100 Works from the Yad Vashem Collection will be on exhibition at the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum) in Berlin from 26 January to 3 April 2016. The exhibition includes one Moshe Rynecki painting, Refugees (1939). The Rynecki family gifted this piece to Yad Vashem.
A Great-Granddaughter's Legacy
This article is primarily about Holocaust era looted art in Israel. It opens with the story of how Polish provenance researcher Agnieszka Yass-Alston discovered a painting held in Israel at Ein Harod’s Museum of Art that belongs elsewhere and talks quite a bit about Elinor Kroitoru of Hashava and the Israeli governments’ efforts to find and locate heirs of Holocaust-era property in Israel. There is also a lovely mention of Moshe Rynecki and the search for his lost art (although the facts are a little off).
The story here is a long one with lots of strange twists and turns; serendipitous moments really. In a way it’s a sort of “truth is stranger than fiction,” story, but then again, the Chasing Portraits project is filled with such incredible moments. I promise to try to cut to the chase as fast as possible.
My quest to find all my great-grandfather’s paintings always begins with the same story: My great-grandfather, Moshe Rynecki (1881-1943) painted scenes of the Polish-Jewish community in the interwar period. A Warsaw based artist, he was quite prolific, producing close to 800 paintings and sculptures before the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939.
In the early days of the Second World War my great-grandfather became concerned about his art and decided to divide it into bundles and hide it in and around the city of Warsaw. Moshe perished in the Holocaust. After the war his widow, Perla, recovered a small percentage of the original body of work. The works were found in the basement of an apartment building in Praga (a Warsaw neighborhood across the Vistula river). Eventually Perla brought those paintings out of Poland, and took them to Italy (where her son George and his family lived after the war), and then Grandpa George brought them to the United States in 1949. To help abbreviate this long family story, suffice it to say that in the late 1950s Perla went to live with extended family in Le Mans, France (a city best known for its annual 24 hour automobile race). George kept in touch with his mother and the French family for many years, but then Perla died in 1971 and communication between the two families slowed. I was 2 years old when Perla died.
And then I fast forward the story quite a bit, first to 1992 when Grandpa George died and then to the early 2000’s when Dad gave me a box of Grandpa George’s files which contained letters, photographs, war documents, and other random tidbits. Several of the items had to do with Perla and the family in France. At first I didn’t see any need to contact the family in France, they weren’t people I knew, I barely understood how they were family, and I didn’t speak French. But somewhere along the line it occurred to me that Perla probably took some of her husband’s paintings with her when she went to live in France, and then finding them suddenly seemed quite important.
I tried rather haphazardly to find the family. I Googled them, searched for them on social media, and tried to see if they still lived at the old mailing address I found in Grandpa George’s files. I even considered visiting Le Mans and making inquiries in person at city hall or perhaps the post office, but with a population close to 150,000, it seemed like my chances of randomly finding them slim to impossible. Besides, what if they had moved? But I never really gave up hope of finding them, I just needed to keep trying to find the right way into their lives.
Last month I was at an art law conference in New York to speak about Holocaust era looted art claims. While I was in the city I got together with Roz Jacobs and Laurie Weisman, friends (thanks to Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett) who run The Memory Project. Roz is the daughter of two Holocaust survivors and is herself an accomplished painter. Laurie has a great deal of experience as an educator (she spent many years at Scholastic Inc. and Sesame Workshop). The Memory Project is, in their words, “a unique multimedia exhibit shows a Holocaust survivor’s riveting story of the brother she lost, coupled with images of her daughter painting portraits of that boy.” An interactive exhibit, workshop, and film, they engage students in the history of the Holocaust while enabling them as “artists, storytellers and creators – to connect to their own family histories of memory, of loss and of the power of the creative process.”
And now you’re thinking…get to the point already… Okay, okay, I’ll do my best.
“Are you done with filming?” Roz asked.
“Sort of,” I said. “I’m still trying to close out a couple of loose ends, but at some point I’ll just need to stop filming and start editing.”
“Where else do you need to shoot?”
“Israel, Los Angeles, and France,” I said.
“Perla once lived with family in Le Mans. I think maybe she took some of my great-grandfather’s paintings with her when she went to live with them. I’m curious if they still have any pieces.”
“We know people in Le Mans. Maybe I can help you find them.”
I laughed. What were the odds she knew my family in Le Mans? But you know what? Well, of course you know what, because that’s why I’m telling the story.
Roz went to high school in New York with Margi. Margi has lived in France for about 40 years and she just so happens to be good friends with a woman who was a very young girl when Perla lived with her family.
And so what about any paintings Perla took to France? I’m so glad you asked…Yesterday, Christmas Day, I had what Roz and Laurie have dubbed, our own Jewish Christmas miracle.
An email arrived in the late afternoon with two photos. One was of the painting the family still has (they think there may have been others, but they’re not sure what’s happened to them). The other photo showed the entire family sitting, posing with the painting. I almost cried. It was such a heartfelt and lovely photo for them to send to me. The son wrote me,” I am very pleased that a beautiful painting painted in the 1930s, is the link that connects our history around the world. I hope that it will enable us to meet.” Indeed, I hope it will.
* * *
And now a sort of end-note to the story… As soon as I saw the photo of the painting in France, I knew I’d seen it before. My family has one that’s very similar. Ours, dated 1934, is clearly a study Moshe painted before doing this other more completed piece held by my French family.
Chasing Portraits (the book!) is now available for pre-order on Amazon. Publication date is September 6, 2016, but it’s never too early to plan what you’ll be reading in the fall!
There is not yet cover art for the book, but I should have that from Penguin Random House in January. I will post it here as soon as the image is available.
The memoir of one woman’s emotional quest to find the art of her Polish-Jewish great-grandfather, lost during World War II.
Moshe Rynecki’s body of work reached close to eight hundred paintings and sculptures before his life came to a tragic end. It was his great-granddaughter Elizabeth who sought to rediscover his legacy, setting upon a journey to seek out what had been lost but never forgotten…
The everyday lives of the Polish-Jewish community depicted in Moshe Rynecki’s paintings simply blended into the background of Elizabeth Rynecki’s life when she was growing up. But the art transformed from familiar to extraordinary in her eyes after her grandfather, Moshe’s son George, left behind journals detailing the loss her ancestors had endured during World War II, including Moshe’s art. Knowing that her family had only found a small portion of Moshe’s art, and that many more pieces remained to be found, Elizabeth set out to find them.
Before Moshe was deported to the ghetto, he entrusted his work to friends who would keep it safe. After he was killed in the Majdanek concentration camp, the art was dispersed all over the world. With the help of historians, curators, and admirers of Moshe’s work, Elizabeth began the incredible and difficult task of rebuilding his collection.
Spanning three decades of Elizabeth’s life and three generations of her family, this touching memoir is a compelling narrative of the richness of one man’s art, the devastation of war, and one woman’s unexpected path to healing.
I’m excited to announce a Chasing Portraits Hanukkah Greeting Card Giveaway! Here’s what you need to know and do to enter your name into the giveaway:
I am giving away eight sets of greeting cards featuring the Moshe Rynecki images shown below! That’s one set of greeting cards for each night of Hanukkah. Each set of greeting cards contains 5 cards and envelopes.
(2) Share the picture on one (or more!) of the three social media sites and tag it: #ChasingPortraitsGiveaway
That’s it! I will pick eight lucky winners (one entry per person) from a hat on Sunday 12/6/2015, the first night of Hanukkah.
Sławomir Grünberg was interviewed about his Karski & The Lords of Humanity film in the most recent issue of Przeglad (nr 45/2015). In the article the interviewer asked him to talk about some of his other projects. He told them a bit about his involvement in the Chasing Portraits documentary film project and my quest for my great-grandfather’s lost art. The article is in Polish and is available here as a PDF.
Chasing Portraits, the documentary film project, is pleased to announce it has been awarded a grant from the Koret Foundation. The film will use this support to begin post-production in 2016. The funds will be directed to Chasing Portraits’ fiscal sponsor, the National Center for Jewish Film.
Elizabeth Rynecki, the film’s producer, is both the daughter and granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. Chasing Portraits is the story of her search for the art of her great-grandfather, Moshe Rynecki. Moshe, a Warsaw based artist who painted scenes of the Polish-Jewish community in the interwar period, perished in the Holocaust. The film raises questions about legacy, history, provenance of art, loss, and forgiveness.
Based in San Francisco, the Koret Foundation supports organizations that promote a vibrant and distinctive Bay Area. Koret focuses its giving in two major areas: strengthening the Jewish community in the Bay Area, Israel and Poland, and supporting Bay Area anchor institutions. Since its founding in 1979, Koret has invested nearly $500 million to contribute to a higher quality of civic and Jewish community life.
For further donation information, please visit our donation page.
After Paris’ liberation from the Nazi occupation, a German soldier’s photo album containing pictures related to the Möbel-Aktion” campaign was found. The M-Action campaign, or furniture action campaign, was one in which the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) looted approximately 70,000 homes of French, Belgian, and Dutch Jews who had either fled or had been deported. The stolen items were then inventoried, photographed, and eventually transported to Germany. Alfred Rosenberg, the Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories, wanted the items to furnish German administrative offices in the East.
A Parisian department store, Lévitan, served as an interim storage space before the looted goods were transported to Germany. When the stolen items arrived at the department store, Jewish internees assigned to this work opened crates and divided the contents into “departments” in order to display the goods with other similar items. Some of the images in the album show the stolen goods arranged into shop-like displays, presumably for the benefit of high-ranking Nazi officials whose visits are depicted in some photos. It is one thing to know this historical fact, it is quite another to see these photographs. In these images we see furniture and crates loaded onto trucks, and images of everyday household objects – pots and pans, dinner sets, children’s toys, musical instruments, bedding and linens, and stacks of empty frames – sorted, stacked, and disconnected from their true owners. We are, as author Sara Gensburger states in her title, Witnessing the Robbing of the Jews.
We know the Nazis took everything – people, communities, lives, homes, land, and personal property – but these photographs show the massive extent of the looting. And more than anything else, these photos speak volumes about the attempts to erase and forget the people and families whose stories are behind each and every one of these items on display. Nazis were invited to buy these goods, and they did. But as we gaze upon these photos we bring with us an understanding of what these items without their owners really means. The snapshots of personal property becomes incredibly surreal and deeply disturbing because although we don’t know the exact fate of each of the people who once owned these goods, we have a pretty darn good idea of what happened to them.
I’m excited to announce I’ll be part of the upcoming 8th Annual Art Litigation and Dispute Resolution Practice Institute put on by the New York County Lawyers’ Association (NYCLA). I am part of a panel that will be speaking about challenges heirs face when dealing with Holocaust era looted art issues. It’s an all day event and registration is on NYCLA’s website.
Friday, November 20, 2015, 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM
Member Price: $200
Non-Member Attorney Price: $250
NON-ATTORNEY (NO CLE) MAY REGISTER AS LAW OFFICE STAFF FOR $50
Today I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Carla Shapreau for the Chasing Portraits documentary film. Carla has spent a significant number of years researching Holocaust era music related losses and she’s very articulate about provenance research, legal questions at hand, and understanding what heirs face when addressing these difficult issues.
Carla’s brief bio is that she is a Lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, where she teaches art and cultural property law. She is also a Senior Fellow in the Institute of European Studies where she is conducting research regarding music-related losses during the Nazi era and their 21st century ramifications. You can read more about Carla on both the Institute of European Studies website and Berkeley’s Boalt Law School Faculty pages.
And be sure to check out this fabulous and interesting article, A Violin Once Owned by Goebbels Keeps Its Secrets, a 2012 New York Times article Carla authored.