A Great-Granddaughter's Legacy

An ink drawing by M. Rynecki?

An email arrives. It’s from my friend, Piotr Nazaruk, in Poland. The subject line makes my heart race. It says, “An ink drawing by M. Rynecki.” I’m in the kitchen eating breakfast. It’s early, maybe 6am. I open the email and my phone struggles to download the large PDF. Piotr explains he found the image in the Warsaw Yiddish daily newspaper, Unzer Express from September 25, 1938. “The quality is very low,” he writes. But the Yiddish is clear, it says it’s an India Ink drawing by רינעצקי, the Yiddish spelling of Rynecki.

I walk into my office and boot up my desktop computer to download the image. The black and white image slowly appears. Our internet connection this morning somehow feels throttled. I wonder if the boys are playing too many video games and eating up the bandwidth. Then the image appears, but it’s dark, and I can barely see the people in the painting. unzer express september 1938

Piotr tells me he thinks the title is תקיעות = tkija, sound of the ceremonial shofar. “It’s hard to say what is in the painting,” Piotr hedges. “A man blowing a shofar, some books, Torah scrolls?”

I stare at the black and white reprint of the painting in a newspaper published 78 years ago, trying to see something, anything. The top and edges of the image are too dark. I look at the bottom where I think I see two figures, and older man reading a book, and a young man standing(?)/sitting(?) next to him.

“Do you know this one?” Piotr asks.

No, no I do not.

I write to my trusty Yiddish translator, Nick Block. “Can you read this?” I ask. “Does it say it’s my great-grandfather’s?”

“I’m not sure why Piotr is hedging his words so much. It certainly says what he’s translated.” Nick assures me. Then he offers a slightly edited translation of Piotr’s Yiddish. It is plural, “tekies / Tekiot,” he writes. “It means, Sounds of the Shofar  or Shofar Blasts.”

I stare at the painting, willing it to become clearer, but for now it’s all I have, another partial clue in a long line of mysteries.


It’s ‪#‎MuseumWeek‬ 7 days, 7 themes, 7 hashtags. Today’s theme is‪#‎architectureMW‬ and it is all about telling the story of a museum’s building, garden, neighborhood or other key locations for the institution. The goal is to introduce the museum from a different point of view. There is, unfortunately, no Moshe Rynecki museum, although his works are in museums in Poland (The Jewish Historical Institute and the National Museum in Warsaw), Israel (Yad Vashem), and the United States (The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life). So I thought I’d riff on the theme a bit and offer images of my great-grandfather’s paintings that incorporate the architecture within the scenes he has painted. Architecture is, after all, also about how people use and interact with interior spaces.

Chasing Portraits Book Cover!


Chasing Portraits is the story of one woman’s emotional quest to find the art of her Polish-Jewish great-grandfather, lost during World War II. Read more…

The book will be published September 6 from Penguin Random House and is available for pre-order from your favorite bookseller!

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We Expect Our Art to be Perfect

wedding dance tornAre you on Facebook? So is Moshe Rynecki: Portrait of a Life! This recent Facebook post has elicited some nice comments, so I’m sharing it here too.

We expect our art to be perfect, unblemished. We are taught to say it is damaged or no longer as valuable when the artist’s original image is damaged. We lament imperfection. But in these tears and creases in my great-grandfather’s works I see a story to be told. These losses aren’t to be mourned. This is valuable history that speaks volumes of the Polish-Jewish community and the tragic losses it suffered in the Holocaust.



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Rynecki Painting from Yad Vashem on Exhibit in Berlin

gyc_refugees100 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.

 About the exhibition, the museum’s website states, “The exhibition represents the culmination of events marking 50 years since the establishment of German-Israeli diplomatic relations. This is “hitherto the largest presentation of artworks from the Yad Vashem collection outside Israel, and should be cherished as an invaluable symbol of friendship. Located in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem is Israel’s official Holocaust memorial centre, whose museum is dedicated to presenting the history of the Shoah and its academic documentation.”
Although I have been kindly invited to the opening, I will be unable to attend. If you see the piece while it is in Berlin, I’d love to hear about it!exhibition screen shot
26 March 2016 update…
NBC Nightly news ran a story this evening about the exhibition. The story focuses on the work of Nelly Toll and while it does show close ups of some of the art, my great-grandfather’s painting can only be seen ever-so-briefly at the 1:15 mark. Watch the whole video here. Here’s a screen shot with a superimposed blue arrow pointing out the Rynecki painting.
NBC news screenshot

Israel’s Nazi Art Hunters in Foreign Policy

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).

Foreign Policy December 2015

Serendipity – A Rynecki Painting Found in France

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.

IMG_9560 Over chips and salsa and a minion cake on a stick (a snack for my son!) we talked about Chasing Portraits.

“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.

embroiderer adjstd by SGlaser

Gifted by Perla to family in France

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.  woman embroidering 1934


Pre-Order Chasing Portraits!

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.

Book Description:

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._DSC4413T


Chasing Portraits Hanukkah Greeting Card Giveaway!

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.

(1) Follow the project on either Facebook (Moshe Rynecki: Portrait of a Life in Art), Twitter, or Instagram (@erynecki). If you already follow the project, thank you!

(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.

Przeglad – Poland

first page of articleSławomir 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.