A Great-Granddaughter's Legacy

History’s Footprints

E speakingAt the end of my Chasing Portraits talk I have a slide that says, “My Goal: To share my great-grandfather’s artwork with others.” And then just below that it says, “Things you can do to help.” Author Eileen Grafton, has taken my call for help to heart in a blog post she wrote after attending my most recent talk at the Sausalito Woman’s Club.” I’m excerpting the first two paragraphs of her blog post titled, “History’s Footprints,” here and then providing a link over to her blog for the rest.

History’s Footprints

“History always leaves a legacy behind for those who are willing to look for it.

Elizabeth Rynecki is one such seeker. Recently I attended a talk Elizabeth gave about her “Chasing Portraits” film project, held in a beautiful women’s clubhouse nestled in the Sausalito hills overlooking San Francisco Bay. Elizabeth is the great-granddaughter of Moshe Rynecki, a prolific Warsaw-based artist who documented the Polish Jewish community in the interwar years (1918-39) in over 800 paintings and sculptures. Sadly, most of his body of work was lost in the Holocaust. Or so people thought.” [Read the rest on Eileen’s blog]

How do I know Eileen? She first reached out to me on Twitter because of her interest in history, family legacies, the Second World War, and my recent trip to Poland. Eileen’s passions are history and story. She writes historical fiction and is at work on two books with historical ties to the Middle East. On her “about me,” blog page she writes, “One is an archaeological suspense linking 1st century Israel to modern-day America. The second is a Holocaust Survivor love story I’m writing with co-author Susy Flory. My blog entries deal with my love of history, writing, and sometimes a bit of whimsey.”

Thank you, Eileen, and all who help me to share my great-grandfather’s art and the Chasing Portraits story!

Cafe Scene – 1993 Auction Catalog Find

cafe sceneMy favorite sorts of emails? The ones with the lovely and unexpected gift of the find of a Rynecki painting I’ve never seen. Yesterday I got an email from my Polish provenance research friend, Yagna Yass Alston, with a photo from a 1993 Sotheby’s Tel Aviv auction catalog. The photo shows a painting, a Cafe Scene. This photo is not great, and I’ve now ordered a copy of the catalog (it’s amazing what you can find online!) so I should have a better image in a few days. The page from the auction catalog shows the painting and provides a brief biography. But the incredibly fascinating bit (yes, above and beyond seeing a new image!)? It says…”after the German retreat, 150 works by Rynecki were discovered in the basement of a Warsaw apartment block, including the present work.” This is NOT a piece put up for auction from my family. So does this mean that whoever sold this piece has 149 others?! If so, who is this person? Where do they live? How do I find out more about what else they’ve got? And who owns this piece today? And do THEY have any others? So many questions. Like I always say, it’s why the documentary film is titled, Chasing Portraits

[note: post updated 20 January 2015 with higher quality images from the auction catalog.]



catalog cover
















Chasing Portraits is the Cover Story for J (the Jewish news weekly of Northern California)

What a great way to end 2014 and ring in 2015! Chasing Portraits is the cover story for J, the Jewish news weekly of Northern California. Here’s hoping for another stellar year for the project!

A lost world, on canvas: Oakland woman reclaims her great-grandfather’s legacy


By the Rivers of Babylon We Sat and Wept

npi1938nr32I really, really, wish I could explain what it’s like to get an email that says, “I’m sending you images and links….have you seen these images?” There’s palpable excitement in the moment before I get to actually see the image – my heart beats faster, my hand moves towards the cursor to click on the link or download the image… Will it be something I’ve seen before? Will it actually BE a Moshe Rynecki painting? Will I recognize the style? Will I know the subject? And then I open the file and it is, in fact, an image I have NOT ever seen before, and yet there is the immediate recognition of the style – the look and feel of my great-grandfather’s approach to painting and composition. There’s an incredible euphoric feeling of the discovery of a piece I had not previously known was out there and the instinct to immediately share it. First I send it off to my father (Moshe’s grandson), then I tell my husband and sons about it, and I have several friends who I share it with in an email, and then I upload it to my website, and then I post it here. Sometimes I struggle to do all those things all at once. A discovery must always be shared with others! It’s what the Chasing Portraits story is all about. I have a line in a grant proposal I recently wrote which says, “This is a story of frustration, hope, and fear, and not one that is easily revealed. But the chase is neither hopeless nor quixotic: I have found dozens of lost works, and have evidence that at least dozens remain to be found.” Today is one of those days where I am ecstatic that I continue to search because today proves that if I keep looking, keep asking for help, keep making my cause known, I *will* find more paintings, I will learn more about my great-grandfather’s oeuvre of work, and I will better understand his art legacy. Thank you for being here so that I may share it with you. The piece here today is the one that is new to me this morning. It is titled, “By the Rivers of Babylon we sat and wept.” It was printed in 1938 in Nasz Przeglad Ilustrowany, no 32, page 2.[Read more…]

Young Jewish Artists Abroad…The translation of an interwar years newspaper article

Those of you who have followed the Chasing Portraits story for over a year will be familiar with the story of the Otto Schneid archive collection at the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. One of the items in the archive was an article in a German language newspaper that appeared to be almost exclusively about my great-grandfather. The article, printed with the Fraktur font (an almost impossible font to read!), has now been translated into English thanks to the generosity of a follower of the project! There is no header from the newspaper, so it is unclear which newspaper published the piece, or the date of publication.[Read more…]

A Really Big Thank You to So Very Many!

It takes a great deal of planning, behind-the-scenes work, and assistance of many to bring together all the details of a documentary film project. More people than I could possibly thank in this post were involved in helping me with my trip to Poland. So I want to start by thanking my donors, family (who held down the fort while I was away), friends (who read my blogs, Facebook posts, and Tweets daily, and wrote emails to check in on me), and everyone else (my apologies to anyone I’ve accidentally left out but whose support I greatly appreciate!) who made this trip possible.  In this blog post, I want to specifically highlight a few special individuals who helped make the trip a success.[Read more…]

Last Day in Warsaw

The Chasing Portraits documentary film team of Sławomir Grünberg, Cathy Greenblatt, and I, left Krakow Monday afternoon by train for Warsaw. A three hour ride, we did a little bit of everything including filming the views out the window (it was foggy!), working on blog posts, calling family, and resting up for the last big day of filming. We arrived back in Warsaw in the early evening and grabbed a taxi for Polin: The Museum of the History of the Polish Jews. We needed to pick up our press passes (mine said “Documentary Filmmaker” – !) for Wednesday’s grand opening events.[Read more…]

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.[Read more…]

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.[Read more…]

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