A Great-Granddaughter's Legacy

Art as Witness

Today I have a guest blog post on a site run by Rachel Muller.  Rachel and I met on Twitter, our mutual interest in revisiting the past, particularly in regards to the Second World War, is our connecting point. My piece is a short one that introduces readers to my great-grandfather’s art and the vibrant life and culture in Warsaw in the interwar years.

Please visit Rachel’s site through this link to read Moshe Rynecki: Art as Witness on her blog.



Jewish Heir Searching for Lost Family Art

With Clooney’s Monuments Men film now viewed by many audiences, and the revelations of the Gurlitt trove of art in Germany, there has been a lot of publicity about the lost and looted art of the Second World War. While much of the recent interest in looted art seems centered around the astronomical value of famous artworks both lost and found, there are much greater numbers of lesser known pieces that vanished during the war, and each has a tale to tell. I have a very personal interest in these lesser known stories, because for more than a decade I have been dedicated to finding works painted by my great-grandfather, Moshe, who perished in Majdanek.

While Moshe (two self portraits below) perished in the Holocaust, incredibly my grandparents and father (who was eight when the war ended) survived the war.  And thanks to Moshe’s foresight, the surviving family’s determination, and an incredible stroke of good luck, my family was able to recover a small portion of his art.  That any of Moshe’s art survived the massive devastation visited on Warsaw through the course of the Nazi invasion, uprisings by the Jews and Poles, and the subsequent Soviet occupation is astounding. That my relatives managed to find it (and each other) in the chaos after the war ended is even more astonishing. So although I never met my great-grandfather, I feel as though I did because I literally grew up surrounded by his paintings, featured proudly on the walls of my parents’ and grandparents’ homes.

But in order to tell this story properly, I need to take several steps back and start at the beginning. My great-grandfather started out life as the son of a tailor in Siedlce, a small town east of Warsaw. He was a student, and while he loved to draw and paint, he did not receive much mentoring or encouragement. His father made sure he finished both his Jewish education at a Yeshiva as well as a more traditional education at a Russian middle school. Eventually Moshe was allowed to attend the Warsaw Academy of Art, but only for a short time period; his father just didn’t see how his son could make a living painting pictures. To discourage his son from pursuing an art career, he married him off to Perla Mittelsbach, a woman from a family of some means. Together they operated an art supply store selling paint supplies, writing materials, and books for artists and students.

Perla Rynecki, 1929Moshe, for his part, never wanted to give up painting and, considering his culture and the times he lived in, he was very fortunate to be able to continue to paint. Perla (at left in their store) supported, or at least accepted, the fact that her husband was primarily interested in painting. And so while Perla tended to the store and its customers, Moshe took his keen eye, sketchbook, and paints into the world to record what he saw. His paintings reveal a painter whose real skill was visual narration, with a keen eye for exploring and documenting the daily rhythm of life. He painted artisans and laborers, study and worship in the Synagogue, and moments of leisure. He was modestly successful, exhibiting consistently in the 1920s and 1930s in Warsaw. His works were featured in Jewish art salons, the Jewish Society for the Promotion of Fine Arts, and at the Warsaw Art Academy.

Moshe was also prolific: by my grandpa George’s account, Moshe had produced roughly 800 paintings and some sculptures by 1939. In September, when the Nazis invaded, my great-grandfather became concerned that his life’s work would be destroyed. In an effort to safeguard his art, he divided it into bundles and distributed the work to trusted friends in and around the city of Warsaw. He gave lists of the hiding places to his wife, son, and daughter, hoping that eventually his oeuvre would once again be whole.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. While his son George begged him to stay outside the Warsaw Ghetto and hide, Moshe willingly went into the Ghetto to “be with his people,” and was eventually deported to Majdanek where he perished. My father and his parents miraculously survived the Second World War living in Warsaw with fake papers. They paid bribes, bought and sold goods on the black market, and had their fair share of close calls. In fact, my grandpa George spent the last year of the war in a prison, and was being marched to a death camp when he was liberated by American soldiers. Moshe’s wife, Perla, survived the war, as did a few cousins. But Moshe’s daughter, as well as most of my father’s family, did not.

Although the war had left the vast majority of Warsaw in rubble, Perla returned with a cousin to search for the hidden bundles of art. Her husband, her store, and the world she knew were all gone, but she hoped to be able to at least retrieve Moshe’s legacy. She believed the paintings would tell the story of a community that once thrived in Poland, acting as a testament to her husband’s passion for art, to the Jewish people and culture, and a way of life that once flourished. Perla found only a single bundle in the basement of a home across the river Vistula, just over 100 pieces. Many were relatively pristine; others were ripped, torn, and stepped upon. She bundled up the surviving works and took them to her son (my grandpa George) who, by that point, was living in Italy awaiting permission from the United States government to emigrate and start his life anew.

George later wrote in his memoir that these were the only pieces that survived. For many years my father and I thought the same, but ultimately, and to our great joy, we discovered that we were wrong. In 2000 we learned the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw has 52 of my great-grandfather’s pieces. In the years since we have learned of several collectors with his works, and of the survival of at least one other bundle purchased by Polish partisans after the war. As a result of the sheer number of discoveries, I believe there must be more of his work out there – pieces in attics, basements, or simply hanging in people’s homes.

Today I am an heir to this story, this legacy, and the paintings. My great grandfather saw his role as documenting the world around him; I see mine as uncovering and sharing a world that was lost. So first I shared the works I had; with my father’s support I built a website featuring Moshe’s paintings. This led to a watershed moment, when we were contacted in 2002 by Yad Vashem whose curator, Yehudit Shendar, requested we donate a piece painted in the Warsaw Ghetto. Although it was difficult to part with a piece, we felt it was both an honor to Moshe and a way of sharing with the many visitors to the museum.

Ultimately, culture belongs to all of us. In the Monuments Men film, Clooney’s character says “if you destroy an entire generation of a people’s culture it’s as if they never existed. That’s what Hitler wants and it’s the one thing we can’t allow.”  My family is doing its best to preserve the memory of the Polish Jewish culture portrayed in my great-grandfather’s works.  We share the art we have on our website, on social media, and in talks at Universities and museums. I am working on both a book and a documentary film about Moshe’s art, and my quest to find the lost and missing pieces.

For me, each painting is an actual, physical link to the past. Each brush stroke is an extension of my great-grandfather; of who he was and of the time and place of his life.  I know the collection will never be whole again, but I feel compelled to search for the surviving paintings. I keep thinking that if I find enough of them; if I learn enough of their stories and the stories of the people whose lives they have touched, I will understand. Understand the fragments of a vanished culture the paintings portray, and in them, find the echoes of my great-grandfather.


[note: I originally approached several different national newspapers, magazines, and online news outlets about publishing this piece. None were interested, so I'm sharing it here instead.]

[note 2.  4/23/2014: Since publishing this piece, I have been invited to blog on Huffington Post. I have posted this piece on their site, and it can be seen here: Jewish Heir Searching for Lost Family Art]


A Brief Look at the #mrynecki Project in Omaha

I arrived in Omaha Monday evening.  Tuesday (3/18/2014) was a busy day.  First up was a talk in the Holocaust class run by Dr. Waitman Beorn.  My talk, “The #mrynecki Project” focused on the importance of the role of the internet in general and social media in particular in my quest to find and learn more about my great-grandfather’s life and lost art. The students asked fabulous questions in the Q&A – clearly an engaged and thoughtful crowd!  The classroom talk was filmed by Aaron and Molly, the lovely and fabulous owners of The Silver Screen, an Omaha video production company.  Molly and Aaron also spent some time with me outside on the quad after the talk so we could get some nice footage of me walking on campus in front of academic buildings as well as the UNO campanile.

Tuesday evening I spoke at the Kaneko,  ”a non-profit cultural organization, exploring and encouraging the process of creativity, and how it impacts our lives.” The space is absolutely amazing! Located in three historic warehouse buildings in Omaha’s Old Market District, the Kaneko shows many different art exhibitions and offers a variety of original programming that brings in speakers and events that take advantage of its spaciousness and projection space. My talk, “Chasing Portraits: A great-granddaughter’s search for her lost art legacy” is an introduction to my great-grandfather’s body of work, an overview of Holocaust era art looting and restitution, and my efforts in the last decade to find my great-grandfather’s lost paintings. I took this photograph (bottom right) before the seats filled up – I would say that ultimately there were over 100 people in attendance!

Here are some more photos from yesterday:

Top Row:

Selfie in front of a University of Nebraska, Omaha, academic building.
Group-selfie in the Holocaust class where I spoke
Selfie with Aaron and Molly – my in class film crew


Bottom Row:

A big shout out of thanks to Dr. Waitman Beorn who brought me to Omaha! Waitman and I after the classroom talk.
Dan, myself, and Dave – my on-site film crew at the Kaneko
The Kaneko space where I spoke before the crowd arrived

An Article in the Omaha World Herald!

This blog entry comes to you from Omaha, Nebraska where I am visiting to speak both at a Holocaust studies class at the University of Omaha as well as at the Kaneko cultural arts center in old town Omaha! This is my first visit to the Great Plains, and I’m definitely looking forward to visiting campus today and exploring a bit of the city.  I’ve received a lovely welcome here both from my host, Professor Waitman Beorn, as well as from the Omaha World Herald which today ran a great piece on my quest: Jewish artist’s great-granddaughter casts herself in ’21st century detective story’

Some photos on prior to our descent into Omaha yesterday afternoon:


#DrawArt: A Great Granddaughter’s Perspective

The quest to find my great-grandfather’s lost art means I spend a great deal of time focusing on what is missing from the original collection and searching for clues from the past rather than reflecting on what I know about the pieces my family already has. This collaborative video project with Paige Dansinger enables me to pause and gaze inward – to take a longer look at the pieces we already have and to reflect on what each of the pieces shows and teaches us about his body of work.

Although the Moshe Rynecki story begins with an artist whose life and work belong squarely in the 20th century, today the #mrynecki story is also very much a contemporary one.  Paige (who is in Minneapolis) and I met on Twitter.  We have never met in person (I live in California) but talked on the phone and used email, Facebook, and Twitter to collaborate.  This project is the result of a social media connection and friendship that gave me the opportunity to curate and explore an element of my great-grandfather’s work – representations of women – that otherwise sometimes gets lost in the shadow of his portrayal of men in religious study.

I love that this project breathes new life into my great-grandfather’s art and leads me to new discoveries.

[Note: Below the video are the six images Paige paints in the video.]

Recording Voice Over for Collaborative Video Project

About a year ago I met Paige Dansinger on Twitter. Paige is a Minneapolis, Minnesota based artist who, among many things, uses her ipad to draw and paint pictures. Paige will tell you she’s just trying to engage people in art and use a playful manner to educate and excite, but Paige does more than draw on her ipad. Paige uses a program she developed called #DrawArt and when she uses it, you can actually watch her work. This means that you can observe her creativity and artistic process in action. It’s mesmerizing and so imagine my excitement when she suggested we do a project together!

This post is a little bit of a teaser because the joint #MRynecki and Paige Dansinger project is not quite finished. Last week I recorded a voice over narrative for the #DrawArt work Paige has created with several of my great-grandfather’s paintings and now that needs to be combined with the paintings Paige has completed and then finally uploaded for viewing. In the meantime, here are two photographs of me in a studio recording my voice over.

To learn more about Paige you can visit her website (she’s also on twitter: @museumpaige, Facebook, and Instagram).

You can also read this lovely article, Magic of Art with Paige Dansinger, that my friend Keri Douglas wrote about Paige on her own site, 9musesnews.com


24 Krucza Street

I know from my grandpa George’s memoir that the family lived at 24 Krucza Street in Warsaw.  He writes of it twice in his memoir.  This is his most vivid description of the apartment:

I have brought my sister through machine gunfire about ten city blocks from the exams to our home on Krucza 24 where we lived at this time. We had an apartment of six rooms on the third floor. Uncounted paintings and sculpture adorned the walls. Our upright piano, black ebony, in the living room. Red mahogany furniture. And ever present art. My father, Moshe, was an artist, a known painter.


I also have an envelope showing the building number as the return address for a letter my great-grandfather wrote to Otto Schneid.






Perla Rynecki, 1929

And for a long time I’ve been told the portrait of my great-grandmother, Perla, was painted inside the shop the family ran in the building.






24 Krucza streetAnd I know from Google maps street view what the building at the address looks like today.





But I’ve never seen what the building looked like before the war, before it was destroyed, and hauled away as rubble.  Today I got an email from a man who pointed out a website that appears to be displaying the photographs of a building that was 24 Krucza Street, the same building where my great-grandparents lived.  These are those photos, taken before 1939, and labeled on the website as coming from a private collection.  Even more incredible, the man who emailed me says his great-grandparents lived at 25 Krucza Street, the building across the street.



44 Renowned Artists Featured in Warsaw Exhibition

I found an article (perhaps an excerpt from a book?) online, written in Polish, that includes information about my great-grandfather in a footnote. I asked Yagna Alston, a friend who is a PhD Candidate in the Institute of Jewish Studies at Jagiellonian University in Poland, for some translation assistance.  I’m including an image of the one page here as well as a link to the online source (see page 14).  The article/chapter is about the Polish artist, Gela Seksztajin (1907-1942).  This excerpt is about exhibits featuring her work and who else showed at the same time.

Gela Seksztajin copy

There are a number of interesting and exciting things about this paragraph.  For me, it’s particularly thrilling to know that a woman artist had her worked featured right alongside her [Read more...]

Moshe Rynecki project hits the road… Omaha, Nebraska!

I was very kindly invited several months ago by Professor Waitman Beorn to come speak to his class at the University of Nebraska, Omaha next month.  Needless to say, I was thrilled to be invited and I am very excited to share my story in Omaha!  I will be giving a small talk to his students about the #mrynecki project and my quest for my great-grandfather’s lost paintings and a larger community talk (see last paragraph!) as well.

Professor Waitman Beorn is the Louis and Frances Blumkin Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies as well as the Executive Director of the Sam and Frances Fried Holocaust and Genocide Education Fund Board.  He is an Assistant Professor of History.  His newly published book, it just came out in January, is Marching into Darkness: The Wehrmacht and the Holocaust in Belarus.  It “explores the participation of the German Army in the [Read more...]

Jewish Heirs Searching for Lost Family Art

I am not the only heir of a Jewish artist searching for lost art.  It’s important that all stories of searches (and finds!) be more well known.  I thought I’d share the three people and artists with whom I am familiar.

Miriam Friedman Morris – Miriam’s father, David Friedmann (later changed to Friedman) was an Austrian painter and graphics artist who lived in Berlin from 1911 until the end of 1938, when he fled the Nazis to Prague.  I was lucky enough to meet Miriam in New York in June 2013 at the German Consulate General and to see the work of her father which was on display in the “Painting to Survive – The Work of David Friedman” exhibit.  You can also view a video of the opening reception of the David Friedman Exhibition.  In addition to collecting her father’s lost and scattered works, she also has generously donated them to many [Read more...]