ELIZABETH'S BLOG
A Great-Granddaughter's Legacy

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 (see below). 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?

Nat’l Museum of Warsaw, a Train Ride, and Lublin

Wednesday October 22nd

We’ve been pushing hard for a week, and the drive seems to have caught up with me a bit in the form of a cold. So today I’ve decided to just post a montage of photos with a few brief labels.

Street scenes in Warsaw taken from our cab on our way to the National Museum of Warsaw (MNW)

The National Museum in Warsaw has two of my great-grandfather’s paintings in its collection. These are some behind the scenes shots of hallways not normally accessible to the public as well as conservator and storage spaces. The two paintings were prepared and waiting for me on a table. You can see me pull off the covering sheet and looking at the two pieces below.

When a museum takes in a piece of art into its collection, it records the item into its log book. The log contains a description of the painting (e.g. four men sitting on a park bench, three holding canes, behind them are trees, etc….), information about the condition of the work, and the name of the person who either sold or donated the work. In the MNW log book, these two Rynecki paintings are shown to have been sold by a Mr. J. Zebrowski to the museum in 1963 for 2,000 zloty. I wish I knew more about this person, but I haven’t a clue. If you’ve got ideas of how to find him or his heirs to learn more about the history of how they came to have the pieces, please email me: [elizabeth@rynecki.org]

A few miscellaneous shots from our time at MNW. Our bags, two shots out front (in one Slawomir is filming me walking) and the last photo is a poster for a Holocaust Era Looted Art conference happening in November in Krakow.

We caught a 6pm train out of the central train station in Warsaw towards Lublin. One shot here is me in line buying tickets, the rest are from the train and views outside the station at Lublin. It started to rain last night and between the clacking of the train wheels along the track, the cold, and the wet, I started to get quite emotional.

In Lublin there is a sort of passage way called Grodzka Gate. This is what actually separated the town in the interwar years into a Jewish and non-Jewish side of town. It was dark and rainy when we arrived so I couldn’t see a lot, but the streets have old European style bricks and the buildings are all close together. We walked to a Mandragora, a restaurant which has positioned itself as a Jewish themed restaurant. Given that I was feeling sick, the chicken soup with dumplings tasted awfully good. The latkes were quite delicious as well, although I could have used some applesauce…

Two New Discoveries

I have now been in Warsaw for about a week, and I am super excited about all the filming we’ve been able to do so far! We’ve had fabulous interviews, looked at original Moshe Rynecki paintings, and filmed at locations that hold significance and meaning to my family’s pre-war and wartime story.  The days are long, and then the nights are a bit longer still because Cathy and I come back to our apartment and, a la Hollywood style, review the dailies. Living in the moment is one thing, but knowing you caught a great expression or a wonderful statement means you KNOW you’ve got a great film. We are getting there!

For Tuesday 21 October, first on our agenda was a return visit the Jewish Historical Institute (ZIH) to see the 8 paintings in restoration being prepared for the opening of the exhibition: SALVAGED. A Collection of paintings, drawings and IMG_6880sculpture from the holdings of the Jewish Historical Institute.  The exhibit itself is not yet up, but I’m hoping for a sneak peak of the exhibit before I return to the States. In the meantime, I got to take a look at the Rynecki paintings they are thinking of including, one of which is a self-portrait of my great-grandfather. I love this painting! He painted himself in a contemplative pose, holding his head in his hand (something I do quite often when I’m at my desk!), he’s not dressed in traditional Jewish clothing (instead he’s wearing a button down shirt and a tie), and in the background and around the edges he’s used pinks and purples to frame the portrait. I asked if it might be possible for me to put on gloves and pick up the painting. To my surprise and delight I was told, “yes, yes, of course.”

There are a LOT of really great moments in each day of this Warsaw trip, but this particular one is special and I will treasure it for a very long time. The moment was caught on film by my lovely and fabulous cameraman, Slawomir Grunberg, and captured in this behind-the-scenes shot by Catherine Greenblatt who wears many, many hats on the Chasing Portraits docfilm production team including working a second camera, taking stills, helping me to do interview prep work, cross checking historical information, and much, much more.

IMG_7012At four o’clock we were to join a two hour tour of Polin: The Museum of the History of the Polish Jews. We did, and the tour guide was great, but what I really want to share are some documents Renata Piątkowska, who once worked at the Jewish Historical Institute, but is now at Polin, recently discoveIMG_7014red while doing some archival research. The first document here is an application Moshe Rynecki made in 1934/1935 to to the Institute of Propaganda (which should be read not with a negative English language connotation, but is more about the promotion of the arts) to have two paintings  included and sold at in a Salon (an exhibition). On the application you can even see the price he is asking for each of the works: I think it says 74 złotyand 150 złoty. Clearly the paintings haven’t sold because on the back of the document is a handwritten note from Moshe Rynecki indicating that the organizationis to please give the Rynecki paintings to his wife, Perla Rynecka.

 

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The other very exciting document Renata brought me is the cover of a magazine made for cantors. On the cover is a Rynecki painting showing the scene of a Passover Seder. You can see the Haggadah, the stack of matzah, and it looks like the youngest at the table is asking the four questions. The big mystery now is, did this piece survive the war, and if so, who has it?

 

And then it was onto the museum tour. This new Museum of the History of the Polish Jews is a massive exhibition space with an incredibly ambitious plan to show a 1000 years of Polish Jewish History. Our guide was great at highlighting the importance of each room and of pointing out some of the more unique objects on display. My favorite room, of course, is the one of Jewish life because it is the case where the photographic print of a Moshe Rynecki painting will be displayed. This is the case where it will hang [presently the big white spot!] along with the text to be included:

And last, but not least, a photograph of myself with Renata at a King’s chair in an earlier part of the exhibition. Even serious days need some whimsy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Day at ZIH – The Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw

Before I left California, I was convinced that my visit to ZIH, the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, would go one of two ways: I would arrive and the sign on the door proclaiming that the museum is closed (which it actually is, until the end of the

IMG_6220month) would mean no visit for me, OR… everything would go as planned and I would go inside to see the 52 Moshe Rynecki paintings held by the Jewish Historical Institute. I’ll spare you the long drawn out story and drama of my sitting on schpilkas for months, and let you know that yesterday I was given a private viewing of 44 of the paintings! Today I go back to see the rest. [By the way, here's a photograph of Slawomir Grunberg - a very interesting and successful filmmaker in his own right and, lucky for me, cameraman for my project - filming the sign that says the Institute is closed. Oh, and check him out on Twitter: @SGrunberg]

We arrived at ZIH a bit before the art curator staff and so took some exterior shots as well as some footage inside the main hallway.

We met on site with Director Paweł Śpiewak, who took a few moments to speak to me about the institute and its mission. And then we were off to spend several hours with Teresa Śmiechowska and Jakub Bendkowski, both of whom were kind, accommodating, and knowledgeable about the Moshe Rynecki art at ZIH.

Next up?  The art itself. First a quick look at the archival storage facility which is, much like other museums, neat, clean, and temperature controlled. Then Jakub brought up the Rynecki artwork into the room where we were to view the pieces. The room was small, and others were working in the space, so in some respects it was not ideal. On the other hand it was an intimate space making it possible for all of us to interact with the pieces so easily.

To say that I am obsessed with finding my great-grandfather’s lost art is probably an understatement. I spend A LOT of time tracking down information about his work. This means that I regularly browse the internet for postings, look for conference papers with images, and request Polish books through my local library. Before arriving at ZIH yesterday, I had a spreadsheet of the institute’s holdings with a corresponding thumbnail sketch of each of the pieces I’d found online and in books. I had done my homework so that when I looked at each piece as it was shown to me, I was familiar with the work. Of course seeing a work in person is far more powerful than looking at a low quality reproduction of the image in a book, but at least one knows what to expect. The first piece came out, I nodded my head, yes, the blind man. The second piece came out, yes, the people painting toys. The third piece came out, some street performers. Nothing surprised me except for the fact that I was standing there, RIGHT THERE, with my great-grandfather’s paintings. It was a profound and important moment for me. I’ve waited YEARS to stand in the same room as his works at ZIH.

But then something happened. Jakub put the next package (all the pieces are wrapped in acid free paper) down, and began to unwrap it and I gasped and leaned forward. “I’ve never seen this piece!” I proclaimed. Slawomir moved closer and focused in on me. I gasped inwards, my breath momentarily caught midstream. I raised my hand to cover my mouth. My eyes grew big. How can it be? How can I have missed this piece? It’s an astounding work. It’s rich in detail, in texture. I may not know this piece, but I instantly recognize the style. There is no doubt in my mind that this is my great-grandfather’s piece.

It is THESE moments that I live for in this project; to find the unknown pieces! And as rare as they are, yesterday there were three such moments. Here they are:

[A note about the Hebrew in the painting at the top from my cousin Nana Meyer: It reads "hu ha-Elohim,"  two words from a three word phrase in the liturgy. The complete phrase reads "Adonai hu ha-Elohim" which translates as "Adonai is G-d" or, "The Lord is G-d." Moshe has only written "hu ha Elohim." Literally that translates as "G-d is" or "He is G-d." About the men placing their hands over their eyes, it's traditional to cover the eyes when reciting the Sh'ma. At the very very very very end of the Yom Kippur service, the Sh'ma is recited followed by reciting "Adonai hu ha-Elohim" seven times. It's sort of the grand finale to the long day of prayer.]

And as if finding three paintings I didn’t know existed wasn’t enough, yesterday had one other rather large surprise in store for me…. On the backs of several paintings we discovered a tag indicating that my great-grandfather’s work showed at theIMG_6731 International Exposition in Brussels in 1935. The search now is to figure out how many paintings went to the exposition, how many were sold, and how many returned to Poland. This is the part where I ask you, my followers and supporters, for help…. Anyone have access to archival information with exposition installation photographs? Or perhaps an exhibition catalog showing information about the Polish exhibitors? This stamp I’m showing here at the right is the tag on the back of one of the paintings. [if you have any ideas or answers, please email me: elizabeth@rynecki.org]

To say that my day at the Jewish Historical Institute was a good one is really an understatement. I feel jubilant about what I saw and buoyed by the interpersonal connections I’ve made with the staff at the museum. I’m looking forward to returning today. There are 8 pieces I still have not seen and I have a few interview questions to film.

Here are some behind-the-scenes photos by Catherine Greenblatt. I hope these give you a bit more flavor of the day. A shout out to Catherine, who snapped all of these documentation shots. She’s also working the second video camera and the iphone camera. Even more importantly, she is making sure all interviews reflect all of our historical research, and reviewing footage with me at the end of each day. Cathy makes sure I do my daily video log when all I really want to do is be done with the day! Cathy’s POV section has appeared in the last two blogs. There’s another one today below these photos. Be sure to read it! Oh, and you can follow her on Twitter: @catgreenblatt)

Cathy’s POV

Today, we spent the day at ZIH, the Polish acronym for the Jewish Historical Institute. The Institute has collected Jewish artifacts since the Second World War. The building has been closed for some time, since it is undergoing major renovation. When it opens again at the end of the month, it will feature an exhibition called SALVAGE, which will contain two pieces by Moshe Rynecki. Today, we get to see which pieces ZIH has chosen to show and where they hang. But in the meantime, yesterday morning, as we began our morning, we walked into a construction zone: building materials everywhere, paint cans, displaced furniture, plastic buckets, the smell of fresh paint. Historical photographs of the building mounted from the ceiling are blocked by bookcases. Construction workers hammer and drill. Dust is everywhere. Into a small reading room we go, which doubles as temporary office for four ZIH employees; and there, we spend several hours poring over the Moshe Rynecki collection. One of the great anxieties of knowing that such a large number of Rynecki pieces live in someone else’s home is the fear that they are deteriorating, stored in boxes without proper archival protection. But yesterday we were able to let go of that fear entirely. ZIH has cared for its Rynecki collection with utmost care and attention to detail. Many pieces were torn and water damaged when ZIH received them (they are survivors of war, after all), and they have been carefully restored. Everyone wears gloves when touching them, and each piece is protected from the others with acid free paper. Today, we will go to the restoration studio to see how several more Rynecki pieces are being restored. Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Koło Bazaar, Krasinski Park, Umschglaplatz, and Śląsko-Dąbrowski Bridge

Sunday morning we trekked off to Koło Bazaar. I had been told that Jewish ephemera often appears in this Sunday market and I wanted to see if I might find a Moshe Rynecki painting. I never thought I would find an original piece at the market, but I was optimistic that I might find a replica or a fake piece. (Yes, there seems to be growing interest in my great grandfather’s art and we are now aware that replicas and fake pieces do exist.) The market is a sprawling street fair/flea market selling everything from fur hats and traditional Polish costume to silver ware and dinner plates and, of course, art. There’s a lot of art, but none of it very impressive. I spoke to a man whose friend was selling paintings at the edge of the market and asked him if he knew the work of Moshe Rynecki. He told me “everything here is bullshit.”

Here are a few photos of the morning at the fair. The selfie-photo is myself, and my Warsaw film production team Catherine Greenblatt (a long time friend and an important part of the film production team! Read Cathy’s POV included in this blog post below), and Slawomir Grunberg (my cameraman, guide, interpreter, advisor, and so much more!). It’s important to eat apples in Poland these days [Russia band their import for “sanitary reasons,” so eating apples has become a rallying cry of support for Polish farmers and Poland, in general. In the photos along the bottom row I’m closely examining some pictures I’ve found. The painting I’m holding is some sort of Jewish image, but it’s clearly not a Rynecki piece. The question is whether it’s even an authentic piece of Judaica….doubtful.

 

We left the market by cab to go and grab lunch in another part of town. After lunch we took a walk toward our next destination and happened upon these intriguing murals. The yellow wall includes many famous people, Hollywood actors, and intellectuals. The man with glasses who looks like the lampfixture is coming out of his head is Zamenhof, the inventor of Esperanto (yes, he’s Polish and Jewish). Other folks pictured here include Dirty Harry (Clint Eastwood) saying “go ahead, make my day”, Donkey from Shrek, and Yoda. It’s really quite a collection of figures!

Our next destination was Krasinskich (Krasinski) park, but first we made a brief stop at Więźniów Politycznych Stalinizmu (loose translation: A Square remembering Stalin’s Political Prisoners) because who doesn’t enjoy a chance to pound out “chopsticks” on an abandoned piano?! Across the street, near the entrance to Krasinski Park is another Warsaw Ghetto Monument. Park of the ghetto wall ran through the park during the war. Today the park is a lovely place. Families were strolling with young children, couples were enjoying the view of the lake, and I sat down to admire the fall leaves. I’d come to Krasinski park searching for the six old men of my great-grandfather’s paintings. I didn’t see anything like them, but I found benches beneath the lovely trees and amidst the folliage. As I took it all in, I felt like I had a glimpse through time of why Moshe’s painted here – such a calm and beautiful spot in the center of the busy city.

Next up was a visit to the Umschlagplatz Memorial. You can read the post of my experience there in a separate blog, “A Negative Encounter at the Umschlagplatz Memorial.” The first two photos here show Slawomir filming me at the memorial. The photo of the memorial site itself is not my photograph. It is from the Wikipedia page about the memorial – link provided.

The last site of the day was a trip to a bridge grandpa George writes about in his memoir:

“After a day or two, I decided to move to Warsaw. I was stranded and desperate. I could depend on my parents. They still had the large apartment on Krucza. The railroad was out, the car was gone, and the only way to get there was to walk. Along the rails in sandy ground. We started one morning to walk. It was tedious. Sand and more sand. Alex got very quickly tired and I had to take him on my shoulders with a couple packs in my hands. Hotter than hell in this early September 1939. The battlefield losses of the Poles, the rapid progress of German armies, all this was no incentive to live, or act intelligently. A few miles, but how difficult. When we reached the Vistula and the Kierbedzia bridge, I was exhausted. And there, right on the bridge, the Polish soldiers were building a barricade of sorts to protect the approach from the east. As I was thinking, an officer stopped me, requesting my help in building the barricades.”

The bridge was bombed out in the war and rebuilt with a new name: Śląsko-Dąbrowski Bridge. Across the Vistula River is the Warsaw Zoo (if you haven’t already done so, read Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife). I took a walk on the bridge, stared at the sandy banks, and thought about the Moshe Rynecki painting that shows men who helped to build a barricade of sorts, to protect the approach from the east. The source of this black and white photo of the men digging the sort of barricade my grandpa George helped build and that Moshe Rynecki painted, is from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum online exhibition: http://bit.ly/Z4zklz

 

Cathy’s POV: When Elizabeth and I started to talk about this documentary project many years ago, we knew that the story would not unfold simply. Yes, it would involve work, research, persistence, and chasing ghosts as well as portraits. Not every effort would reveal a lost painting or a fragment of Moshe’s life or new information. Dead ends are a part of the narrative, even though they may not illuminate Moshe’s story. But when we opened our eyes to the possibilities inherent in lost leads and dead ends, curious tangents began to offer another set of possibilities for telling the story. Looking for fakes and reproductions has become an interesting development in our research, and they throw a fascinating wrench into telling the story. Why is Moshe’s work being forged, faked, copied, or reproduced? Is it Moshe’s fame as an artist? Not likely. More probable is the current fascination with Judaica in Poland, which seems strange to a North American sensibility.

A Negative Encounter at the Umschlagplatz Memorial

[NOTE: This blog post originally appeared on 18 October as a Facebook post on the Moshe Rynecki: Portrait of a Life in Art page. I am sharing it here as well because I think it's an important story to hear and because I know that not all my blog readers check my Facebook page.]

This afternoon we visited Nalweki street, the place where grandpa George’s sister was murdered. Then we walked towards the memorial at Umschlagplatz, the place where the Germans forced Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to gather for deportation. The monument was erected in 1988 and is intended to look like an open transport train car. On the wall are inscribed the 400 most popular Jewish-Polish first names, in alphabetical order from Aba to Żanna. Each one commemorates 1,000 victims of the Warsaw Ghetto. Visiting the memorial in and of itself is a powerful experience. Unfortunately, my visit was even further traumatized by a very negative encounter with a chaperone/guard from an Israeli student tour group.
Slawomir (my cameraman) and I had planned that we would film me crossing the street towards the Umschlagplatz memorial. As we reached the corner, there was a large group of Israeli students who then became part of the scene. Upon reaching the other side a tall and imposing chaperone/guard aggressively confronted Slawomir.”You can’t shoot here,” he said. “You’re bothering our group and invading our space.” Slawomir explained we were filming a documentary and that I was the subject. The man would hear none of it. He threatened to call the Polish police and insisted Slawomir show him his footage. Slawomir told him it is a documentary film and that the man had no right to see the footage. The man shoved his cellphone in Slawomir’s face and told him he was taking his photo. I stepped forward and handed the man a large postcard showing my great-grandfather’s artwork and explained the Rynecki family art and story. I thought perhaps the story would interest him – that it would make a connection to his own reason for making a journey to Poland, that we might bond over the shared losses of the Jewish people. He wouldn’t have anything to do with me. He didn’t want to touch the card, look at the card, or hear what I had to say. I folded the card in half and put it in his shirt pocket. He said, “don’t touch me. I don’t want your card.” I said “fine, throw it away.” Then he followed us into the memorial, threw the card down on the ground, and continued to verbally harass us. I asked him to leave. He said, “it’s a public place, I can be here.” I said some choice words as tears streamed down my face.
I can’t believe it… my BIGGEST fears about coming to Poland have revolved around fear of the past, the shadows of history, and Polish anti-Semitism, but so far, I have had nothing but pleasant and delightful encounters with many Warsaw residents. How could this man not even take the time to hear me out – to understand my project – and to learn that perhaps our goals and agendas have more similarities than differences. His hostility came so quickly and so aggressively, with absolutely no room for conversation, for dialogue that would have allowed him to understand the purpose of my own visit. Perhaps then he would have seen me less as a threat and more as having an important story, a story worth sharing with his group of students that may have, in fact, benefited from hearing about my search for the lost art of Moshe Rynecki.

Photo of the Umschlagplatz Memorial from the Wikipedia page [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umschlagplatz]

1024px-Umschlagplatz_Warsaw_2 photo from wikipedia

Warsaw Sites – Places in the Rynecki story

I love travelling to new cities because I like to explore the streets, see the museums, check out the restaurants, people watch, and to get to know the “vibe,” (if you will) of each different place. I have never visited a city where the primary goal for my visit is to uncover the traces of my family’s history. Visiting Warsaw is both fabulous and incredibly eerie for me. I am taking in the sites – and there are so many of them since I’ve never been to Poland – but I am constantly overwhelmed and haunted by the reminder of all that was lost in the Second World War.

Yesterday (18 October 2014) the Chasing Portraits documentary film crew team (myself, Catherine Greenblatt, and Slawomir Grunberg) took in over 10 locations mentioned in my grandpa George’s memoir that hold significance to my family. These locations, spread throughout the city meant that we walked, a lot, took cabs, and rode the street car to get to the various locations. At each site we then spent time filming…shots of me looking at the site, exploring the location, walking up to the site, walking away from the site…. it’s all a lot of work to get all the possible footage that we need for various scenes in the film. I hope that someday you get to see portions of all of the footage. In the meantime, here are some behind the scenes shots with a brief description of why we were in these locations.

Zacheta (the building behind me in the selfie) and Saski park.

The Zachęta National Gallery of Art (Polish: Narodowa Galeria Sztuki), is one of Poland’s most notable institutions for contemporary art. The translation of the word zachęta is something like, encouragement or motivation, and refers to the Towarzystwo Zachęty do Sztuk Pięknych, the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts founded in Warsaw in 1860. Moshe’s work was shown here, across the street from Saski Park, in the interwar years on several occasions.

There’s a story in grandpa George’s memoir about having an office on Mazowiecka Street during the war. In one scene, he approaches his office and hears someone asking to see Jan Traska, the false name my grandpa used during the war. Grandpa George knew this was trouble, so he quickly went down a back stairwell, and down Mazowiecka street towards Jerozolimskie Blvd, to grab a street car going anywhere away from where there was danger. I don’t have an address for the building of the office, but we had a serendipitous moment where we discovered the remains of the walls of a pre-war building still standing on the street. Inside the courtyard is a plaque, in Polish of course, that says something about remembering the artists of Warsaw who perished in the war. In this shot at the left you can see Slawomir filming me reading the plaque. I’d love for someone to write out the translation for me! [if you can do this, please email it to me: elizabeth@rynecki.org] [19 October 2014. Thank you to Piotr Nazaruk and Jan Laskowski for translating the plaque! It reads: "In memory of 400 Polish artists, Nazi victims who died fighting on all fronts of World War II or were killed in the years 1939-1945 - Association of Polish Artists, Warsaw 1968"]

Just like grandpa George, we continued down Mazowiecka Street towards Jerozolimskie Blvd and took a street car headed south.

 

 

Unlike grandpa George, we didn’t have the Gestapo chasing us, so we took a leisurely ride and then got off the train and began our walk towards Tamka 29…the place where my great aunt, Bronislawa had her dental practice. There were once many Rynecki paintings that hung in her office. Moshe told his children (George and Bronislawa) that people getting dental work needed pretty pictures to look at to distract them from all the pain in their mouths. We took a break before we got to the Tamka address at a lovely bakery (a film crew has got to eat!).

I know that searching for the addresses of buildings that once existed is a bit crazy. I’m chasing ghosts in the locations that once held meaning to my family, and it’s not like I’m actually going to be able to go in, visit, and see Rynecki paintings on the wall. But somehow, seeing this brand new building under construction with the very prominent “Tamka 29″ sign (there were several of them on the fence) was a bit much for me. If you’ve ever seen the movie Grosse Point Blank where John Cusack goes to the location of his old home and discovers a convenience store, well, that’s about how I felt yesterday when I saw this building…

After our visit to Tamka Street we stopped in the gift store of the Chopin Museum, then walked onto Nowy Swiat (a rather swanky street in Warsaw) where we waited for a cab [here's a photo of Cathy in the cab holding one of the camera bags!] to whisk us away to Szucha 25 (the former Warsaw Gestapo offices). It was at this office where Grandpa George went to obtain papers to travel to Gdynia. He wanted/needed to go check on his fish-import business during the war. While he stood in line a man recognized him (a local pharmacist) and whispered in his ear that he best leave immediately or face arrest. Today there is a museum in this location with the unfortunate title of Mauzoleum (I’m hoping that this means something better in Polish….)

Then it was a stroll on Ujazdowski blvd (the street where the German Nazi army paraded their victory over Warsaw), and onto Krucza 24 (the site where Moshe Rynecki had an apartment, his art studio, and an art supply store where Perla sold papers, paints, and paint brushes to artists and art students from around the city. We then met up with Alex Wertheim for an interview (see Cathy’s Corner below) and afterwards it was off to a tour of parts of the former Warsaw Ghetto and the remains of the ghetto wall.

 

Cathy’s POV: Warsaw is a photogenic city. It takes a little while to discern its layers: the prewar buildings that somehow survived the war (they are few but they are here), the reconstructed city that recalls in faithful detail all that was destroyed, the monumental Soviet apartment blocks that house so many Warsovians, and all of the many signs of the emerging 21st century economy that gives Poland some muscle in the EU. Poland’s history is more complex than I could have imagined six months ago, when I began to do research for this trip. Its ghosts speak on every street and corner, and they compete for attention in an already crowded airspace. What they have to say is often not simple to hear or decipher. Yesterday, we interviewed Alex Wertheim, whose family found Moshe Rynecki paintings at the end of the war. Some of the paintings are in Toronto, some are in Israel, we thought that some were here, but it doesn’t seem that they are anymore. What Alex told us somewhat differs from what his brother Moshe recounted last year. How their stories differ is something for us to reckon with as we make this film. When collecting fragments of history and personal memory, what we find does not simply align to form a seamless picture. This is what makes this all so compelling.

 

Interviews at Polin: The Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Chasing Portraits – the documentary film in Poland – day two.

First up today was the Monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes and then to Polin: The Museum of the History of the Polish Jews the brand new museum in Warsaw. The monument and the museum stand facing one another, on a plaza, if you will, where the first armed clash of the uprising took place. I visited both the monument and the museum this morning.

The monument is a powerful piece. It’s tall and imposing. The figures in it are strong and steely in their gaze and resolve. The base of the monument is covered in stones (a Jewish tradition and custom to, in part, symbolize the permanence of memory), candles, and flowers. I was at the memorial by myself. I stood at the base and looked up at the men, women, and children who look out into the distance, determined to fight as best they can, knowing the odds are against them. It was later that I realized that the monument is very near to Nalwecki street – a street that was near one of the entrances to the Warsaw Ghetto, where my grandpa George’s sister, Bronislawa, was murdered in 1943. The proximity of the monument to the site of Bronislawa’s death was powerful for me. This is not just history – this is family history. There is, somehow, an important difference.

We went from the monument to the side entry of the museum. The museum itself isn’t quite open to the public. It’s official grand opening is on Tuesday the 28th (I will be in attendance under a press pass!). I was at the museum today to conduct interviews with Renata Piątkowska, an art historian who is quite familiar with the work of my great-grandfather, and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the director of the core exhibition of the museum. Both spent quite a bit of time with me answering a range of questions about their knowledge about the Rynecki body of work, Polish Jewish art history, Warsaw between the wars, and Polish-Jewish culture. [You'll have to see the movie to learn what they told me!]

One of the goals of the Chasing Portraits project is to find more fragments. When the small details are brought together, we begin to see the outlines of a larger picture and to learn more about the history and work of my great-grandfather. Today Renata revealed a discovery that took me by surprise…she has found an application Moshe Rynecki filled out and submitted to some sort of important art exhibition! I don’t yet have the document in hand, but am very much looking forward to seeing it, which she has promised to deliver while I am still in Poland.

Below are some photos of the day. Enjoy! Thank you for following. Check back in for tomorrow’s post…. The day’s agenda includes visits to sites around the city of Warsaw that are important to and have connections to the Moshe Rynecki story.

Outside the Museum and at the Monument.

Some behind-the-scenes action shots of the documentary film in progress…

 

Warsaw – Day One!

Up early and off for a day in Warsaw. Our destination this morning, The Warsaw Uprising Museum. We took the long way and stopped often to admire streets, shop fronts, and parks, especially the parks. There are several wonderfully lovely parks between our apartment and the museum, and the fall leaves make the parks particularly spectacular!

 

We stopped for some selfies and portraits along the way… The one at the far left is near the Rynek Starego Miasta (Old Town Square). The second one is at the beautiful Saski Park. The last one is near the Warsaw Uprising Museum. I’m pointing to the poster because it’s for Polin: The Museum of the History of the Polish Jews. I’m headed to the museum tomorrow to film several interviews and will be back for the grand opening on the 28th with a press pass for unlimited access!

 

 

The Warsaw Uprising Museum was our destination today and I’m very glad we went to take a look. The Warsaw Uprising, a major Second World War operation initiated by the Polish resistance Home Army, was intended to liberate Warsaw from Nazi Germany. The uprising, timed to coincide with the Soviet Union’s presence in the eastern suburbs of Warsaw and the retreat of the German forces began on 1 August 1944. As many of you know, however, the Soviet advance stopped short of the city of Warsaw, which enabled the Germans to regroup, demolish the city, and defeat the Polish resistance. The fight lasted for 63 days and had little to no outside support. The Uprising was the largest single military effort taken by any European resistance movement during World War II.

 

The photos:

Left to right: The outside of the museum. The symbol of the P and anchor the Kotwica was a Second World War emblem of the Polish State and the Home Army (or AK). Created in 1942, the emblem was an easy way for the resistance to symbolize Polish resistance.

Miasto Ruin is a brief 3-D film of the city of Warsaw that shows the destruction of the Second World War.

I love the floor of the museum. There’s something about walking on cobblestone that makes the museum so tactile.

The map shows a very general outline of Germany, German occupied Poland, and Russia.

I took a photograph of this sign because it talks about looted art.  It says, in part, “Thefts of work of art continue until the end of the Occupation”

There’s a printing press on display at the museum. This drawer shows the letters used to make the many underground newspapers, pamphlets, and resistance flyers.

This dog stuffed animal tugs on my heart strings. This doggie was made from a piece of a German uniform.

The photos of the women are “insurgents” who were arrested by the Russians and sent to various Stalag camps.

Where’s Wednesday?

We left San Francisco International Airport on Tuesday evening (14 October) and arrived (via a plan change in Zurich, Switzerland) in Warsaw, Poland on Wednesday evening. With all the flying and 9 hour time difference, we’ve somehow lost Wednesday. Alas, that’s the story of international travel. This evening we’ve had a lovely dinner at a vegan restaurant on the same square as our AirBnB rental, and enjoyed a hard cider to go with the meal (the Poles are trying to find lots of creative uses for all the excess apples in Poland since Putin has refused their import into Russia). Then it was a walk along the streets of Stare Miasto – the old town of Warsaw that was rebuilt after the Second World War. We found a lovely bakery and enjoyed watching all the other people out for a pleasant evening stroll.  Tomorrow was to be an interview day, but there was a misunderstanding and so, it’s not to be. Instead, we now have plans to visit the Warsaw uprising museum and to meet with Slawomir Grunberg, the cameraman for the project in Poland!

Here are a few in-transit photos from the journey thus far…