Moshe Rynecki's paintings depicting Jewish life in Poland were scattered and presumed lost after he and most of his family were murdered in the Holocaust. Today, three quarters of a century later, his great-granddaughter, Elizabeth Rynecki, has undertaken a quest to reconstruct his life's work and to reconnect with her family's past. Chasing Portraits is her moving first person account of her search for the artistic legacy that her great-grandfather hid in an attempt to save it before the Nazis came.
A Talk with Elizabeth Rynecki on Chasing Portraits, a memoir at the intersection of art, history, family legacy and the Holocaust.
Laurel Zuckerman: What inspired you to write Chasing Portraits?
Elizabeth Rynecki: There wasn’t really a single source of inspiration; a number of things contributed to my desire to write this book. Of course, I grew up surrounded by my great-grandfather’s art, but knew little about the backstory or how the art made its way from Poland to California after the Second World War, so natural curiosity played a role as I got older and began to ponder my heritage more closely.
When Grandpa George died I learned from his memoir that my family only had a small percentage of the original body of work, so I wondered what had happened to all the other pieces, but it was quite a long time before I felt ready to pursue the art, and even longer before I felt I had enough of a story to tell.
Another key source of inspiration were the Maus books by Art Spiegelman, which I wrote my thesis about in graduate school. Spiegelman’s works ultimately showed me that, though I was not myself a survivor, I could write about the Holocaust and its impact on my life. When I finally found the balance between writing the past story while incorporating the contemporary context of my search for the art, it was just a matter of writing it.
Why did your grandmother say: please, no war stories?
It was difficult for my grandmother to talk about the war years. The loss of family (most of her close family, including all four of her siblings, were murdered during the war), weighed heavily on her. Most of her friends and extended family were murdered as well. She desperately wanted not to remember, since it was so painful.
Many times she was asked to recount the past, to bear witness or just for clarification, but she said that when she did talk about the war, afterwards the listener could go back to their daily life, but she would be haunted by nightmares for weeks. She had a vivid memory of all she lost and reliving those emotions tormented her. By avoiding the retelling of the stories she could hold on to at least a semblance of peace and normality in her later years.
Can you talk about the challenges of interviewing your own family – in particular your father - for information?
Memories are rarely linear. Recall is often fragmented and populated by snippets of information that are difficult to contextualize. If you talk to three different people who experienced the same events, you also get at least three stories of what happened. Sometimes they conflict only in the details; other times it is hard to understand what happened at all. In addition, early on I didn’t always know enough about the war to properly comprehend my family’s stories within the larger sweep of history. Finally, and most importantly for interviewing my family, is that I didn’t want to cause unnecessary emotional suffering.
In a way, there is an impossible balancing act between finding out what happened, with the fear that the history could be lost forever, and feeling like you are hurting those closest to you. Consequently, I tried to feel my way around emotional boundaries. Even when they felt able to share, they didn’t always remember the stories I was so desperate to extract. My Dad was not quite three when the war started and was nine when it ended. He just didn’t remember everything I wanted to know. I have learned that, despite my best efforts, some of the history is likely lost forever, and that holes and gaps are part of the story.
When you were only 16, your grandfather showed you some of the memoir he was writing, which you only rediscovered much later, after his death. Can you speak about what you learned from this experience, knowing what you know now?
I’m grateful grandpa George ignored me and continued to write. He was wise and I was a foolish teenager who didn’t appreciate the importance of his story. You can’t go back in time and change things, but I strongly regret not being able to understand what he was trying to say.
What I have learned is that if someone has a story to tell, it is imperative to encourage them to write it down in whatever format they can, and worry later about how to clean it up. First person testimonies are the cornerstone of recorded history. These are the sorts of documents historians want and need to gain perspective of events. Rough drafts are notoriously difficult in and of themselves, and putting thoughts to paper can be emotionally difficult. But it’s easy to go back and edit something that has been written down. If there’s nothing on the page, then the details get lost over time, and ultimately both the story and the perspective vanish forever.
You’ve done an outstanding job articulating not just the beauty and power of your great-grandfather’s art, but also the emotional toll of searching for it. The grief, the obsessive desire to learn more, the doubt. Yet Chasing Portraits feels very even handed and fair. Was the original text like this or did you have to go through many drafts to attain this result?
Writing the book itself is really more of a piece of a much larger journey, starting with researching and writing about children of Holocaust survivors as a graduate student in 1993. In 1999 I developed the website, which led to a blog and sharing the story on social media, and in turn, to my writing articles for other publications and giving talks in front of a variety of audiences. I actually started filming the documentary long before I started writing the book, but it takes a lot longer to capture and edit the footage than to write about the story.
At times in the process, I was very upset and had very pointed views, but I feel that at each point of the journey, I learned more about myself and how to better articulate my experiences. This allowed me to gain perspective and let go of some of the negative experiences along the way. In addition, the actual process of writing the book entailed multiple drafts of each chapter and a great support team. I had the incredible good fortune to work with Jill Swenson, a book development editor, who helped me shape the story, pointing out when I got too academic, and pushed me to include very personal moments in the book. I was also very fortunate that my husband line edited the book with an eye towards keeping my voice even handed and fair. I’m delighted you think the book succeeds in that regard.
Throughout your memoir, I am struck by the innovative use of technology as it becomes available to further your search: internet searches, establishing a website, a database, youtube, etc. Would this project have been possible without these news technologies and tools?
Frankly, no. There really is no way to overstate the impact of technology, specifically the web and social media, on the project. The one thing my project depends on more than any other is the sharing of information. The web has developed into a deep and absolutely phenomenal trove of information, and social media has allowed me to develop a vastly broader network of personal connections. Without these, I wouldn’t know about much of the art and many of the stories that have been so generously shared with me.
Have official museum and looted art provenance data bases been helpful to you? Why or why not?
While they are valuable in their own right, they aren’t really intended to help with a project like mine. Museum art databases, with a couple of notable exceptions, do not usually contain the work of my great-grandfather. While he was a known Warsaw based artist in the interwar period, he was not particularly famous. The two exceptions I know of are the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw (which has 52 of my great-grandfather’s paintings) and the National Museum in Warsaw (which has two of his paintings). But when I started my research neither of those museums had information online about the Rynecki paintings in their collections, so at the time they weren’t directly helpful.
Looted art provenance databases are important, but also somewhat controversial. That discussion aside, Moshe Rynecki’s works would be very difficult to add to such a database, for two reasons: (1) To add works to databases you must provide photographs or at least an exact description for every missing artwork you want to add. When I started this project I didn’t know anything about the missing art, other than the count of over 800 pieces held by my family before the war. There are still hundreds of missing pieces I am unable to describe- I will never even be sure how many works survived the war, much less have specific descriptions of each piece. (2) Just as importantly, Moshe is known to have sold or given away some of his works, so we can’t just add every Moshe piece that gets discovered as a looted piece.
Most of the works that survived the war are likely in private hands. Only patience, and getting out the word that I am looking for them, will make it possible for me to find out about the works. I am hopeful that the book and forthcoming documentary film will encourage those who have his works to alert me to the fact that they have his pieces.
What are the challenges to creating a complete virtual art gallery of your great-grandfather’s art on the internet?
As I discussed in the prior question, a truly complete catalogue is, sadly, impossible. There is no way to know what survived the war, and no surviving list of the paintings.
Of course, I would love to put together a catalogue raisonné (a comprehensive, annotated listing of all the known artworks by my great-grandfather). At the present moment this project mostly resides in various file folders on my desktop computer, and in number of books and catalogues on my shelf. Putting what I have together is on my to do list, but I am still much more focused on finding new works. I also absolutely want to put together a catalog (to accompany an exhibition, of course!) which would also include essays from leading Jewish museum curators and art historians.
I have to admit, that even if a complete catalogue were possible, it would be more of academic than broad interest. Like every artist, Moshe has some works that are more compelling than others, and a number of clusters of works of the same exact subject. It’s fascinating to me to see three or four or more views of the same subject, to see exactly what decisions Moshe made, in terms of composition, framing, and technique, but it would be way too much for the vast majority of people. It seemed wiser to curate a gallery that gave insight into the strongest pieces in our collection. Honestly, the biggest challenge is simply getting people to go to the website to look at what’s already online.
Have you found Wikipedia Commons to be helpful? Other resources?
Regarding other resources, the truth is that there’s a lot available out in the world and the internet just happens to provide a really good starting point. I did use Wikipedia, but I also used the internet to find Yiddish translators, Holocaust experts, and individuals willing to help me, or at least point me in the right direction. I did a lot right from my desktop computer. It’s pretty amazing what’s online.
If you were to imagine the perfect platform for sharing artwork, provenance information, biographical information and art history to the widest possible audience, what would it look like?
Ideally, images of all artwork would be available on some platform, and there would be provenance, biographical, and art historical/contextual information about each artist and type of work. But even imagining such a thing is kind of impossible, since we’d have to figure out what constitutes art and which artists should be included. So as much as it would be wonderful to have such a platform, I just don’t think it can or will exist. Of course, we will continue to see art professionals and provenance researchers connecting pieces of information as they go about their work, and museums and public entities will share more and more of their collections online. So practically, we are moving toward a future where almost all public and museum works are available, and to a lesser or greater extent, annotated or contextualized. But we are unlikely to see private collectors, who hold the vast majority of all art, make their works available to all. Encouraging private collectors to take the initiative and share their art is very important.
So much was stolen from the Jews in Poland that the country is afraid, for budgetary reasons, to address this. And yet, despite terrible misgivings, you went to Poland and connected with people in a positive way. Has this experience given you hope for the future?
Yes, and no. There are people in Poland who are committed to sharing the facts of a very difficult and complex history. Those people know they can’t bring back the pre-war Jewish world, but they can provide resources and opportunities for education and discussion. But at the moment things are very difficult in Poland. The government recently introduced a law making it a crime to imply the country bears any responsibility for atrocities carried out on Polish soil by Nazi Germany. This and similar moves to privilege a very specific and incomplete view of the past make it exceptionally hard for those who are working so diligently to share the broader scope of Polish history, and to engage communities in dialogue about the past.
You emphasize the importance of serendipity and a readiness to make and pursue connections as they arise. Yet at the same time, it is your mastery of the sources that enabled you to recognize these opportunities. What advice to you have for researchers in a similar situation?
Clues never arrive wrapped in a box with a big bow on top and a note telling you how to make sense of what’s inside. Information arrives haphazardly and you aren’t always sure what you’re looking at or how to make sense of it. Collecting fragments of information is relatively easy, but keeping track of them and knowing how to assemble them is difficult and daunting. The serendipity happens when you see that two or three or four pieces of seemingly unrelated information gathered over a period of months or years are actually are part of a broader whole. When the pieces seem to connect and another section of the broader puzzle comes into focus it’s incredibly rewarding. So hard work and detail orientation are essentially what makes serendipity possible in a project like mine. My best piece of advice? Persistence and perseverance.
What has been the attitude of scholars to your research as an independent family historian? Do you plan to publish in academic journals as well?
After receiving my MA at UC Davis, I started, but didn’t complete, a PhD in Rhetoric at Penn State. So although I stepped away from academia, there’s a soft spot in my heart for academic research. I had a piece about my project published in 2013 in The Journal of Art Crime and while I don’t currently have plans to publish in other academic journals, I’d love to see someone else do so, and I could see myself pursuing more academic writing in the future. While some scholars and academics are aware of my great-grandfather’s art and do include some of the story in their course syllabi, it would be really nice to see it appear in more courses. The story lends itself quite nicely to discussions about Polish-Jewish history, art history, the Holocaust, and issues of plunder. I’ve spoken at law conferences about looted art and to students (middle school through law school) about cultural heritage and my family’s story within the larger framework of Holocaust era art looting and restitution. I would be delighted to see someone else write about my great-grandfather from a more academic perspective, particularly about his art in relationship to his peers. Some of that exists, and what I’m aware of is included both in the book and online in the Annotated Bibliography.
You say that nothing prepares you for searching for lost art. Do you think a support group for family historians and claimants would be helpful? Have you reached out to others in a similar situation?
I’ve been very fortunate in my journey to find people who were willing to share their knowledge and experiences with me. Some were lawyers, law professors, or provenance researchers. A few of the people I met were working on similar projects. I wrote about them in this blog post: Jewish Heirs Searching for Lost Family Art [http://rynecki.org/jewish-heirs-searching-for-lost-family-art/] Knowing you’re not alone, and leaning on those who can help – art historians, researchers, museum experts, and sometimes just friends who care about you – is enormously helpful. I also have an office full of books I turned to time and time again looking for inspiration and guidance. Many of those books are listed in the Selected Bibliography at the end of the book.
What message do you have for museums and private collectors who hold your great grandfather's artwork today?
If you have my great-grandfather’s work, or think a piece you have might be my great-grandfather’s work, please contact me: Elizabeth@ChasingPortraits.org. I’d like those that have my great-grandfather’s work to understand that the story is larger than the pieces in their possession. If they don’t step forward, if they don’t share at least photographs and what they know of the paintings’ stories, we all lose a piece of our rich, shared cultural history. It’s why I wrote at the front of my book, “Culture belongs to all of us.” I wanted to gently remind those that have his work that while the work may be in their possession, it will last longer than any of us, and is conceptually part of a broader whole. So much of what Moshe painted is gone, that any given work may provide another perspective, a critical piece of insight into the art and the lost community it portrays.
Elizabeth Rynecki is the great-granddaughter of the Polish-Jewish artist, Moshe Rynecki (1881-1943). She grew up with his paintings prominently displayed on the walls of her family home and understood from an early age that the art connected her to a legacy from “the old country”: Poland. In 1999, Elizabeth designed the original Moshe Rynecki: Portrait of a Life in Art website. Today, she continually updates it to keep it current regarding academic research, educational resources, and tracking lost Rynecki paintings.
Advance Praise for Chasing Portraits:
"A wonderful story beautifully told. Rynecki’s years-long search, successes, frustrations, and failures are a study in perseverance.”" KIRKUS starred review
"a lusciously detailed international journey that reminds us that the search for missing paintings is, at heart, a search for missing history.”—Anne-Marie O’Connor, National Bestselling Author of The Lady in Gold
"much more than just a tale of detective work. Elizabeth Rynecki’s story is transcendent, presenting the reader with an elevated level of passion and duty.”—Anthony M. Amore, Author of Stealing Rembrandts
See also, NYT: A Moral Imperative to Recover a Lost Art Legacy by Eve. M. Khan