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

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

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









Today is Chasing Portraits last day of filming in Israel.


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

Thursday…On Towards Jerusalem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned!

Wednesday Photo Montage

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for following along!

New Mysteries

Guest blog from Catherine Greenblatt. May 11, 2015

Yesterday, Elizabeth, Slawomir, and I did research at the Jewish Historical Institute (ZIH) in Warsaw to follow up on a few things that we missed last October, when for two full days we set up shop in the offices of the curators there. When we were first there, in the excitement of looking at 52 paintings in one place and at one time–we somehow missed the 52nd painting. We saw it yesterday. (Thank you Jakub and Michal for finding the elusive piece.) And we had quite an interesting experience viewing it. It is called “Prayer: Day of Atonement,” and at first glance, Elizabeth and I questioned whether or not the piece was in fact a Rynecki at all. Its lines are sharper than a typical Rynecki watercolor, which is typically composed of broad strokes that overlap and create darker zones of overlay. Also, the light is quite a bit starker and floods entire fields of the painting. And most striking, some of the faces are rendered in a more realistic style, with discernible features and definition, whereas Rynecki typically favors broad movement and gesture over precise figuration. The overall composition is familiar, however, as there is a lot of activity in all areas of the pictures, and the sense of gesture is strong. Areas of watercolor resemble Moshe’s typical style, which is more expressionistic. But as we looked and looked, the less certain we became that the piece was in fact Moshe’s.



Clues came later in the morning, as we looked at the intake ledger. (A gigantic book with handwritten entries for each and every piece in the archive, a bibliophile’s vision straight out of the 19th century, detailing the price paid for the piece, the dimensions of the piece and its condition on arrival, the subject matter and title, the medium or materials, its projected value, and so on). Interestingly enough, the first curator to write notes about the piece ascribed it to no painter in particular—“author unknown”—but later a second ZIH curator ascribed it to Rynecki. So we weren’t the only ones pondering the question of authorship, including Alex Rynecki, Elizabeth’s Dad, who viewed a digital image of the piece as well. Moreover, the painting had recently been restored, which sharpens its lines, clarifies its spaces, heightens its color. As a result the accumulation of these sometimes subtle effects can be a dramatic change in mood and meaning.



In addition to the intake ledger, ZIH also keeps information cards with black and white photos of the piece attached. Elizabeth photographed each and every one of the inventory cards, which also tell the year ZIH acquired any given piece and what is known of its previous owners and the exchange that took place. When we last visited in October, these cards were not accessible, due to a major renovation of the building. So today we learned something that we didn’t know: that a majority of the pieces were sold by two individuals, one P. Goldberg of Warsaw in 1946 and one Jan Zobrowicz of Wloch, near Warsaw, in 1964. Chasing Portraits thrives on these kinds of tantalizing leads, which we hope will help us locate more paintings and reveal more stories of how this work has survived.


Monday – Chasing Portraits’ Last Day in Warsaw

One of the interesting things about the Chasing Portraits project is that I collect fragments of information along the way and, if I’m lucky, the puzzle pieces start to fall into place. This story I’m about to share is one of those stories.

On Saturday I went to visit Maciej, a private collector of Rynecki pieces, about the works in his collection. During my interview with Maciej I asked about auction listing of Rynecki pieces I knew about. He said that, yes, he had listed pieces on Desa Unicum and Rempex (Polish auction houses) but that the works had never sold. “I’ve never sold anything at auction,” he told me. So I was surprised to learn later when speaking with Katherina, his ex-wife who was visiting, that she had sold two pieces at Sotheby’s auction in the 1990s.  “But you told me you never sold anything at auction,” I said to Maciej. “I didn’t sell anything,” Maciej said, “Katherina sold two pieces.”

Many years ago I learned about the sale of two Rynecki pieces through Sotheby’s in New York. For many years I didn’t know what the pieces looked like, nor who sold them. Now I know Katherina sold them. Only recently, perhaps 5 months ago, I finally had gotten a hold of two black and white images of the pieces that had sold at auction. To confirm that we were, in fact, talking about the same two pieces, I turned on my computer and showed Maciej and Katherina two black and white photos that appeared in two different Sotheby’s auction catalogs. One from the sale in New York and the other from an attempted sale in Israel (it did not sell). Maciej and Katerina looked at the pieces and confirmed that, “yes,” these were the pieces that were once in their collection and that had sold in New York. They didn’t know anything about the attempted sale in Israel. Presumably the individual who bought the painting at the New York auction turned around and tried to sell one of the pieces in a Sotheby’s Tel Aviv auction.

On Sunday night I went to the showing of Slawomir’s Karski & The Lords of Humanity documentary showing at the Jewish Motiffs Film Festival in Warsaw. Slawomir had invited Maciej and Katerina to the showing, and not only did they come, but they brought flowers for Slawomir and greeted all of us so warmly. Unbeknownst to me, Katherina took Catherine aside after the showing of the film and gave her a bag with gifts for all of us and with strict instructions that when I opened my gift, Slawomir must film it.

This morning I visited the Jewish Historical Institute and while waiting for our appointment, decided to film the opening my gift. The gift came in a stiff cardboard tube, perhaps it is 18″ long. On the outside in black marker it said, “For Elizabeth Rynecki.” I shook the tube and heard something move about. “Do you think it’s a painting?” I asked Cathy and Slawomir? They shrugged. I opened the package and peered into the tube. I could see rolled up paper and a sheet of plastic. I pulled out the small taped bundle and discovered a letter in sheet of plastic. “We went through our closets, drawer, and shelfs [sic], and we found the copies of two sold paintings,” the note said. “The images are slightly cut, but we hope you will be glad to have chance seeing them in color.”

Now if I can just figure out who has the paintings, I’d like to see them in person. I have a lead that suggests they are in Los Angeles, but the search continues…


Sunday – Warsaw – Chasing Portraits

Saturday evening the Chasing Portraits team had a really lovely dinner with Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett at Freta 33, this completely cute and delightful restaurant serving fresh, organic, lovingly prepared food. The owner lived in California for awhile and you can sense some of the carryover into her restaurant. We had a fabulous dinner and a marvelous conversation about Polish-Jewish art history, the Chasing Portraits project, Polin: The Museum of History of Polish Jews, and the highly successful release of Karski and The Lords of Humanity.

Sunday morning Cathy and I visited the temporary exhibit space at Polin to see the Roman Vishniac exhibit. Curated by Maya Benton of the International Center of Photography in New York, it is a fabulous exhibit well worth seeing! Vishniac’s photographs of Eastern European Jewish life are really well known, but only a small fraction of his work was published during his lifetime. This exhibit gives a much more expansive look at his body of work in which we discover a really diverse number of photographs. I loved all of them and wish I’d had more time.


From Polin we took a taxi a bit beyond the edge of Warsaw to visit with the documentary filmmaker Wieslaw Dabrowski and to watch his adjstd_6674
documentary on Kazimierz Dolny. The film is really interesting to me because it shows archival footage from the art colony and contains a bit of history about the town. The film also features several quotes from Waldemar Odorowski, who I met in October when I visited Kazimierz Dolny to learn more about the place where my great-grandfather is known to have painted a few pieces. My only wish? That the film had more information about my great-grandfather… But that’s okay! I still learned a lot and very much enjoyed talking with Wieslaw with the help of Slawomir Grunberg’s translating for us. Can you imagine? He filmed and translated! So fantastic!


Tonight Slawomir, Cathy, and I went to the showing of Karski and The Lords of Humanity at the 11 Annual Jewish Motifs Film Festival. It was a packed house (200+ people in the audience) and while I couldn’t understand the Q&A which was in Polish, I could tell that people were passionate about the film and the Karski story. The film is playing widely in Poland right now, and Slawek is working on bringing it to the United States. Keep your eyes open for it. It’s a very important story and such an engaging film.

The Poland leg of this trip is almost over. Tomorrow we have one more day of research and filming. We are returning to the Jewish Historical Institute to research some records that we were unable to access in October because of their remodel. Then it’s on to Israel (Tel Aviv and Jerusalem) Tuesday through next weekend.

IMG_7982A profound thank you to Catherine (Cathy) Greenblatt and Slawomir (Slawek) Grunberg for the tremendous support they give Chasing Portraits. I really am so very lucky to have both of them on my team.


Warsaw – Day 2

Last night we went to the opening of the 11th Annual Jewish Motifs International Film Festival. The Chasing Portraits cinematographer, Slawomir Grunberg, has a documentary about Karski in the festival. The opening night had the showing of a film: Gett-The Trial IMG_7916of Viviane Amsalem. The film was shown in Hebrew with Polish subtitles, so following all the details was very difficult for me (I don’t speak either language) but the acting was good and I could tell that it was about a woman’s struggle to divorce her husband and his refusal to give her a divorce. After the film we met some interesting people, including a man who recently completed a documentary film about Jewish painters in Kazimierz Dolny. For those of you who have followed the Chasing Portraits story for awhile, you will remember that my great-grandfather painted in this art colony in the interwar years. Tomorrow we are to go to this man’s office to watch his film and to learn what else might be in his archive!


IMG_8234Today is day two of the Chasing Portraits project filming in Warsaw, and it was a big and important day with a Maciej Grodecki, a private collector. I learned of Maciej’s collection more than 10 years ago when he lived in New York. His family has owned Moshe Rynecki paintings since the interwar years (1920s and 1930s). We think his grandfather may have even known my great-grandfather, but we aren’t entirely certain of the extent of their connection with one another. I knew Maciej had 6 pieces, but I had only ever seen photographs of 2 of the pieces. Today I saw all 6 pieces plus a mysterious seventh, an oil that is quite different in style from the watercolors, but that seems to have much in common with a market scene in the collection. Additionally, the back of the painting has several certificates, stamps, and signatures that bear the signature of my great-grandfather. As Catherine Greenblatt, who is part of the film production team and a very good friend, noted in her Facebook post about today’s discovery, “one more Chasing Portraits mystery.”

Here are the 6 other paintings that we saw. My apologies for the awkward cropping. I am working off a laptop and don’t have access to photoshop, so you’ll have to accept my slightly askew photographs of the works as presented here.




Chasing Portraits – Warsaw

IMG_7854I left San Francisco Wednesday afternoon and flew into London’s Heathrow airport. After a brief layover and change of planes I waived goodbye to the UK and flew on to Warsaw. This shot was taken somewhere over Poland. Honestly, I’m not sure what you can see below. Perhaps a native can tell me what I saw from the air.

I may have left San Francisco Wednesday, but I didn’t arrive in Warsaw until Thursday night. Something about a 9 hour time difference and 10+ hours of flying means you get to skip most of a day. The good news (I think it’s good news) is that you gain it when you fly back again. I’ll let you know what I think about that after I battle jet lag. As for jet lag on this end, I’m doing fine today. Hopefully I’ve hit the ground running.

This morning Cathy and I took a stroll from our neighborhood to the Royal Łazienki Park. The park is the largest in Warsaw, occupying 76 hectares at the city’s center. It has lovely landscaping, trees, flowers, and even a lake with a bridge! Needless to say there’s not a water shortage in Warsaw like in California.

Then this afternoon we had lunch with Slawomir Grunberg before heading off to Stare Miasto (old town, although rebuilt after the war) to film an interview with Yagna Yass Alston. Yagna is, among many things, an art historian whose specialty is Jewish art collectors from Krakow during the interwar years. Our paths have crossed online a number of times over the last several years and Yagna has helped me in a number of ways, but before today we had never actually met. It was delightful to meet Yagna and sit on a sun drenched park bench to talk about Holocaust era looted art, Polish art history, provenance research, restitution issues, and my quest for my great-grandfather’s lost paintings.

Tonight we are headed to the Polin museum to attend the opening ceremony of the Jewish Motiff’s International Film Festival. On Sunday Slawomir’s, Karski: The Lords of Humanity, is showing in the festival. I have seen an earlier version of the film, so am eager to see the final cut. If you don’t know anything about Karski and can’t get to a showing of the film, Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World by Jan Karski. Karski was part of the Polish underground – he witnessed and reported to Allied officials the first news of genocide. There are episodes of espionage, brutality, and escape. His story is so very important.

Tomorrow- an interview and more Moshe Rynecki paintings held in a private collection.

Chasing Portraits Hits the Road!

Today the Chasing Portraits team packs up in the States and hits the road. We will spend a long weekend in Warsaw (we arrive Thursday night and leave Monday night) where we will film interviews and see original Moshe Rynecki self-portraitMoshe Rynecki paintings in a private collection. There’s also a slim chance I may find a photograph of my great-grandfather in a photo album I’ve been promised I can look at this weekend. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. I’ve never seen a photograph of my great-grandfather. If I am to spot him in a photo, it will be based solely upon my knowledge of his self-portraits!

The schedule is a busy one (first Warsaw then Tel Aviv and Jerusalem), but I am confident that my fabulous team will help me do it all and do it all well! I am very much looking forward to working again with Slawomir Grunberg and Catherine Greenblatt.

Slawomir has his own busy schedule while we are in Warsaw. His new film, “Karski & The Lords of Humanity” has had great showings and press coverage in Poland. Poland’s Foreign minister, Grzegorz Schetyna, has said of the film, “It is in our national interest, i do not hesitate to use these words, that this film reach as far as possible on the the international scale.” I’ve seen an earlier version of the film, but am looking forward to seeing the final cut at Jewish Motifs, the International Film Festival this weekend.