In the months since Chasing Portraits was released (September 2016 was the publication date), I frequently get asked if I have anything new to report about finding my great-grandfather’s lost paintings. Up until today, the answer was “no.” Today I received an email from a Polish friend who continues to astonish me with his discoveries. Today he sent me the image of a painting titled, “Reading the Megilah,” an ink drawing published in the Warsaw Yiddish daily, Unzer Express on March 17, 1938. The illustration was included to illustrate several articles on the page about Purim. Purim commemorates the salvation of the Jewish people in ancient Persia from Haman’s plot “to destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews, young and old, infants and women, in a single day,” as recorded in the Megillah (book of Esther).
An email arrives. It’s from my friend, Piotr Nazaruk, in Poland. The subject line makes my heart race. It says, “An ink drawing by M. Rynecki.” I’m in the kitchen eating breakfast. It’s early, maybe 6am. I open the email and my phone struggles to download the large PDF. Piotr explains he found the image in the Warsaw Yiddish daily newspaper, Unzer Express from September 25, 1938. “The quality is very low,” he writes. But the Yiddish is clear, it says it’s an India Ink drawing by רינעצקי, the Yiddish spelling of Rynecki.
I walk into my office and boot up my desktop computer to download the image. The black and white image slowly appears. Our internet connection this morning somehow feels throttled. I wonder if the boys are playing too many video games and eating up the bandwidth. Then the image appears, but it’s dark, and I can barely see the people in the painting.
Piotr tells me he thinks the title is תקיעות = tkija, sound of the ceremonial shofar. “It’s hard to say what is in the painting,” Piotr hedges. “A man blowing a shofar, some books, Torah scrolls?”
I stare at the black and white reprint of the painting in a newspaper published 78 years ago, trying to see something, anything. The top and edges of the image are too dark. I look at the bottom where I think I see two figures, and older man reading a book, and a young man standing(?)/sitting(?) next to him.
“Do you know this one?” Piotr asks.
No, no I do not.
I write to my trusty Yiddish translator, Nick Block. “Can you read this?” I ask. “Does it say it’s my great-grandfather’s?”
“I’m not sure why Piotr is hedging his words so much. It certainly says what he’s translated.” Nick assures me. Then he offers a slightly edited translation of Piotr’s Yiddish. It is plural, “tekies / Tekiot,” he writes. “It means, Sounds of the Shofar or Shofar Blasts.”
I stare at the painting, willing it to become clearer, but for now it’s all I have, another partial clue in a long line of mysteries.
The story here is a long one with lots of strange twists and turns; serendipitous moments really. In a way it’s a sort of “truth is stranger than fiction,” story, but then again, the Chasing Portraits project is filled with such incredible moments. I promise to try to cut to the chase as fast as possible.
My quest to find all my great-grandfather’s paintings always begins with the same story: My great-grandfather, Moshe Rynecki (1881-1943) painted scenes of the Polish-Jewish community in the interwar period. A Warsaw based artist, he was quite prolific, producing close to 800 paintings and sculptures before the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939.
In the early days of the Second World War my great-grandfather became concerned about his art and decided to divide it into bundles and hide it in and around the city of Warsaw. Moshe perished in the Holocaust. After the war his widow, Perla, recovered a small percentage of the original body of work. The works were found in the basement of an apartment building in Praga (a Warsaw neighborhood across the Vistula river). Eventually Perla brought those paintings out of Poland, and took them to Italy (where her son George and his family lived after the war), and then Grandpa George brought them to the United States in 1949. To help abbreviate this long family story, suffice it to say that in the late 1950s Perla went to live with extended family in Le Mans, France (a city best known for its annual 24 hour automobile race). George kept in touch with his mother and the French family for many years, but then Perla died in 1971 and communication between the two families slowed. I was 2 years old when Perla died.
And then I fast forward the story quite a bit, first to 1992 when Grandpa George died and then to the early 2000’s when Dad gave me a box of Grandpa George’s files which contained letters, photographs, war documents, and other random tidbits. Several of the items had to do with Perla and the family in France. At first I didn’t see any need to contact the family in France, they weren’t people I knew, I barely understood how they were family, and I didn’t speak French. But somewhere along the line it occurred to me that Perla probably took some of her husband’s paintings with her when she went to live in France, and then finding them suddenly seemed quite important.
I tried rather haphazardly to find the family. I Googled them, searched for them on social media, and tried to see if they still lived at the old mailing address I found in Grandpa George’s files. I even considered visiting Le Mans and making inquiries in person at city hall or perhaps the post office, but with a population close to 150,000, it seemed like my chances of randomly finding them slim to impossible. Besides, what if they had moved? But I never really gave up hope of finding them, I just needed to keep trying to find the right way into their lives.
Last month I was at an art law conference in New York to speak about Holocaust era looted art claims. While I was in the city I got together with Roz Jacobs and Laurie Weisman, friends (thanks to Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett) who run The Memory Project. Roz is the daughter of two Holocaust survivors and is herself an accomplished painter. Laurie has a great deal of experience as an educator (she spent many years at Scholastic Inc. and Sesame Workshop). The Memory Project is, in their words, “a unique multimedia exhibit shows a Holocaust survivor’s riveting story of the brother she lost, coupled with images of her daughter painting portraits of that boy.” An interactive exhibit, workshop, and film, they engage students in the history of the Holocaust while enabling them as “artists, storytellers and creators – to connect to their own family histories of memory, of loss and of the power of the creative process.”
And now you’re thinking…get to the point already… Okay, okay, I’ll do my best.
“Are you done with filming?” Roz asked.
“Sort of,” I said. “I’m still trying to close out a couple of loose ends, but at some point I’ll just need to stop filming and start editing.”
“Where else do you need to shoot?”
“Israel, Los Angeles, and France,” I said.
“Perla once lived with family in Le Mans. I think maybe she took some of my great-grandfather’s paintings with her when she went to live with them. I’m curious if they still have any pieces.”
“We know people in Le Mans. Maybe I can help you find them.”
I laughed. What were the odds she knew my family in Le Mans? But you know what? Well, of course you know what, because that’s why I’m telling the story.
Roz went to high school in New York with Margi. Margi has lived in France for about 40 years and she just so happens to be good friends with a woman who was a very young girl when Perla lived with her family.
And so what about any paintings Perla took to France? I’m so glad you asked…Yesterday, Christmas Day, I had what Roz and Laurie have dubbed, our own Jewish Christmas miracle.
An email arrived in the late afternoon with two photos. One was of the painting the family still has (they think there may have been others, but they’re not sure what’s happened to them). The other photo showed the entire family sitting, posing with the painting. I almost cried. It was such a heartfelt and lovely photo for them to send to me. The son wrote me,” I am very pleased that a beautiful painting painted in the 1930s, is the link that connects our history around the world. I hope that it will enable us to meet.” Indeed, I hope it will.
* * *
And now a sort of end-note to the story… As soon as I saw the photo of the painting in France, I knew I’d seen it before. My family has one that’s very similar. Ours, dated 1934, is clearly a study Moshe painted before doing this other more completed piece held by my French family.
I wish I could bring everyone on a behind-the-scenes Chasing Portraits adventure. I love learning and discovering more about my great-grandfather, particularly those moments where I see a piece of his art for the first time, because these are always jaw-dropping, heart beating faster, lump in my throat, moments for me that I think everyone would love to experience. But I can’t bring everyone along, and so I try to share those moments in blog posts, social media shares, and in-person conversations.
Last week I met with Shula, my third cousin [my great-grandmother and her great-grandmother were sisters], to see a Rynecki painting and wood carving. The visit was filmed for the documentary, and I’m certain you’ll eventually see pieces of the interview in the film, but that won’t be for awhile. And so the question becomes, how do I share the day with you now? Usually I just try to write a bit about it and share some quick snapshots, but my visit on Saturday was extra special because it was documented by photojournalist Chuck Fishman. Chuck took a lot of photographs. I’m sharing some of them – moments that capture the excitement of connecting with long lost family and Rynecki art.
* * *
I’d seen a photograph of the Rynecki painting in Shula’s home many years ago, but never the wood carving. Actually, I didn’t even know she had a wood carving until I called and asked if I could come and see the painting. It was while we were chatting on the phone that she said something about a sculpture. “Don’t tell me anything about it,” I said. I wanted it to be a total and complete surprise. And it was. The picture at the far left is just moments after Shula has pointed out that the piece hangs on the wall in her kitchen. I have a love-hate relationship with my expression in this photograph. I am speechless and momentarily stunned – which isn’t particularly flattering, but that’s also why I love it. I want you to see that exact moment when I’ve seen the piece for the first time. The middle two photographs show me getting to know the carving. I love being able to study my great-grandfather’s art in such a personal way. The last photo in this series of 4 images isn’t so flattering either, but I love Chuck’s composition because while I’m standing in the kitchen with Shula holding the carving, on the hallway wall you can see the Rynecki painting. Surrounded by Rynecki art – I love it!
After looking at the wood carving we were treated to a delightful Saturday morning New York Jewish brunch. We had bagels, lox, and cream cheese, white fish, and more! And then it was time for Shula and I to chat. We sat in the corner of this great big red couch in her living room and spoke for close to two hours! Together we began to piece together stories, family genealogy, and lost history. We were both so animated and we shared some amazing A-HA moments as well as some good laughs.
These photos sort of make me laugh because you’re seeing so many layers of documentation going on. First there’s the Rynecki painting on the floor. And then there’s me taking a photograph of the painting. And then there’s Slawomir Grunberg filming me taking a photograph of the painting. And then there is, of course, the fact that Chuck is photographing Slawomir who is filming me taking a photograph. We’re documentary filmmakers… we don’t mess around!
After the interview and my photographing the art, Chuck took these photographs of the Rynecki art. I love the details in this painting of these tailors cutting and sewing pieces. Moshe’s father, Abraham, was a tailor. Actually, as I understand it, he ran a clothing factory where he produced uniforms. Anyway, while Moshe was a great observer in general, my guess is that growing up he learned a great deal about the world of sewing and the making of clothes. Which is why when I asked Shula what she thought was represented in the wood carving and she told me, “a tailor,” I nodded my head in complete understanding. I had at first assumed it was a man in some sort of prayer, but I absolutely think Shula’s right. Do you see how the man his sitting, his right arm stretched outwards as if he’s pulling a thread taut?
Thank you, Chuck, for a fabulous collection of photographs, and for helping me to tell and share the story in images!
In 1948 the Jewish Society for the Promotion of Fine Arts (a precursor, as I understand it, to the ŻIH/The Jewish Historical Institute) planned and hosted an exhibition that included three of Moshe Rynecki paintings. The exhibition, Wystawa dzieł żydowskich artystów plastyków męczenników niemieckiej okupacji 1939–1945 [Exhibition of Works of Jewish Artists Martyrs of the German occupation 1939-1945] included 3 Rynecki paintings.
Only the titles are listed in the catalog: Przy szachach – A game of chess, Slepy zebrak – Blind Beggar, and Żyd przy pracy – Jew at work
Although the catalog does not include photographs, I’m pretty confident that Blind Beggar is this one. The text on the beggar’s sign says:
יודען רחמנים שענקט נדבה – Which translates, roughly, I’m told to: Merciful Jews, spare a donation.
I found this written about the exhibition in the 2008 book, Under the Red Banner: Yiddish Culture in the Communist Countries in the Post War Era, “The Society [ŻTKSP – The Jewish Society for the Promotion of Fine Arts] did not forget one of its most important tasks – preparing exhibitions. In the course of three years of activity, until the end of 1949, it organized four exhibitions that were presented in all of Poland – two individual ones: in 1946 Rafal Mandelzweig (Human Martyrology, 1939-1954), and three years later that of Lea Grundig – an Israeli artist who was originally from Germany, as well as two collective exhibitions. The opening on 19 April 1948 of the Exhibition of Works of Jewish Artists Martyrs of the German Occupation 1939-1945 accompanied the commemoration of the 5th anniversary of the outbreak of the Uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto. A subsequent exhibition – Rescue Works of Art of Jewish Artists, which was open to the Warsaw public from 29 August to 5 October 1948, presented pictures, drawings, graphic works and sculpture that had been purchased by the ŻTKSP. In the following year, from February to June, the exhibition traveled around Lower Silesia: to Wrocław, Dzierżoniów, Świdnica, Walbrzych and Legnica. According to data in a report for the Ministry of Culture and Art, nearly 10,500 individuals, including 3,390 in Dzierżoniów, visited the exhibition at that time.”
Thank you to Chasing Portraits supporter and friend of the project, Marianka Natanson, for finding this information in the Centralna Biblioteka Judaistyczna database!
[note: updated multiple times, most recently in March 2016]
I recently received an email from Logan Kleinwaks (who runs the absolutely incredible Genealogy Indexer site) with information that he’d recently added several reports from the Warsaw Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts to his site and that in 3 of the reports he’d digitized and made searchable, there were references to my great-grandfather. While the fact that Moshe (Maurycy) Rynecki had his work shown at this venue is not news, what is really fascinating about these reports is that they share the titles of his exhibited pieces. I’ve flipped through the digital pages of these reports and while I don’t know Polish, much of the document looks like some sort of year end report to members about the status of the organization.
For each of the records about my great-grandfather, I’ve transcribed the titles of each of his works listed and tried to use Google Translate for an English language title. Some titles are easier to understand than others. Sadly, there are no images with the report, so while the titles are often descriptive of each of the paintings, it’s impossible to know the status of each of the works (i.e. Did the piece survive the war? If so, where is it?). To the right of each entry is a number. I believe this is the total number of paintings each artist displayed.
Here are the three pages with indexing information about my great-grandfather, along with a transcription [I’m sorry for the lack of Polish accent marks!] of the painting titles, and a translation (if google translate made sense).
If you have translation edits, please let me know. [NOTE: I think I am now all set on translation edits! A really big thank you to Samantha Spalling, Marianka Natanson, and Ed Mitukiewicz for translation insight and help!]
1930 Warsaw Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts Report
Rynecki, Maurycy, Warszawa –
Przyjęcie Nowożeńców [Reception of the Newlyweds]
Katarynka [Barrel organ – as used by an organ grinder]
W szkole talmudystow I [Talmudic School I]
W szkole talmudystow II [Talmudic School II]
Święto Tory [Celebration of the Torah (Simchat Torah (?)]
W boznicy [In the synagogue]
Za Chlebem [it means “to go in search of bread” and refers to emigration for economic reasons. I am also told “it may refer to any form of economic migration in search of some paid work (…not necessarily an out-of-the-country emigration although more often than not that was actually the case…). Incidentally, “Za Chlebem” happens to be a title of a popular 19th century novel about Polish peasants emigrating to the US – written in 1880 by Henryk Sienkiewicz, who received Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905, and ever since a mandatory reading for most Polish schoolchildren.”]
1931 Warsaw Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts Report
Rynecki Maurycy, Warszawa –
Dybuk [The Dybbuk]
Swieto swieczek [Feast of Candles (Perhaps a reference to Hanukkah?)]
Rabin Naucza [Rabi is Teaching]
Głowka [Little head (perhaps the portrait of a child?)]
Na Wywczasach [pre-war spelling of Na wczasach, meaning, on holiday or on vacation]. I assume it is this piece whose whereabouts are unknown:
Umierajaca [Dying woman]*
* Both Dying woman and Organ-grinder are also listed in Przewodnik / Towarzystwo Zachęty Sztuk Pięknych w Warszawie. 1931 nr 69 (grudzień) [Guidebook/ Zachęta Society in Warsaw, No 69, December 1931] p. 35
[note: Special thanks to Piotr Nazaruk who made this discovery in the Mazovian Digital Library! March 2016]
1932 Warsaw Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts Report
[note: 1932 information added to this blog post 6/30/2015]
W boznicy [In the synagogue]
Odczytywanie rodały [Reading the Torah scrolls (but please note I’ve been told there is a slight nuance here that might be difficult to translate, especially since we don’t know the content of the painting itself. “Odczytywanie rodałów,” the title used, is different from “Czytanie rodałów”. The latter means reading Torah one one’s own. The title seems to instead refer to some sort of public reading (presumable in synagogue) of the Torah for the benefit of others.)]
Modlitwa z palmami [Prayer with palm branches (?). (Please note that on palm branches and Judaism, Wikipedia says this: “In Judaism, the date palm (Lulav) is one of the Four Species used in the daily prayers on the feast of Sukkot. It is bound together with the hadass (myrtle), and aravah (willow). The Midrash notes that the binding of the Four Species symbolizes the desire to unite the four “types” of Jews in service of God.”)]
W szkole [At School]
1936 Warsaw Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts Report
Rynecki Maurycy, Warszawa –
Modlitwa z Rodałami [Prayer with Torah scrolls]
Prayer with Torah scrolls is also listed in Przewodnik / Towarzystwo Zachęty Sztuk Pięknych w Warszawie: Salon 1936. 1936 nr 118 (grudzień) [Guidebook/ Zachęta Society in Warsaw, Salon 1936, No 118, December 1936] p. 3 This publication also lists a price for the painting: 100 PLN.
[note: Special thanks to Piotr Nazaruk who made this discovery in the Mazovian Digital Library! March 2016]
I am on vacation, but the truth is that the Chasing Portraits project is always on my mind. Today, while sitting in a cafe in Paris, I received a lovely email from Piotr Nazaruk who has helped the project on multiple occasions. He wrote, in part, “Just a minute ago I discovered M. Rynecki painting printed in Yiddish newspaper from Białystok. I’m at work at Grodzka Gate and I was doing a research regarding “The Dibbuk” movie, so nothing related to Rynecki and completely by chance I found this painting. Instantly I recognized his style and I checked the caption, there is his name written in Yiddish.
Men bensht etrog – tush zeikhnung fun M. Rynetski
מען בענשט אתרוג. טוש זײכנונג פֿון מ. רינעצקי
From what I understand the title is “Blessing an etrog”, ink painting by M. Rynecki, but I’m not sure about the word bensht.
It was published in Unzer Białystoker Express, year 5, No. 215, September 19, 1937, page 5. Here you can find the newspaper:
Do you know this painting?”
No, Piotr, no I don’t! What a find. Of course I have no idea if this painting survived the Second World War and, if it did, where it might be at this point.
[NOTE: 7/22/2015 update: I’m told that the Yiddish says: Men bensht esreg: tush tseykhnung fun M. Rinetski.
“Blessing the etrog-ink drawing by M. Rynecki.”
and that “Bensht” should be “bentsht” (bless). Perhaps it’s a typo.]
This Moshe Rynecki Passover Seder scene appeared in Nasz Przeglad Ilustrowany 1938, number 16, page 5. The whereabouts of this painting, and whether or not it survived the Second World War, are unknown.
I also know that my great-grandfather painted a series of pictures based on the Haggadah, but that the images were never printed and that the work was lost in the war.
Good Pesach to you and yours.
My favorite sorts of emails? The ones with the lovely and unexpected gift of the find of a Rynecki painting I’ve never seen. Yesterday I got an email from my Polish provenance research friend, Yagna Yass Alston, with a photo from a 1993 Sotheby’s Tel Aviv auction catalog. The photo shows a painting, a Cafe Scene.
This photo is not great, and I’ve now ordered a copy of the catalog (it’s amazing what you can find online!) so I should have a better image in a few days. The page from the auction catalog shows the painting and provides a brief biography. But the incredibly fascinating bit (yes, above and beyond seeing a new image!)? It says…”after the German retreat, 150 works by Rynecki were discovered in the basement of a Warsaw apartment block, including the present work.” This is NOT a piece put up for auction from my family. So does this mean that whoever sold this piece has 149 others?! If so, who is this person? Where do they live? How do I find out more about what else they’ve got? And who owns this piece today? And do THEY have any others? So many questions. Like I always say, it’s why the documentary film is titled, Chasing Portraits.
[note: post updated 20 January 2015 with higher quality images from the auction catalog.]
Here’s a Rynecki quest mystery for you, in real time. There’s a Polish ebay-like website called Allegro.pl and there’s a drawing/painting that seems to be by my great-grandfather that I’ve just discovered. It *was* for sale. In other words, while I can see the image on Googleimages, I cannot access the selling record on Allegro.pl, where I might be able to learn the seller’s identity. I think there’s someway to get to archival information via archiwumallegro, but the last time I did this it took me awhile to figure out and at the moment am having trouble remembering the steps to find the information. These images are what I can see. Clearly the photos are low resolution, so I can’t really tell a whole lot. It looks like a pencil/pen drawing of a nude. The signature does look legitimate.
I tried to search the name of the stamp on the photo, Adam Klob, but I am not coming up with anything. I also tried searching the name with the name Rynecki, but that doesn’t give me any leads either.
I very much want to track down this seller, and learn if there was a buyer. Any leads greatly appreciated! You can email me: erynecki [at] yahoo [dot] com