A Great-Granddaughter's Legacy

Chasing Portraits Down Under

In may be Thursday 13 August 2015 in California, but down under, in Australia, it’s Friday August 14th. And in today’s  edition of The Australian Jewish News, you can now read: A search from the heart about the Chasing Portraits project.

Australian Jewish News August 2015

A day in the life of Chasing Portraits

I wish I could bring everyone on a behind-the-scenes Chasing Portraits adventure. I love learning and discovering more about my great-grandfather, particularly those moments where I see a piece of his art for the first time, because these are always jaw-dropping, heart beating faster, lump in my throat, moments for me that I think everyone would love to experience. But I can’t bring everyone along, and so I try to share those moments in blog posts, social media shares, and in-person conversations.

Last week I met with Shula, my third cousin [my great-grandmother and her great-grandmother were sisters], to see a Rynecki painting and wood carving. The visit was filmed for the documentary, and I’m certain you’ll eventually see pieces of the interview in the film, but that won’t be for awhile. And so the question becomes, how do I share the day with you now? Usually I just try to write a bit about it and share some quick snapshots, but my visit on Saturday was extra special because it was documented by photojournalist Chuck Fishman. Chuck took a lot of photographs. I’m sharing some of them – moments that capture the excitement of connecting with long lost family and Rynecki art.

* * *

I’d seen a photograph of the Rynecki painting in Shula’s home many years ago, but never the wood carving. Actually, I didn’t even know she had a wood carving until I called and asked if I could come and see the painting. It was while we were chatting on the phone that she said something about a sculpture. “Don’t tell me anything about it,” I said. I wanted it to be a total and complete surprise. And it was. The picture at the far left is just moments after Shula has pointed out that the piece hangs on the wall in her kitchen. I have a love-hate relationship with my expression in this photograph. I am speechless and momentarily stunned – which isn’t particularly flattering, but that’s also why I love it. I want you to see that exact moment when I’ve seen the piece for the first time. The middle two photographs show me getting to know the carving. I love being able to study my great-grandfather’s art in such a personal way. The last photo in this series of 4 images isn’t so flattering either, but I love Chuck’s composition because while I’m standing in the kitchen with Shula holding the carving, on the hallway wall you can see the Rynecki painting. Surrounded by Rynecki art – I love it!



After looking at the wood carving we were treated to a delightful Saturday morning New York Jewish brunch. We had bagels, lox, and cream cheese, white fish, and more! And then it was time for Shula and I to chat. We sat in the corner of this great big red couch in her living room and spoke for close to two hours! Together we began to piece together stories, family genealogy, and lost history. We were both so animated and we shared some amazing A-HA moments as well as some good laughs.


These photos sort of make me laugh because you’re seeing so many layers of documentation going on. First there’s the Rynecki painting on the floor. And then there’s me taking a photograph of the painting. And then there’s Slawomir Grunberg filming me taking a photograph of the painting. And then there is, of course, the fact that Chuck is photographing Slawomir who is filming me taking a photograph. We’re documentary filmmakers… we don’t mess around!


After the interview and my photographing the art, Chuck took these photographs of the Rynecki art. I love the details in this painting of these tailors cutting and sewing pieces. Moshe’s father, Abraham, was a tailor. Actually, as I understand it, he ran a clothing factory where he produced uniforms. Anyway, while Moshe was a great observer in general, my guess is that growing up he learned a great deal about the world of sewing and the making of clothes. Which is why when I asked Shula what she thought was represented in the wood carving and she told me, “a tailor,” I nodded my head in complete understanding. I had at first assumed it was a man in some sort of prayer, but I absolutely think Shula’s right. Do you see how the man his sitting, his right arm stretched outwards as if he’s pulling a thread taut?


Chuck Fishman photo

Thank you, Chuck, for a fabulous collection of photographs, and for helping me to tell and share the story in images!


Chasing Portraits in New York

Chasing Portraits was in New York City all last week. It was an amazing and fabulous trip! A bit of a photo montage from the trip.

IMG_8841The Chasing Portraits book will be published by Penguin Random House in 2016. I went to have lunch with my editor. He’s delightful, it was fabulous, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

I filmed several interviews while in the city. I spoke to Nick O’Donnell (Sullivan and Worcester, LLP), Anna Rubin (Holocaust Claims Processing Office), and Pierre Ciric (The Ciric Law Firm, PLLC). Each of them delightful, engaged, and so very informative. We talked about the Washington Principles, the Terezin Declaration, and issues regarding Holocaust era looted art. Slawomir Grunberg shot some great footage, there were lots of fabulous quotes, and I hope a little bit from each interview ends up in the film!


In addition to filming these three interviews, on Saturday I met with a woman who is related to my family on my great-grandmother’s side. After the Holocaust my great-grandmother, Perla, gifted a Rynecki painting and a wood carving to this woman’s father in Israel. Many years ago she brought both with her to the United States. I knew from grandpa George’s memoir that my great-grandfather had worked in wood, clay, and in the late thirties, the first plastics, but I had never seen these pieces. This lovely photograph was taken by photojournalist, Chuck Fishman. The carving is exquisite in its details. Each segment a unique piece, assembled together in a puzzle to create this man, a tailor, we think. His right arm stretched outwards, as if pulling an imaginary thread taut as he works on a piece of fabric draped over his left leg.

Chuck Fishman photo

Always a joy to work with Slawomir Grunberg and Catherine Greenblatt. These two have filmed with me in Poland (twice), Israel, and now New York.










1948 Exhibition

In 1948 the Jewish Society for the Promotion of Fine Arts (a precursor, as I understand it, to the ŻIH/The Jewish Historical Institute) planned and hosted an exhibition that included three of Moshe Rynecki paintings. The exhibition, Wystawa dzieł żydowskich artystów plastyków męczenników niemieckiej okupacji 1939–1945 [Exhibition of Works of Jewish Artists Martyrs of the German occupation 1939-1945] included 3 Rynecki paintings.

Only the titles are listed in the catalog: Przy szachach – A game of chess, Slepy zebrak – Blind Beggar, and Żyd przy pracy – Jew at work

Although the catalog does not include photographs, I’m pretty confident that Blind Beggar is this one. The text on the beggar’s sign says:

יודען רחמנים שענקט נדבה – Which translates, roughly, I’m told to: Merciful Jews, spare a donation.


I found this written about the exhibition in the 2008 book, Under the Red Banner: Yiddish Culture in the Communist Countries in the Post War Era, “The Society [ŻTKSP – The Jewish Society for the Promotion of Fine Arts] did not forget one of its most important tasks – preparing exhibitions. In the course of three years of activity, until the end of 1949, it organized four exhibitions that were presented in all of Poland – two individual ones: in 1946 Rafal Mandelzweig (Human Martyrology, 1939-1954), and three years later that of Lea Grundig – an Israeli artist who was originally from Germany, as well as two collective exhibitions. The opening on 19 April 1948 of the Exhibition of Works of Jewish Artists Martyrs of the German Occupation 1939-1945 accompanied the commemoration of the 5th anniversary of the outbreak of the Uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto. A subsequent exhibition – Rescue Works of Art of Jewish Artists, which was open to the Warsaw public from 29 August to 5 October 1948, presented pictures, drawings, graphic works and sculpture that had been purchased by the ŻTKSP. In the following year, from February to June, the exhibition traveled around Lower Silesia: to Wrocław, Dzierżoniów, Świdnica, Walbrzych and Legnica. According to data in a report for the Ministry of Culture and Art, nearly 10,500 individuals, including 3,390 in Dzierżoniów, visited the exhibition at that time.”


Thank you to Chasing Portraits supporter and friend of the project, Marianka Natanson, for finding this information in the Centralna Biblioteka Judaistyczna database!

Warsaw Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts Report

I recently received an email from Logan Kleinwaks (who runs the absolutely incredible Genealogy Indexer site) with information that he’d recently added several reports from the Warsaw Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts to his site and that in 3 of the reports he’d digitized and made searchable, there were references to my great-grandfather. While the fact that Moshe (Maurycy) Rynecki had his work shown at this venue is not news, what is really fascinating about these reports is that they share the titles of his exhibited pieces. I’ve flipped through the digital pages of these reports and while I don’t know Polish, much of the document looks like some sort of year end report to members about the status of the organization.

For each of the records about my great-grandfather, I’ve transcribed the titles of each of his works listed and tried to use Google Translate for an English language title. Some titles are easier to understand than others. Sadly, there are no images with the report, so while the titles are often descriptive of each of the paintings, it’s impossible to know the status of each of the works (i.e. Did the piece survive the war? If so, where is it?). To the right of each entry is a number. I believe this is the total number of paintings each artist displayed.

Here are the three pages with indexing information about my great-grandfather, along with a transcription [I’m sorry for the lack of Polish accent marks!] of the painting titles, and a translation (if google translate made sense). If you have translation edits, please let me know. [NOTE: I think I am now all set on translation edits! A really big thank you to Samantha Spalling, Marianka Natanson, and Ed Mitukiewicz for translation insight and help!]

1930 Warsaw Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts Report

Rynecki, Maurycy, Warszawa –

Przyjęcie Nowożeńców [Reception of the Newlyweds]

Wesele [Wedding]

Katarynka [Barrel organ – as used by an organ grinder]

W szkole talmudystow I [Talmudic School I]

Talmudysci [Talmudists]

W szkole talmudystow II [Talmudic School II]

Święto Tory [Celebration of the Torah (Simchat Torah (?)]

W boznicy [In the synagogue]

Za Chlebem [it means “to go in search of bread” and refers to emigration for economic reasons. I am also told “it may refer to any form of economic migration in search of some paid work (…not necessarily an out-of-the-country emigration although more often than not that was actually the case…). Incidentally, “Za Chlebem” happens to be a title of a popular 19th century novel about Polish peasants emigrating to the US – written in 1880 by Henryk Sienkiewicz, who received Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905, and ever since a mandatory reading for most Polish schoolchildren.”]

Talmudysci [Talmudists]

1931 Warsaw Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts Report

Rynecki Maurycy, Warszawa –

Dybuk [The Dybbuk]
Swieto swieczek [Feast of Candles (Perhaps a reference to Hanukkah?)]
Rabin Naucza [Rabi is Teaching]
Głowka [Little head (perhaps the portrait of a child?)]
Na Wywczasach [pre-war spelling of Na wczasach, meaning, on holiday or on vacation]. I assume it is this piece whose whereabouts are unknown:

newspaper clipping

Umierajaca [Dying woman]
Kataryniarz [Organ-grinder]


1932 Warsaw Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts Report

[note: 1932 information added to this blog post 6/30/2015]

Talmudysci [Talmudists]

W boznicy [In the synagogue]

Odczytywanie rodały  [Reading the Torah scrolls (but please note I’ve been told there is a slight nuance here that might be difficult to translate, especially since we don’t know the content of the painting itself. “Odczytywanie rodałów,” the title used, is different from “Czytanie rodałów”. The latter means reading Torah one one’s own. The title seems to instead refer to some sort of public reading (presumable in synagogue) of the Torah for the benefit of others.)]

Rozwod [Divorce]

Modlitwa z palmami [Prayer with palm branches (?). (Please note that on palm branches and Judaism, Wikipedia says this: “In Judaism, the date palm (Lulav) is one of the Four Species used in the daily prayers on the feast of Sukkot. It is bound together with the hadass (myrtle), and aravah (willow). The Midrash[15] notes that the binding of the Four Species symbolizes the desire to unite the four “types” of Jews in service of God.”)]

W szkole [At School]


1936 Warsaw Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts Report

Rynecki Maurycy, Warszawa –

Modlitwa z Rodalami [Prayer with the (Torah) scrolls]


A New Find!

1131I am on vacation, but the truth is that the Chasing Portraits project is always on my mind. Today, while sitting in a cafe in Paris, I received a lovely email from Piotr Nazaruk who has helped the project on multiple occasions. He wrote, in part, “Just a minute ago I discovered M. Rynecki painting printed in Yiddish newspaper from Białystok. I’m at work at Grodzka Gate and I was doing a research regarding “The Dibbuk” movie, so nothing related to Rynecki and completely by chance I found this painting. Instantly I recognized his style and I checked the caption, there is his name written in Yiddish.

Men bensht etrog – tush zeikhnung fun M. Rynetski
מען בענשט אתרוג. טוש זײכנונג פֿון מ. רינעצקי

From what I understand the title is “Blessing an etrog”, ink painting by M. Rynecki, but I’m not sure about the word bensht.

It was published in Unzer Białystoker Express, year 5, No. 215, September 19, 1937, page 5. Here you can find the newspaper:

Do you know this painting?”

No, Piotr, no I don’t! What a find. Of course I have no idea if this painting survived the Second World War and, if it did, where it might be at this point.



[NOTE: 7/22/2015 update: I’m told that the Yiddish says: Men bensht esreg: tush tseykhnung fun M. Rinetski.
“Blessing the etrog-ink drawing by M. Rynecki.”
and that “Bensht” should be “bentsht” (bless). Perhaps it’s a typo.]

Kickstarter Rewards!

18894_856659547746903_1868242958892308894_nDid you back the Chasing Portraits Kickstarter campaign at  a level with rewards? If you backed the project with $50, or more, you get a set of 5 Moshe Rynecki greeting cards! Yesterday I worked on packaging them up for shipping. Here’s part of the assembly line. 11012083_856659567746901_3805522689887732581_n



Friday – Jerusalem Old Town and Anne Marie O’Connor Interview

Today is another post of photos, lots of photos. We went into old town Jerusalem. We photographed street scenes. We went onto the roof of a hotel to get better visibility of a street. We went to the Western Wall. We enjoyed the sights and smells of the city.

And then this afternoon I went to interview Anne Marie O’Connor, the author of The Lady in Gold. We talked about the Klimt paintings, the Maria Altmann restitution case, Holocaust era looted art, and the Chasing Portraits project.









Today is Chasing Portraits last day of filming in Israel.


A very special thank you to two amazing people, Slawomir Grunberg and Catherine Greenblatt. I couldn’t do it without you. Your support, feedback, and help along the way are invaluable resources to me and the project. You help make everything come together in a way that helps the documentary film shine. I look forward to working with both of you again in New York in July!

Thursday…On Towards Jerusalem

Tel Aviv and Jerusalem really aren’t so far from one another – maybe an hour by car – but it made sense for the project to relocate because of our filming schedule. Besides, it’s definitely fun to be in different locations and experience different cities! We haven’t had a chance yet to see too much of the city of Jerusalem yet. We will do that today when we go out and film B-roll. B-roll footage are shots in films that show the location. Sometimes the main character is in the shot, sometimes it’s just the setting. These shots give what I would call, “texture,” to the film. They make the experience of watching the film richer by contextualizing the location of the more static interviews. I will post some of these pictures later today or earlier tomorrow – my time! Remember that Israel is 10 hours ahead of the West coast of California…

photo (18)Yesterday we spent a significant amount of time at Yad Vashem (press passes with permission to film inside and outside at left). Yad Vashem is, of course, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. My understanding is that after the Western Wall (or wailing wall) in old Jerusalem, it is the most visited site in Israel. Millions of visitors come to the museum and campus. It is a large place with an extensive art collection (they hold about 9,000 original paintings) as well as a history museum (the part most people visit) that tells the story of the rise of Nazism, the plight of Jews, death camps, and the survivors.

I came to visit Yad Vashem for a very particular and important reason that has very much to do with the Chasing Portraits project. Many years ago, I think it was the early 2000s, my family was contacted by Yad IMG_8480Vashem. Their head art curator, Yehudit Shendar (who is now retired from Yad Vashem and whom I interviewed a few days ago), wanted to come to our home to see the Moshe Rynecki art collection. When she came she looked at many of the paintings, but then zeroed in on a painting titled Refugees, painted 25 September 1939. Since Hitler invaded Poland on  1 September 1939, this was in the very early days of the war. The painting shows several figures who appear to be moving, relocating, and generally dealing with the reality of war in Warsaw. Yehudit wished for the painting to be donated to the museum’s art collection and for the image to be included in Yad Vashem’s history museum. A large part of my reason for coming to Jerusalem was to see the painting on display. I had not seen the piece since it left California.

What’s interesting about the Yad Vashem history museum is that they have taken great efforts to include art in the exhibition. And while people do visit the art museum, most come for the history museum and this is, by far, the most crowded area of the complex. They’ve included art for a variety of reasons and I wish I could write about them as eloquently as Yehduit Shendar, Eliad Moreh-Rosenberg, and Niv Goldberg spoke about it. (It’s a good thing I have it all on film!). Basically the art is a way to convey the war years from those who were victims of the Nazi perpetrators. The art offers a unique insight and perspective that photographs and artifacts (concentration camp uniforms, shoes from Majdanek, stolen personal items) cannot. The art also inserts color into the story – remember, most of the photos from the Second World War are in black and white. But life, of course, was not in black and white. There are around 300 paintings included in the museum. I believe the exact number is 288 paintings.

I tell you all this so that you understand that my great-grandfather’s painting is actually in two places at Yad Vashem. It is part of the art collection where it rotates in and out of exhibition with the museum’s other holdings. Art work cannot be constant displayed. It must rest in a dark, temperature controlled room occasionally to preserve it. The image of my great-grandfather’s painting (a facsimile of the piece) is on permanent display in the history museum.

So here you see Eliad Moreh-Rosenberg, Senior Curator at Yad Vashem, standing with the original of my great-grandfather’s painting on display at Yad Vashem’s art gallery.

And here I am in the history museum looking at the exhibition display with Niv Goldberg, the Art Collection Manager at Yad Vashem.  Niv and I also had a great discussion about my family’s history and records he was able to pull from its databases, including ITS (the International Training Service).

This Chasing Portraits filming trip is coming to an end. We have seen a lot and learned a great deal. I love to connect with others who have my great-grandfather’s work in their possession because we share a passion – an understanding of the importance of the story the art tells and the multi-layered parts of history that we all share.

I will post tomorrow about the footage we shoot today. And then this Chasing Portraits filming trip comes to an end. I have the weekend for time with family and playing tourist before returning to California. But there is more filming to come soon! In July the Chasing Portraits team reconvenes in New York to visit a Rynecki painting and sculpture…

Stay tuned!

Wednesday Photo Montage

As I write this it is 5:30 in the morning in Tel Aviv, Israel Thursday morning. The Chasing Portraits team has been really busy the last few days and while I usually like to post at night, last night I just didn’t have time. Today I share some photos from the trip and a little bit of write up. We have another very busy day ahead of us including interviews, coffee appointments, and relocating from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The trip is going very well and I am quite excited about all the footage we are shooting.

First up yesterday was an interview with Yehudit Shendar. Yehduit was the curator from Yad Vashem who in the early 2000s came to visit my family and asked us to donate a Moshe Rynecki painting to the museum. The painting is on display in the museum’s “Between Walls and Fences,” gallery. I haven’t seen the painting since it left California. I am very much looking forward to seeing it and the exhibit today.



We visited Old Jaffa yesterday for our interview with Yehudit and afterwards enjoyed this amazing spread of a lunch. The restaurant, “The Old Man and the Sea,” brings pita, hummous, and 22 different salads to the table along with lemonade. Then you order a main course. We needs more food?! We shared a piece of dennis (I think that’s its name) fish. It was tender and delicious.

Tuesday we walked through the streets of Tel Aviv. One of my favorite parts was our visit to Carmel Market. The sites, smells, and humanity are just incredible. We filmed some very colorful footage in the market. You can buy just about anything in the market – hats, shirts, perfume, flowers, fresh fruit, candy, spices, fresh squeezed orange juice…  I hope some of it ends up in the film!

We also enjoyed discovering some street art and taking a team selfie!

In the afternoon I had the pleasure of meeting two other people whom I have connected with in various ways over the years. One is a man who is searching for his great-uncle’s lost paintings. He has been fortunate enough to discover many of them in museums, galleries, and private collections. We shared stories of our searches for family art and the importance of continuing our respective quests.

And then in the early evening I had tea with a woman whom I met many years ago because of a family tree I found online. This woman wrote a book about a family from Siedlce which contains Rynecki family in its genealogy. My great-grandfather was from Siedlce. The question is if and how the two families are connected. We still haven’t quite figured this out. Someday!

Today on our agenda are several interviews and a visit to Yad Vashem. It will be a very busy day, but it is one that I am very much looking forward to filming!

Thank you for following along!