A brush with the Holocaust (Jewish Advocate 05.30.13)

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A brush with the Holocaust

Moshe Rynecki lives on through his paintings
By Alexandra Lapkin
Advocate Staff

Moshe Rynecki’s paintings are keeping his memory alive, thanks to the efforts of his great-granddaughter.
Elizabeth Rynecki grew up surrounded by her great-grandfather’s paintings.

Although she had never met him, she learned about him and his life through his artwork. The scenes Moshe Rynecki painted portray a world that no longer exists: Polish Jews from the 1920s and 1930s at work, praying together in shul, women taking care of their children, and families and neighbors coming together during hours of leisure.

“He is sort of an ethnographer of that time and that period,” Elizabeth said in a phone interview from her home in California. “He was really drawn to … the working class. He drew day laborers and … cultural scenes from everyday life. …They weren’t … famous and successful [people], but they worked hard and they had families and their community was important to them.”

Boston 3G, a group for grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, invited Elizabeth to tell the story of her great-grandfather’s paintings on Thursday, June 13, at 7:30 p.m. at 151 Tremont St. in Boston.

Liz Bobrow, President of Boston 3G, said Elizabeth’s talk is part of a series of events that her group organized to encourage its members to research and write their grandparents’ stories.

“When people research their family’s history,” Bobrow said, “it prepares them to go into classrooms and tell their story when their [grandparents] are no longer able to.”

By the time the war began, Moshe had created more than 800 pieces of art, paintings and sculptures, which he gave away to various people in and around Warsaw, Poland, for safekeeping. He intended to collect the works after the war, but his plans never came to fruition. The Rynecki family believes Moshe perished in Majdanek, a concentration camp, in 1943.

Elizabeth’s grandparents and her father, who was 3 years old when the war began in 1939, were able to escape from the Warsaw Ghetto and managed to avoid deportation to concentration camps.

“I am sandwiched in between what’s called the second and the third generation,” Elizabeth said, “I’m sort of both.”

Moshe’s wife, Pearla, also survived and was able to find about 100 of his pieces of artwork after the war. It was the collection that Elizabeth’s grandparents brought to the United States when they immigrated in 1949. They did not attempt to look for more paintings because the destruction of Warsaw was so total that the Ryneckis assumed the rest of Moshe’s work was destroyed.

Elizabeth had always found herself interested in the paintings, but she did not know much about Moshe except that he was an artist and died during the Holocaust.

“When I look at the canvasses,” Elizabeth said, “I think, ‘My greatgrandfather actually touched those pieces; he actually created them,’ and it’s like this link to him [through] the paintings.”

Her grandparents did not like to talk about their Holocaust experience, while her father was a young child and does not remember much. “I think he shut away a lot,” Elizabeth said.

After she graduated from college and decided to explore the story behind the paintings, “I slowly started to learn that other things had actually survived,” she said. Shortly after the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in 1993, Elizabeth went there to speak with the curators about doing an exhibit of Moshe’s work.

“The paintings can’t talk and they need a voice,” she said, “because the journey that they have been on is incredible.”

Although the museum was not interested, one of the curators noted that he had seen Moshe’s art before. He recognized the style of painting from some canvasses he had seen at the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.

“That set me off on a path,” Elizabeth said, “to think, ‘Well, if there are somewhere around 800 pieces and there are 52 at the institute, others must have survived in a basement or in an attic. Sure, things were burned and destroyed, but there must be other[s].’”

In 1999, Elizabeth created a website with images of Moshe’s paintings, a novel idea at the time. “Then interesting things had started to happen,” she said.

People who owned Moshe’s paintings or knew about his artwork began to contact her. She learned that some of his canvasses traveled to Israel, and several were bought at auction in Los Angeles.

One day, Elizabeth received a phone call from a man in Canada, whose parents escaped Poland as partisan fighters during the Holocaust. When the war ended, they were walking back home through the countryside and were stopped by a farmer, who asked them if they were Jewish. When his parents said “yes,” he showed them a collection of Moshe’s paintings and offered to sell them.

Although they have given some canvasses away as gifts over the years, their son still has a number of Moshe’s paintings at his home in Canada. Elizabeth is planning to visit him in October as part of a documentary she is making. The film is called “Chasing Portraits: A Family’s Quest for Their Lost Art Heritage.”

Elizabeth’s goal is not to buy back all of Moshe’s paintings, but rather to establish relationships with their new owners.

“Those people who have my great-grandfather’s artwork,” she said, “need to know what the larger story is and … understand that there are other paintings that were part of an original collection and … they have more meaning and importance when they are connected.”

She hopes that the paintings’ owners will preserve them, be willing to be a part of their story and perhaps loan the canvasses for an exhibit.

Elizabeth’s attempts to do an exhibit of Moshe’s work have been an uphill struggle. She has approached both Holocaust museums and Jewish art-history museums about displaying her great grandfather’s work.

The Holocaust museums typically reply that since the paintings are not about the Shoah, Moshe’s artwork is not a good fit for the museum. The curators from the Jewish fine art museums, on the other hand, tell Elizabeth that because Moshe’s is a Holocaust story, the paintings would be more relevant in a Holocaust museum.

“I feel that the Jewish community has a right to see the works,” Elizabeth said. “The Internet has been … a way to share it. …It’s great at leveling the playing field.” Not only does it allow her to show Moshe’s paintings to the world, it also lets her conduct the kind of thorough research that 20 years ago would have been nearly impossible.

“I know the collection will never be whole again,” Elizabeth said. “But I feel like I have to do everything I can to find what I can, because every time I find a new piece and learn another part of the story, it makes the collection that much more interesting and engaging.”

Visit www.rynecki.org for more information.