Kind Words from a Reader

Official book reviews that say fabulous things are truly a wonderful gift to an author. But emails from readers are personally profound and meaningful. This one was sent to my Dad from a friend of his.

“Alex – I was able to finish your daughter’s book while visiting family in DC and am pleased to report how much I enjoyed it. Perhaps I enjoyed it so much because I have the pleasure of hearing what you have to say at our Friday lunches and thus being able to mentally match up what Elizabeth has to say about you with what I know of your deep knowledge of all things and your way of speaking. Or it might be that her conversation with Professor Buxbaum brought back to me fond memories of my days in his class and of my research project under his tutelage. That your father lived in one of my favorite locations,the Eureka area, was also surprising to me; who would have thought that a displaced Polish survivor would be earning his livelihood in such a remote location? That our respective daughters attended UCD was a plus, and I could envision where she gave her talk that led her on such an interesting adventure. And from my knowledge of other Polish/Jewish survivors, I could better empathize with her – and your father’s – description of pre-War and WW II Poland. Your father’s efforts to write down his family history is to be commended and emulated by us all. That Elizabeth has had the gumption to flesh out that history and bring together the missing art to the benefit of not simply the Ryneckis but all of us, and the ability to put together a compelling novel as well, is remarkable.
Mazel Tov – B”


Library Journal Review

Library Journal. September.

Rynecki, Elizabeth. Chasing Portraits:
A Great-Granddaughter’s Quest for Her Lost Art Legacy. NAL: Penguin. Sept. 2016. 400p. notes. bibliog. ISBN 9781101987667. $28; ebk. ISBN 9781101987681. MEMOIR
This debut by Rynecki is simultaneously a family history, an exploration of Jewish art destroyed by the Holocaust, and one woman’s struggle to understand and redefine her place among family and the world around her. In prose that reads like a novel, the author draws readers into her journey to locate and engage with as much of her great-grandfather’s art as possible. Although primarily focused on Rynecki’s great-grandfather, a Polish artist who disappeared during the Holocaust, the book is set against the larger backdrop of artists whose work and lives were stolen by the horrific events of World War II, and how their output must endure in order to have a chance at being restored and recognized. Rynecki also reveals how, through the tangible connection of art, the descendants of Holocaust victims and survivors discover their role in family stories and world history. VERDICT This personal and impassioned account will appeal to anyone interested in creativity, art history, the impact of World War II and the Holocaust on modern life, as well as readers curious about genealogy and the power of family stories.—Elizabeth Zeitz, Otterbein Univ. Lib., Westerville, OH


Book News!

Last night was the official book launch of Chasing Portraits at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. It was an in-conversation even with Judy Margles (Director of the Oregon Jewish Museum and the Center for Holocaust Education). The questions were great and the audience was delightful! My next event is Monday night at the JCCSF. powells

Today I woke up to some really lovely press about Chasing Portraits. Reading Group Choices placed it on their Featured Books list. Bustle posted “9 New Memoirs for your Next Book Club Pick,” and Chasing Portraits topped the list at #1! And last, but not least, New York’s, The Jewish Week, included Chasing Portraits in its list of non-fiction picks.




Witnessing the Robbing of The Jews – A Photographic Album 1940-1944

51ktLZ94SyL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_After Paris’ liberation from the Nazi occupation, a German soldier’s photo album containing pictures related to the Möbel-Aktion” campaign was found. The M-Action campaign, or furniture action campaign, was one in which the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) looted approximately 70,000 homes of French, Belgian, and Dutch Jews who had either fled or had been deported. The stolen items were then inventoried, photographed, and eventually transported to Germany. Alfred Rosenberg, the Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories, wanted the items to furnish German administrative offices in the East.loadimg-6

A Parisian department store,  Lévitan, served as an interim storage space before the looted goods were transported to Germany. When the stolen items arrived at the department store, Jewish internees assigned to this work opened crates and divided the contents into “departments” in order to display the goods with other similar items. Some of the images in the album show the stolen goods arranged into shop-like displays, presumably for the benefit of high-ranking Nazi officials whose visits are depicted in some photos. It is one thing to know this historical fact, it is quite another to see these photographs. In these images we see furniture and crates loaded onto trucks, and images of everyday household objects – pots and pans, dinner sets, children’s toys, musical instruments, bedding and linens, and stacks of empty frames – sorted, stacked, and disconnected from their true owners. We are, as author Sara Gensburger states in her title, Witnessing the Robbing of the Jews.

levitan31We know the Nazis took everything – people, communities, lives, homes, land, and personal property – but these photographs show the massive extent of the looting. And more than anything else, loadimg-2these photos speak volumes about the attempts to erase and forget the people and families whose stories are behind each and every one of these items on display. Nazis were invited to buy these goods, and they did. But as we gaze upon these photos we bring with us an understanding of what these items without their owners really means. The snapshots of personal property becomes incredibly surreal and deeply disturbing because although we don’t know the exact fate of each of the people who once owned these goods, we have a pretty darn good idea of what happened to them.


A Look at Secret City – The Hidden Jews of Warsaw

My bookshelf and reading lists are filled with Holocaust memoirs. In part I read these books because I have an insatiable curiosity about World War Two survivor chronicles and in part because I seek to fill in the ellipses of my family’s own story of survival. While many are well written, they are very hard for me to read. I begin to worry about where I might hide or how I might provide for my family if presented with similar circumstances, and although rationally I can tell myself how unlikely those circumstances are, there are tragic modern examples of genocide to demonstrate that similar horrors are not beyond the realm of possibility. I can’t read camp survivor stories late in the evening – the chills and nightmares they give me are too real as my overactive imagination reflects on the fates that befell most of my family as well as countless others. But I continue to read them at other times, finding occasional nuggets of stories, information, or context that give me a better glimpse into my family’s story. I did get a small trove of personal history in the memoir my grandfather George hid in the trunk of his car before he died in 1992. Though the manuscript was an incredible, and personal historical account, I was still unable to find a reason- a person, a story, a turning point, about why they survived when so many did not. From what I have pieced together, they survived due to an unlikely, but powerful [Read more…]

“On The Road” from Louise Steinman’s blog

Last week I wrote a blog entry about two books – Rutu Modan’s The Property and Louise Steinman’s The Crooked Mirror.  Today Louise Steinman has written a blog post on her site about the book tour she’s presently on to share The Crooked Mirror story with others.  She has very kindly included the Moshe Rynecki project in her blog post along with two of my great-grandfather’s paintings.  You can visit her site and read about her travels in: On the Road with “The Crooked Mirror”.

Here’s a link to my book review of The Crooked Mirror and The Property that I wrote last week.


Seeking Answers to the Past – Two Authors Journey to Poland

In earlier drafts of my book (I’m still writing it) I vehemently opposed the idea of visiting Poland in order to bring closure to my story. I bemoaned that “going back” to the place where I’d never actually been held no appeal to me. I went so far as to state that the only real lure for me is the siren’s song of my great-grandfather’s paintings still in Poland. So I must now admit that my perspective has changed. One sign of this is my increasing focus on and interest in reading books about other’s trips to Poland and the warming of Polish-Jewish relationships. Two newly published books in this genre are Rutu Modan’s The Property (a graphic novel based loosely based on a family story) and Louise Steinman’s The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation (a memoir chronicling several different trips to Poland between 2000 and 2009).

In Modan’s graphic novel, The Property, Mica, a woman in her 20s, travels with her grandmother from Israel to Warsaw to reclaim the deed to an apartment the family was forced to abandon during the Second World War. What begins as a story about wartime looting and a demand for recovery evolves into a well told and beautifully illustrated tale with complications involving relationships, half-truths, memory, money, and nostalgia. It’s an intricate and personal tale that illuminates the complex legal, emotional, and psychological challenges plaguing families in the aftermath of the Second World War; challenges that persist even now, nearly 70 years[Read more…]

Three Articles on Holocaust Era Looted Art and Restitution Issues

If you’re interested in learning more about the issues of Holocaust era looted art, these three articles are very much worth reading. They give a good overview, several specific examples, and informed insight into many of the issues on the subject.[Read more…]

Haunted by Lithuanian History: A book review of a journal, memoir, and young adult novel

A number of years ago my father gave me The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania: Chronicles from the Vilna Ghetto and the Camps, 1939-1944, an imposing 700 page work containing the journals, writings, and poems of Herman Kruk, who chronicled his time in the Vilna Ghetto before he was deported and murdered in an Estonian camp. The book haunted me from the moment I opened it; the initial poems are an eloquent testament to Kruk’s desire to bear witness for future generations:

I know I am condemned and awaiting my turn,
Although deep inside me burrows a hope for a miracle.
Drunk on the pen trembling in my hand,
I record everything for future generations:[Read more…]

Pondering Holocaust Art Restitution

Some thoughts on Landscape with Smokestacks: The Case of the Allegedly Plundered Degas

When I first began thinking about how I might share my great-grandfather’s works with others, I focused on the paintings themselves. I hoped the subjects and scenes he painted would excite viewers. I longed for others to be inspired by the idea that his paintings captured a world and way of life destroyed in the Holocaust. People were almost always interested and generous with comments about his talent, but it never went much deeper and I was always left wondering how to better engage or enable emotional investment in the art. What I discovered is that people like a good tale, so they are particularly drawn to the behind-the-scenes stories regarding my relationships with museums and individuals who possess my great-grandfather’s paintings. The added context and layering of narrative draws people in much more than would just seeing works of art.

Although I am not an attorney, I am fascinated by the issues of Holocaust era art litigation. While I have spoken with attorneys and legal scholars about my own case, I have no personal experience in this area, because my [Read more…]