“CHASING PORTRAITS” — An Emotional Quest


An Emotional Quest

Amos Lassen

Moshe Rynecki, like so many other Europeans, lost his life to the Nazis. He was an artist whose body of work was close to eight hundred paintings and sculptures before his tragic death. His great-granddaughter Elizabeth sought to rediscover his legacy and so she set out on a journey to seek out what had been lost but never forgotten

The everyday lives of the Polish-Jewish community depicted in Moshe Rynecki’s paintings simply blended into the background of Elizabeth Rynecki’s life when she was growing up. But the art transformed from familiar to extraordinary in her eyes after her grandfather, Moshe’s son George, left behind journals detailing the loss her ancestors had endured during World War II, including Moshe’s art. Knowing that her family had only found a small portion of Moshe’s art, and that many more pieces remained to be found, Elizabeth set out to find them.

Before Moshe was sent to the ghetto, he left his work to friends who would keep it safe. After he was killed at the Majdanek concentration camp, the art was dispersed all over the world. With the help of historians, curators, and admirers of Moshe’s work, Elizabeth began the incredible and difficult task of rebuilding his collection. This took place over 30 years and three generations of her family.

In her search for her great-grandfather’s paintings, Elizabeth becomes a genealogist, an art historian, a detective, a crusader for justice, and a time traveler. peering through windows and into paintings to unearth her family’s past.

Rynecki’s family warned him that if he continued with art that he was violating religious rules against creating graven images. To earn a living, he was set up in the art supplies business. His specialty was only painting Jewish folk scenes and he often depicted rituals at synagogues and religious classroom sessions. He portrayed factory workers, woodcarvers, blacksmiths, shoemakers, musicians and peddlers. He painted images of atrocities as well, including Cossacks raping Jewish women in pogroms.

In the 1920s and ’30s, a handful of his works were published in newspapers and magazines, and he had exhibitions at galleries and exposition halls in Warsaw and Brussels. He traveled through the countryside to find subject matter and he found one artists’ colony, on a riverbank near Lublin, that allowed Jews and Christians to paint side by side.

When the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, Rynecki removed his canvases from their wooden stretchers and rolled them into a half-dozen bundles to store at friends’ homes. After the war, Perla Rynecki retrieved one bundle from a Warsaw cellar. More of his artworks are said to have been found on Warsaw streets, stored in a barn and salvaged from a train that had been bombed.

The family owns about 100 of his artworks, a few of which have been donated to institutions. Many works had been creased and torn.  “Chasing Portraits” a documentary that centers on her quest as well as discusses a culture and community erased by the Holocaust.  Rynecki wants her legacy to be the sharing of her great-grandfather’s art with others.

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