couple packs in my hands. Hotter than hell in this early September 1939. The battlefield losses of the Poles, the rapid progress of German armies, all this was no incentive to live, or act intelligently. A few miles, but how difficult. When we reached the Vistula and the Kierbedzia bridge, I was exhausted. And there, right on the bridge, the Polish soldiers were building a barricade of sorts to protect the approach from the east. As I was thinking, an officer stopped me, requesting my help in building the barricades.”

The bridge was bombed out in the war and rebuilt with a new name: Śląsko-Dąbrowski Bridge. Across the Vistula River is the Warsaw Zoo (if you haven’t already done so, read Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife). I took a walk on the bridge, stared at the sandy banks, and thought about the Moshe Rynecki painting that shows men who helped to build a barricade of sorts, to protect the approach from the east. The source of this black and white photo of the men digging the sort of barricade my grandpa George helped build and that Moshe Rynecki painted, is from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum online exhibition: http://bit.ly/Z4zklz


Cathy’s POV: When Elizabeth and I started to talk about this documentary project many years ago, we knew that the story would not unfold simply. Yes, it would involve work, research, persistence, and chasing ghosts as well as portraits. Not every effort would reveal a lost painting or a fragment of Moshe’s life or new information. Dead ends are a part of the narrative, even though they may not illuminate Moshe’s story. But when we opened our eyes to the possibilities inherent in lost leads and dead ends, curious tangents began to offer another set of possibilities for telling the story. Looking for fakes and reproductions has become an interesting development in our research, and they throw a fascinating wrench into telling the story. Why is Moshe’s work being forged, faked, copied, or reproduced? Is it Moshe’s fame as an artist? Not likely. More probable is the current fascination with Judaica in Poland, which seems strange to a North American sensibility.