ELIZABETH'S BLOG
A Great-Granddaughter'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.

A special thank you to Piotr Nazaruk for tracking it down and sending it to me this morning.

 

10 December 2014 – A follow up to the above post.

I posted the above paragraph on Facebook as well, but I also posted a full image of the page from Nasz Przeglad Ilustrowany that features this Rynecki painting. There was some confusion on Facebook about the full page because it features another image as well and I was asked if it was my great-grandfather’s work as well. It is not. I am posting the full page here as well as some further information about the second image that was given to me by Piotr Nazaruk (a friend of the Chasing Portraits project). Piotr wrote, “The bottom image is a photo, in fact – a photo of very important polish artist. Top caption: “100th anniversary of the birth of the greatest Polish artist”, bottom caption: “Jan Matejko in his atelier in Kraków”. It’s interesting that “By the Rivers…” by Moshe Rynecki was put on the same page with Matejko – I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Matejko lived and worked during the partitions, Poland did not exist and his focus was to paint Polish kings, important events from history etc to remind his nation about their Polishness and once free homeland, to keep up the spirit of Poles. It seems to me that “By the Rivers of Babylon we sat and wept” serves for something similar. To remind the Jews about Zion, lost homeland. Works of Matejko were inspired by the desire to reclaim Polish independence. Was Moshe Rynecki inspired by the Zionism? Maybe. The photo was made by photo atielier owned by Juliusz Mien and Józef Sebald in 1891. It’s owned by the National Museum in Kraków. The painting in the background Matejko is working on is “Constitution of May 3, 1791″

 

 

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.

NOTE: Translation from German to English courtesy of Rita Goldhor via her daughter, Ruth Chlebowski.

Young Jewish artists abroad

M. Rynecki – Warsaw
On his Warsaw exhibition

F6957 copyThe recently closed Wintersalon in Warsaw, under the auspices of The Jewish Association for the Promotion of Art, was almost entirely devoted to worthy younger generation Jewish artists. With a total output of about two hundred works, thirty-seven artists were represented. Among those were a few debutants showing promise, and, under favorable circumstances, they can be expected to produce much good work in the future.

There cannot, of course, be any talk of a particular school or tradition among the society’s presentations, because of the great variety of artistic interpretations in these creative endeavors. They do, however, contribute a good sense of a communal vision, undoubtedly due to the efforts of the Association, who focused on only those works that met the very high standards expected of the young artists.

It was, however, the works of M. Rynecki which cornered the most attention from visitors. M. Rynecki is an artist who devotes himself almost entirely to Jewish themes. Both paintings and drawings represent well-observed Jewish types and genres, such as the Jewish street scene, family, work, Beth Hamidrash, etc. He is able to give us a naturalistic representation, in an original manner. He shows much understanding of local Jewish activities, and thus gives us a true picture, of ghetto life, which is of great interest.

Rolnisski’s “Torah Scribe,” in beautiful green and roseate color harmony, is masterfully executed to evoke the tension and elevated spiritual sensitivity of the old scribe, laboring over the sacred text. The audience experiences strong emotions and is perhaps awakened to memories of “the good old times.”

A special section of the Wintersalon is built up around works in metal and(?) plastics of Jewish objects of worship. This ancient/new artform is being revived in the works of Mark Schwartz, and they attracted a great deal of interest. The expert workmanship of the artist are evident in creations of copper and brass, and incorporate Hanft, Merzer, Kahane, mirrors, etc. Since this revived artform attracted so much attention, it can be expected that some of the Jewish artists will investigate it further. Thus they will be contributing to a revival and knowledge of Jewish traditional life, art, and religious practices, important factors in renewing Jewish life once more.

Thus this year’s Wintersalon gave an excellent presentation of what Jewish artists have been able to create.

-Jesaias Gluski, Warsaw

Painting Titles:

Jewish tailors family (Jüdische schneiderfamilie)

The Kabbalist (der kabbalist)

In Beth-Hamidrasch (im beth-hamidrasch)

The prayer (das gebet)

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.

IMG_6682A really big thank you goes out to Sławomir Grünberg, cinematographer extraordinaire, for a solid two weeks of filming in Poland. Not only did Sławomir follow our busy schedule without a word of complaint, but he helped smooth out the whole experience for us. In Sławomir we found not only an inventive and patient cameraman, but an accomplished documentary filmmaker [A graduate of the Polish Film School in Lodz, he is an Emmy Award Winning documentary producer, director, and cameraman who has directed and produced over 40 television documentaries] who really understood the story we were trying to tell, and ultimately became a friend and champion of our vision. His native familiarity with Poland, and his understanding of my own American perspectives, helped to keep the project moving forward. His friendships with numerous people in every place we visited helped, as the saying goes, to open doors for us. His presence not only as a cameraman, but as part of the film production team, provided us with further credibility and ultimately meant we got amazing footage for the film. He was a trooper through long days, wet and blustery weather (our umbrella at Majdanek blew inside out and broke in half within the first half hour of our arrival), train delays (and running through the streets of Lublin, with luggage, to catch a train for which we were late), and accommodation confusion (we gave him the wrong address for his hotel in Krakow which mistakenly put him at a restaurant hosting a wedding at the outskirts of town). He kindly introduced us to his friends, provided on-the-fly translation, called taxis for us, offered insights on Polish history, provided first hand perspective on Polish-Jewish culture today, shared the story of discovering his own Jewish roots, and put up with my incessant dependence on social media, particularly tweeting. It was hard to say goodbye, and we promised to try to connect in Israel and New York City when Chasing Portraits moves forward with additional filming.

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Catherine Greenblatt – It is not enough to say that Cathy is a good friend and an important part of the Chasing Portraits team. Cathy, whose background includes a Ph.D. in the History of Consciousness Program from the University of California at Santa Cruz, and experience as a consultant for art, film, cultural, and museum related projects, wears many hats on the Chasing Portraits film production team. In addition to assistance with background research,interview preparation, cross-checking historical information, and contacting leads, while in Poland she frequently worked as a second video camera operator, took a plethora of photographs (we amassed over 2,300 between the two of us), wrote blog posts, offered critical moral support and encouragement, and became an even closer and dearer friend through it all.

 

IMG_6677Dariusz Baran, a friend of Sławomir’s who lives in Lublin, went above and beyond the call in helping our little film crew. Upon our arrival in Lublin, he picked us up at the train station and took us to our hotel. Then he guided us to dinner at a nearby Jewish themed restaurant where he and Sławomir caught up on a 30 year gap of time. The next day, after finishing filming at Majdanek, Dariusz drove us to Kazimierz Dolny, a town about an hour away. We treated him to dinner at the restaurant where we were staying and then he drove back to Lublin for the evening. After a full day of filming the following day in Kazimierz Dolny, Dariusz returned, picked us up, and took us back to Lublin where we had a lovely celebratory drink before catching our train (which we barely made!) back to Warsaw.

photo (16)Witold (Witek) Dabroski  – Witek is one of the co-founding directors of Grodzka Gate Theater. When I told Louise Steinman, author and friend, that I was headed to Lublin, she insisted I connect with Witek. Not only were we warmly greeted at Grodzka Gate on a very cold and rainy day, Witek gave generously of his time sharing both the facility’s history as well as talking about his organization’s efforts to rescue Jewish memory. Our visit was blogged by Catherine Greenblatt in: Grodzka Gate – Lublin

 

IMG_6553Piotr Nazaruk is a friend of the Chasing Portraits project. I met Piotr on a Facebook group for those interested in the topic of Jews from Lukow, Miedzyrzec Podlaski, Siedlce, Radzyn Podlaski, Biala Podlaka, Losice, Lomazy, and nearby towns. I joined the group to ask if someone might be able to help me find information about my great-great-grandparents (Moshe’s parents) who I thought might be buried in Siedlce. Piotr couldn’t find any information about their graves, but he discovered some interesting newspaper articles with information about my great-grandfather, and has continued to help with some of the mysteries the project encounters along the way. We had a delightful lunch with Piotr who then joined us on the tour of Grodzka Gate. 

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Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is the Program Director of the Core Exhibition for Polin: the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. She is also a scholar of Performance and Jewish Studies and is, perhaps best known for her interdisciplinary contributions to Jewish studies and to the theory and history of museums, tourism, and heritage. Under tremendous pressure with the arrival of the world at the museum’s doorstep for its impending grand opening, Barbara graciously gave time to the Chasing Portraits project,sitting down for an interview to discuss my great-grandfather’s art, Polish-Jewish art history, and how Polin differentiates itself from Jewish art museums and Holocaust history museums. Barbara has given the Chasing Portraits project support in a variety of ways including connecting me to several Polish-Jewish art historians, introducing me to other children of survivors on parallel searches to my own and, most critically for my recent trip to Poland, introducing me to Sławomir.

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Renata Piątkowska once worked at ZIH (The Jewish Historical Institute) and now is at Polin: The Museum of the History of Polish Jews. She has known my great-grandfather’s artwork held at ZIH for a long time and has been involved in showing it and researching his life for many years. I’ve been reading Renata’s essays for a number of years, and it was a delight to meet her in person and to interview her for the documentary film!

 

IMG_6098 Alex Wertheim is the son of a couple who bought a bundle of my great-grandfather’s paintings from a farmer after the Second World War. I wasn’t sure if Alex and I would actually be able to connect while I was in Poland. He had family events to attend in Canada, and his departure from Warsaw was imminent. We did, however, manage to meet and had a lovely chat at a cafe near 24 Krucza Street, the address where my great-grandparents lived (and where Moshe painted) in the interwar years. Alex is a delightful and charismatic gentleman who very kindly drove the Chasing Portraits production team to our next location after our interview.

 

 

 

IMG_6266Teresa Śmiechowska is the head of the art department at ZIH (The Jewish Historical Institute). My arrival in Warsaw was not ideal in terms of Teresa’s schedule. The Institute was officially closed for renovation, Teresa was on a tight timeline to get the new exhibit, SALVAGED, up on the walls, and she had her usual job responsibilities to attend to which meant her art department team needing answers to all sorts of questions. Despite her busy schedule, Teresa took the time to show me the Moshe Rynecki art in the Institute’s collection, sat down for a filmed interview, and allowed us to re-enter the museum ahead of a private showing of the new exhibit to a group of American benefactors in order to see my great-grandfather’s painting on the wall, and to film footage for the documentary.

 

IMG_6297Jakub Bendkowski is part of the art curating team at ZIH (The Jewish Historical Institute). On the two days we visited ZIH to see my great-grandfather’s paintings, as well as to conduct interviews, he was incredibly patient with me. He brought up my great-grandfather’s artwork from the storage space, patiently showed me each piece, turning each one over so I could look for stamps, details, and clues of provenance history. In this photograph Jakub is humoring me by holding the painting vertical, instead of laying it flat on the table, in an effort to reduce glare from the overhead lights (great idea, but it didn’t work!). I also owe Jakub an enormous thank you for graciously permitting me to interrupt his tour of SALVAGED several days later to a private tour group of American benefactors who asked me to speak about one of my great-grandfather’s works displayed in the show.

IMG_6306Janek Jagielski is a well known figure at ZIH (The Jewish Historical Institute). I came to Janek to see if he knew anything about the building where my great-grandparents once lived (and had their shop) at 24 Krucza Street. Although he didn’t have a clear photograph of the building, he got me awfully close with a photo of 26 Krucza Street that showed a peek of the building next door. The view had architectural details that seemed to confirm that another photograph that I have is, in fact, 24 Krucza Street.

 

IMG_6432Piotr Rypson is Deputy Director for Research at the National Museum (MNW) in Warsaw and holds a PhD in literary studies from Warsaw University. Our interview focused on his expansive knowledge of Polish art history and the relationships between Jewish art history and Polish modern art.

I also want to say a thank you to those on the curatorial staff at MNW who prepared my great-grandfather’s paintings for my visit, made it possible for me to view the newspaper clipping of a Rynecki painting held in their archives, and brought out the Dziennik Podawczy (daily log) that shows the name of the person who sold the two Moshe Rynecki paintings to the museum. We wrote about the name in our blog post: More Pieces of the Rynecki Puzzle

IMG_7244Mateusz Majewski (of Dune Translation Agency) was scheduled twice during my stay in Poland to provide translation services. Mateusz first showed up for an interview at Polin: The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, but it turned out my interviewee’s English was so strong that a translator was not needed. Mateusz was, however, crucially needed at the interview of a private collector. Mateusz did a stellar job, and took the time to really familiarize himself with the background and details of my project. Mateusz is professional, friendly, very easy to work with, and gets an extra shout out for not only being a translator, but for driving (on a Saturday!) the film production team from Warsaw to our interview destination, which was outside Warsaw’s city limits.

 

 

IMG_7188Agnieszka Zadura
and Dr. Waldemar Odorowski at Muzeum Nadwiślańskie w Kazimierzu Dolnym. Agnieszka, the current director of the museum, and Dr. Odorowski, the former director, sat down to speak with me about my great-grandfather’s paintings done at Kazimierz Dolny, the art colony. Agnieszka not only offered insight about my great-grandfather’s body of work, but translated for Dr. Odorowski, who is the author of the exhibition book, In Kazimierz the Vistual River spoke to them in Yiddish– : Jewish painters in the art colony of Kazimierz, which features several pages of information about my great-grandfather.

IMG_7279The Napiórkowski Family who opened the doors of their home, narrated their connection to the Rynecki art story, asked to learn more about my great-grandfather’s art and my quest, shared their interest in Polish-Jewish art history, and greatly surprised me with a gift of the painting held in their collection (described in my blog post: The Return).

 

 

Yagna photoYagna Yass-Alston who has translated documents, tracked down books and articles, and pointed me in the right direction multiple times, has been an online friend for over a year. Sadly, Yagna and I were unable to connect while I was Poland. We literally passed one another as my train took me from Warsaw to Krakow and hers brought her from Krakow to Warsaw.

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.

 

When I first scheduled my trip to Poland, I planned to go in early October, but when I realized the grand opening of the new museum was scheduled for the end of the month, I rescheduled my visit so it would coincide with the museum’s festivities. My goal for attending was both to see the photograph of my great-grandfather’s painting, Wedding: The First Dance (1919), in the core exhibit and because, well, who wouldn’t want to attend a big museum opening party?!

I actually got a look at Polin’s core exhibit the week before the grand opening. The museum offered small, intimate tours to the press of the expansive 43,000 square foot exhibition space, and I jumped at the chance to take a peek inside the not-quite-yet-fully-installed exhibition. A group of about eight of us, including Sławomir, Cathy, and I, were guided by a volunteer who pointed out the highlights of each room, answered questions about Polish-Jewish history, and urged us to keep moving forward because, as she explained several times, we only had 2 hours and there was no way we could see everything. We tried to fully absorb a journey of 1000 years of Polish Jewish history (from the Middle Ages until present day), including legends about how Jews arrived in Poland, the beginnings of their settlement, how they were treated by local rulers, and what rights they did and did not have in each of those time periods in terms of religious, cultural, and economic freedoms. Even with a docent providing a narration of the vibrant visuals, artifacts laid out in classic museum cases, display labels painted on the walls, interactive computer installations, and models (the most impressive being the reconstruction of a wooden synagogue and its detailed art adorning the walls and ceilings), we were overwhelmed. Two hours was clearly not enough time to absorb all the voices, culture, and history presented.

 

We filmed as we moved through each of the eight core galleries, with the goal of finding the installation of the photograph of my great-grandfather’s painting of a wedding scene amidst the stories of Jewish life. We actually missed it and later circled back to find it and realized why we’d not seen it: there was a label in the cabinet, but a bare spot on the wall where the exhibition installers were to place the piece. I never actually saw the photograph of the painting mounted into place, but I later found someone else’s photograph of the installation, and am sharing it, and a higher quality image of the painting, here.

 

 

IMG_7484Wednesday morning, the day of the museum’s opening, we had a full and busy agenda. First up was a trip back to ZIH (The Jewish Historical Institute) to see the newly opened exhibit, SALVAGED, and to take a look at the inclusion of a Moshe Rynecki piece in the show. The museum previewed the exhibit in a special event for a group of American donors. We were allowed in a bit early to film for Chasing Portraits, and then stayed to watch the greeting of the group. I actually knew a few people in the group and went to say hello and then added, “Look for my great-grandfather’s piece. It’s on the top floor in the back left corner.” Another woman overheard me and couldn’t really believe what I’d said. “What do you mean?” she asked. I quickly explained and then she said, “You must come upstairs and tell our group this story.” I looked at my watch, it was almost 11 o’clock and I had to be at Polin in the press room by noon, or I wouldn’t be allowed into the building. I hesitated, but only for a fraction of a second. IMG_7493When you’re making a documentary film, never pass up the opportunity to share your story. This kind woman escorted me upstairs, stopped the tour group in the gallery which was being lead by the lovely and quite knowledgeable ZIH art curator Jakub Bendkowski (I’d interviewed him several weeks earlier), and asked the group to come hear me speak. I’ve given my talk a number of times to a wide array of audiences over the last year or so, but this experience was so very different. There I was, standing in front of my great-grandfather’s painting, explaining my documentary film project and offering a history about the painting. It made me crave, even more than I already do, an exhibition of my great-grandfather’s works. The moment was both captured on film by Sławomir and by Cathy in stills.

And then it was onto the press room at Polin for ceremonies that started at 2 o’clock. When we arrived the room was abuzz with reporters. Journalists worked on laptops, read official Polin press materials, ate sandwiches (always feed the press I’ve been told!), talked on cellphones (I heard Polish, French, and English) and socialized with one another while we waited for our various press pools to be called so we could proceed outside. October in Warsaw is not exactly balmy, but we were bundled up.

 

The grand opening ceremony included several speeches, including words from Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, and perhaps most movingly, from Auschwitz survivor and chairman of the Council of the Jewish Historical Institute, Marian Turski  who intoned ‘Mir Zenen Doh’ – meaning “We are here!” throughout his speech to both recall the inner strength of Warsaw’s ghetto uprising, and to celebrate the growing acceptance of being Jewish in Poland today. And with the official opening ceremonies over, the party began. First up was an indoor celebration for VIPs, museum benefactors, and the press. Later, an outdoor public concert and light show projected on the Museum façade featuring art by young Polish street artists. It was, to say the least, quite a way to end a two week stay in Poland.

 

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.

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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?