It takes a great deal of planning, behind-the-scenes work, and assistance of many to bring together all the details of a documentary film project. More people than I could possibly thank in this post were involved in helping me with my trip to Poland. So I want to start by thanking my donors, family (who held down the fort while I was away), friends (who read my blogs, Facebook posts, and Tweets daily, and wrote emails to check in on me), and everyone else (my apologies to anyone I’ve accidentally left out but whose support I greatly appreciate!) who made this trip possible. In this blog post, I want to specifically highlight a few special individuals who helped make the trip a success.[Read more…]
The Chasing Portraits documentary film team of Sławomir Grünberg, Cathy Greenblatt, and I, left Krakow Monday afternoon by train for Warsaw. A three hour ride, we did a little bit of everything including filming the views out the window (it was foggy!), working on blog posts, calling family, and resting up for the last big day of filming. We arrived back in Warsaw in the early evening and grabbed a taxi for Polin: The Museum of the History of the Polish Jews. We needed to pick up our press passes (mine said “Documentary Filmmaker” – !) for Wednesday’s grand opening events.[Read more…]
I visited Krakow on Saturday (25 October) and Sunday (26 October). The purpose for my visit was three-fold: to see Krakow Market where Grandpa George was arrested in September 1944 in a sweeping Gestapo round up, to give my talk, “Chasing Portraits: A Great-Granddaughter’s Quest for her Lost Art Legacy” at JCCKrakow, and to visit the historical Jewish district of Krakow, Kazimierz. Today’s post is mostly a photo montage.[Read more…]
I first discovered photographs of Moshe Rynecki paintings for sale on Allegro.pl, a Polish auction site, a few years ago. I don’t speak or read Polish, but the wording in one of the listings was “Rarytas,” a cognate for “rarity” or “collector’s item,”information I could piece together from context. These pieces, the various sellers proclaimed, were real paintings by Moshe Rynecki, a Jewish artist from the interwar years who had perished in the Holocaust. I strained to learn something…anything…from the thumbnail photos included with each of the postings, but they were too small and grainy, yielding little insight about the work.[Read more…]
[Today’s blog is written by Catherine Greenblatt. Cathy is part of the Chasing Portraits documentary film production team and has been with me in Poland for the past two weeks.]
At the turn of the 20th century, artists and writers from Warsaw and other Polish cities discovered the charm of Kazimierz Dolny, a village that lies on the Vistula River between Warsaw and Krakow. Kazimierz Dolny became a regular summer destination for artists, a colony or retreat where they could practice their craft without distraction. Artists visiting the town would stay with local families and participate in domestic life and rituals. Painters would paint in plein air; easels were set outside to catch the warm summer light, often capturing scenes of the marketplace, which still functions today, and the countryside, which remains beautiful, and the castle of King Kasimir, which still sits atop a hill at the end of the road leading from the market square. Moshe Rynecki was one of the many artists who regularly visited Kazimierz Dolny, and four of his watercolors of the town are carefully kept at ZIH (Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw).
None of this would be terribly extraordinary, except for the fact that Kazimierz Dolny was not simply a picturesque town in the Polish countryside. Kazimierz Dolny was a shtetl, a small Jewish community that observed the traditional customs and practices of hasidic Jews, who composed 80% of the town’s population. It would have been, more than likely, into the houses of these Orthodox Jews that visiting artists and writers stayed; more than likely kosher food that they ate and shuttered shops that they encountered in the market square on Saturdays. The artists who visited Kazimierz Dolny, Jew and Pole alike, went there not simply to paint but to explore this other culture, which also became the subject matter of many paintings. When we visited the National Museum in Kazimierz Dolny, we had the pleasure of speaking with Director Agnieszka Zadura and former Director Waldemar Odorowski, who shed light on this complex topic. When Odorowski assembled a 2007 exhibition of Jewish painters for the museum there, he did quite a lot of research about the Jewish communities where artists like Moshe Rynecki lived and worked. He found that it was impossible to speak of a singular Jewish world of Warsaw. There were assimilated Jews who spoke Polish and lived in gentile neighborhoods; there were semi-assimilated Jews who spoke Yiddish and Hebrew at home but who did business with Poles; and there were Jews who lived and worked in Jewish neighborhoods exclusively; and there were Hasidic Jews who lived very traditional lives and did not engage at all in modernity. The artistic groups that emerged from these differing strata of interwar Jewish life had sharp differences, and each one would often work in exclusion to the others. Except in Kazimierz Dolny, where all of the usual differences would, at least for a time, give way to looser, more generous explorations.
The case of Moshe Rynecki is interesting: we know that he lived outside the Jewish quarters of Warsaw and spoke Polish. We also know that he was from a very religious Jewish family. He spoke or wrote Yiddish but also Russian, and his children learned German and Russian as well. Though he painted scenes of traditional Jewish life, in his self-portraits his image is that of an urban, worldly man, a modern European. The brush strokes of those self-portraits are stark and bold, expressive and contemporary. How do we make sense of this difference between his self-portraits and his depictions of traditional Jewish life, which are more lush and colorful and detailed?
The self-portrait with wedding scene shows some of these dynamic qualities at work in Moshe’s imagination. There he is, in the lower right hand corner, confronting us with his gaze. The painter as self-conscious ethnographer. The majority of the canvas is given over to the wedding scene, an archetypal celebration in the life of Jewish family and community. The painting has two idioms, so to speak, one belonging to the painter and the other to the painted. Two cultures. Two separate spaces. Two identifications. And yet there they are, in the same frame finally, together making sense of what it is to be a Polish Jew.
Elizabeth’s Corner… I thought you might enjoy some photos of our time at Kazimierz Dolny
[NOTE: Today’s post is written by Catherine Greenblatt. Cathy is part of the Chasing Portraits documentary film production team.]
One bone-chilling, digit-numbing afternoon in Lublin, after visiting the concentration camp Majdanek, an experience I’ve yet to metabolize, we visited The “Grodzka Gate – NN Theater” Center. Grodzka Gate – NN Theater occupies a building that is a literal bridge between what once was the Jewish and what is still the Gentile quarters of the town, where different cultures and religions could meet and pass into one another’s neighborhoods. Architecture becomes metaphor in Grodzka Gate, as the organization fully embraces the actual and figurative space of the bridge. The Jewish part of the city is now completely gone, the streets that once were busy with commerce and life are now silent, paved over, their vitality slipping away from the collective memory of Lublin. It is difficult to categorize simply the work that “Grodzka Gate – NN Theater” does. It researches, explores, documents, and makes present again the lives of people who before the war made up one third of the town’s inhabitants. Their alchemy is part urban archaeology, part performance art, part gallery installation, part photographic archive, all filtered through the medium of public education and civic engagement. All of these gestures and research are then communicated through the ethical imperative of communal mourning and memory. Through photographs, maps, civic records, and other historical documents, “Grodzka Gate – NN Theater” finds remnants of lost lives and then animates them with conversation, live performance, and storytelling. Learning about this intelligent, heartfelt work warmed us as much as the hot milled wine and mushroom soup we had eaten earlier for lunch at a nearby traditional Polish restaurant.
Grodzka Gate began as a theater company, and though its mission took a turn when it fully realized the meaning of its location, there is no doubt that its work continues in a performative vein. In one civic performance, the stories of survivors commingle with those “righteous” Poles who rescued or hid Jews, each of the storytellers forming a line on each side of the Grodzka Gate, each one becoming witness for the other. As each person spoke, a lit candle would pass between each individual all along the line, and a handful of earth would be collected. Into each pile of earth a plant would be planted, a sign of life in a city that lost too many. I have long been fascinated by the speech of ghosts and have trained my ears to hear what it is they have to say. Poland is overwhelmed by ghosts, the airwaves are choked by their broadcasts, and not all of them are speaking in Yiddish. In the West, we don’t really learn about the suffering of Poles during the war, especially under Soviet occupation. The example of Grodzka Gate gives us an ethos of compassion and empathy and, above all, a desire to know what all of us are missing.
I visited Majdanek on Thursday (23 October 2014) to pay respects to what is believed to be the site of my great-grandfather’s death. It rained all day and the wind was cold and bone chilling. I won’t write much here because the visit was emotionally powerful and I’m still trying to understand what I saw and experienced. I’m including a few photographs as well as an excerpt from my grandpa George’s book that talks about why my family believes Moshe Rynecki perished at Majdanek.
“The fact that my father died in Majdanek came to our knowledge in this manner. When the Germans started to make so called Jewish resettlements, they were afraid of resistance. They (the Germans) knew, of course, what kind of resettlements they were talking about. Death camps and crematoria. In the beginning, once they would fill up a camp, let’s say Treblinka, they would try and succeed to quiet down the Jews by giving them a bit more food for a few days and encourage them to write to families or friends that everything is well and that they have good food and peace. The Germans would declare that anyone writing a “good” letter would be immediately given work and better conditions to live. The Jews invariably would fall for it. They would write letters or cards and wait in queue to deliver them. The Germans would pick up the writings and send the writers to the gas chambers at once. The cruelty of it is of enormous dimensions. As a fact, the ones who wouldn’t write would have been sent back to the barracks to do it, and come back to get what they have been promised. Whole towns were deceived this way. This is how my father’s card came to Warsaw to my mother’s address, and made many people believe that he was well, and that he was actually painting in the camp. We know now that the minute he delivered his letter, he was killed by gas. Deception made the Jews be peaceful and believing in German lies.
For some reason or another, I never believed the Germans. This is probably why I am still alive.
Where Hitler found all these diabolic people to execute at his will, none will ever know. The Germans, and I am talking about 95 percent of them, were proud of their Fuhrer, and how smart he was. He committed genocide on the Jewish, Polish, Russian people, and nobody knew about it until it actually was too late, and even then in 1943 nobody did a thing for the poor condemned. Here Hitler knew that no country would help. The Jews were alone. So were the Poles. The Russians didn’t care. They are not much off the barbarian German character anyway. The world was with Hitler, but the strategies of Churchill, Roosevelt were wrong and too late. Some day history will prove the West was wrong from 1939 on.” Surviving Hitler in Poland: One Jew’s Story by George (Jerzy) Rynecki
Today’s blog is written by Catherine Greenblatt (travel companion extraordinaire and a core member of the film production team)
For 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.
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
newspaper 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. 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?
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: [firstname.lastname@example.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…
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 sculpture 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.
At 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 discovered 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.
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.