Woman Discovers Holocaust-Era Paintings With “Chasing Portraits” Book.
Listen to the interview on Capital Public Radio’s website.
Several months ago I called Temple Beth El in Eureka, California. I told them about my project and explained I visit Eureka fairly often for business and suggested that perhaps we could coordinate so that on one of my visits I might share the Moshe Rynecki story and my quest for my great-grandfather’s lost art with their congregation. They seemed interested and a plan was put in motion to find a date for my visit.
I am not a member of Temple Beth El, but my call to the Temple was not exactly a cold call to the synagogue. I knew before I phoned that grandpa George (Moshe’s son) was involved in the formation of Beth El. What I did not understand when I made the call was that not only was grandpa George part of the Beth El community, but that he was once the President of the Jewish Community of Humboldt County in 1954 and that he was instrumental in the push for the community to establish a Temple in the city of Eureka.
The Temple is a lovely building and, interestingly, is just down the street from the home grandpa George built in the late 1950s-early 1960s. My father and I are certain grandpa found the land for the Temple as he took a stroll around the neighborhood or while on his drive into work. The property is that close to where the family lived. The property was purchased outright by the original founders and was built without a loan. This is thanks to grandpa George (he died in 1992) who insisted the building be built out of cash. Those who know and remember this detail fondly thank grandpa with the nickname, “no mortgage” George.
It turns out my family’s ties to the building itself and Temple Beth El are deeper than the purchase of the land and the building of the structure (which, it was pointed out to me yesterday, was done with the finest nails and which used redwood bearing no knots). The Temple’s first Torah was one that came as a survivor of the Holocaust from Czechoslovakia. And, in fact, my father retrieved this Torah from San Francisco airport when it arrived in the late 1960s and personally drove it north to deliver it. This photo shows Rabbi Naomi Steinberg speaking with my father, Alex Rynecki, about the Torah and how my father delivered it to Temple Beth El. There is also a framed certificate on the wall that tells the history of the Torah.
The building of the Temple and the delivery of the very special Torah to the congregation are very important and personally meaningful to me, but there was one other item at the Temple yesterday that really moved me and made me feel like the project had, in a way, come home. On the bimah is an electric menorah (which grandpa George commissioned to be created) and at the base of a menorah is a plaque which reads: “In Memory of Moshe Rynecki, Scholar, Artist, Martyr, killed during World War Second, together with Six Million of his brothers and sisters, IV [April] 1967.
The Times Standard of Eureka, California ran an article, Finding Moshe’s Art (PDF), about the upcoming Chasing Portraits talk at Temple Beth El.
My search for my great-grandfather’s lost paintings is neither hopeless nor quixotic: I have found dozens of lost works, and have evidence that at least several dozen, and possibly hundreds, remain to be found. But it’s just not possible to find more of the lost art on any sort of timetable. Instead, there is a lot of waiting for something to happen. In between discoveries in my own search I sometimes am connected to other people’s wonderful quests. This post is about one of those stories.
As many readers know, in October 2013 I made the remarkable discovery of the Otto Schneid archive at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto. The archive has letters written by my great-grandfather and photographs of several of his paintings (the four presented here are from the archive). As a result of my learning about the Otto Schneid archive, I also connected to one of Schneid’s sons, Adam, and his wife, Chaia. In June I visited them in Canada and we had a lovely visit where we marveled at our finding one another and the history that links our two families. I think I kept saying, “imagine if Otto and Moshe could see us sitting here together in a restaurant…” and we all just shook our heads, all a bit shell shocked at our having found one another.
My connection with Adam and Chaia has now led me to another fabulous story. This one is not a Moshe Rynecki story, but it is a lovely and delightful one from Chaia’s cousin, Lil Blume, and her search for her grandmother’s lost story. All of Lil’s life she had heard her grandmother wrote articles and stories for Yiddish publications, but she’d never seen or read any. Eventually she went searching for one and discovered a tale of her great-grandfather’s antiquarian Jewish bookstore in Warsaw in the 1890s. The story is a historically important and charming glimpse into a lost world.
I very much enjoyed the story Lil’s grandmother wrote, but it is the stories behind the story that I particularly love about Lil’s tale. In her piece, Writing in the Family, Lil shares the path of her search and the people along the way who helped her. My favorite line in the piece is, “I sent an email to the library telling them about my search and received a response ten minutes later as if they had been waiting to hear from me.” This line gave me the chills. I’ve had very similar experiences and it always makes me wonder what else is out there that we just don’t know how to access.
As if Lil’s find of the story wasn’t enough, she has another marvelous story-behind-the-story which she shared with me in an email:
The story of finding my grandmother’s writing was published in an anthology called Living Legacies: A Collection of Writing by Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women, Volume II, ed. Liz Pearl, PK Press, 2010. I read my story at the launch and when I was done, a woman in the audience said “I knew your grandmother.”
I thought she was mistaken and that she must mean my mother, who is still active at 87.
“No,” the woman said, “I knew your grandmother. We used to visit your grandmother all the time when I was a child. This woman then named my aunt and uncles.
It turns out the woman was the daughter of the Canadian Yiddish poet YY Segal. Segal had been a great friend of my grandmother and took his young daughter with him when he visited. I talked with her after to see what I could learn about my family. She spoke of how poor my grandmother’s family were. She said, “The Halperns were poor. Everyone was poor. But the Halperns were more poor.”
I love stories like these. It is, as Lil wrote to me, “fascinating and grounding finding the creative works of our ancestors.” Indeed. Our searches continue.
I enjoyed a lovely crowd last night at Havurah Shalom in Portland, Oregon. My talk, sponsored by the Oregon Jewish Museum and the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center, had a fabulous turnout. I’m told that close to 120 people were in attendance!
The first talk about my great-grandfather’s art and my documentary film project was a year ago. The talk has grown and changed over time but the goal, always, is to share my great-grandfather’s work.
There were many kind words and wonderful questions last night during the Q&A including several about artistic influences upon my great-grandfather’s work. This question is an important and interesting one and is one which I wish I could offer a better and more solid answer. My background is rhetoric and speech communication and while I have delved deep into the story of my great-grandfather, I am only beginning to understand his contemporaries and the influence of other artists on his own stylistic choices and subjects. I must admit that I wish someone else would come along and write about this, but perhaps the time has come for me to buckle down and do more research on this matter myself.
The reception after the talk was lovely! I met and spoke with so many interesting people – friends of friends, artists, a Fulbright scholar who did research for me in Warsaw, and a filmmaker. I left buoyed by the enthusiasm for the project and with several opportunities to follow up on in the upcoming weeks.
Next scheduled talk is:
Sunday June 8th at 1pm
San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society.
This blog entry comes to you from Omaha, Nebraska where I am visiting to speak both at a Holocaust studies class at the University of Omaha as well as at the Kaneko cultural arts center in old town Omaha! This is my first visit to the Great Plains, and I’m definitely looking forward to visiting campus today and exploring a bit of the city. I’ve received a lovely welcome here both from my host, Professor Waitman Beorn, as well as from the Omaha World Herald which today ran a great piece on my quest: Jewish artist’s great-granddaughter casts herself in ’21st century detective story’
Some photos on prior to our descent into Omaha yesterday afternoon:
I was very kindly invited several months ago by Professor Waitman Beorn to come speak to his class at the University of Nebraska, Omaha next month. Needless to say, I was thrilled to be invited and I am very excited to share my story in Omaha! I will be giving a small talk to his students about the #mrynecki project and my quest for my great-grandfather’s lost paintings and a larger community talk (see last paragraph!) as well.
Professor Waitman Beorn is the Louis and Frances Blumkin Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies as well as the Executive Director of the Sam and Frances Fried Holocaust and Genocide Education Fund Board. He is an Assistant Professor of History. His newly published book, it just came out in January, is Marching into Darkness: The Wehrmacht and the Holocaust in Belarus. It “explores the participation of the German Army in the [Read more…]