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.

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Locals reflect on visit to Holocaust Memorial Museum (Jewish Advocate 05/24/13)

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Locals reflect on visit to Holocaust Memorial Museum

Boston-area survivors participate in two-day tribute event held in Washington, D.C.
By Susie Davidson
Special to the Advocate

Holocaust survivors Ludwik Szymanski and Rosian Zerner attend last month’s 20th Anniversary National Tribute at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Among the more diabolical of the Nazis’ heinous objectives was the creation of a “Museum of an Extinct Race” at the Jewish Museum in Josefov, the old Jewish Quarter in Prague.

To that end, following Nazi occupation of the Czech city in 1939, they began cataloguing tens of thousands of confiscated artifacts of Jewish life pillaged from annihilated Jewish communities in Bohemia and Moravia.

That they didn’t win, was nowhere more on display than at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s (USHMM) 20th Anniversary National Tribute last month in Washington, D.C. As recently as this week, some were still reflecting on the experience, which began with comments from USHMM Chairman Tom Bernstein.

“There are 843 Holocaust survivors and 130 World War II veterans with us,” announced Bernstein from the podium at the April 29 tribute ceremony. The outdoor tent was filled to capacity with 3,500 of their progeny and supporters for the tribute, which was addressed by Elie Wiesel and former President Bill Clinton, and for the previous night’s dinner. It was a weekend of life, of perseverance, but mostly, of reaffirming the museum’s archival and educational mission. And for the survivors and veterans, it could have been their final large-scale meeting.

“They are here not as a family connection, but because they recognize their role in the museum’s mission,” Bernstein said before also welcoming Artemis Joukowsky, the grandson of Martha and Waitstill Sharp, a couple from Wellesley who are among only three Americans recognized by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem as Righteous Among the Nations, non-Jewish rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust. Joukowsky, who lives in Sherborn, participated in lectures, events and workshops over the two days. An upcoming exhibit at the USHMM, “Americans in the Holocaust,” will focus on his grandparents.

A 49-person contingent from Boston attended the tribute, representing the American Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors (AAJHS) of Greater Boston, Generations After (for 2Gs) and Boston 3G. They included former AAJHS President Israel Arbeiter, survivors Abram Rogozinski, AAJHS Secretary Tania Lefman, Dr. Robert Berger, Alfred Zenner (who was among the Bielski brothers’ group in the Belorussian forests that was the subject of the 2008 movie “Defiance”) and child survivors who included Rosian Zerner, Fred Manasse, Frieda Schwartz, and AAJHS President and 2G Janet Stein, who planned and coordinated the group’s housing, dining and event participation, safety and transportation.

“Enabling survivors to attend the USHMM’s 20th anniversary observance was a fulfillment of a community effort,” said Stein. “We went to Washington to be included in a milestone program, but the presence of survivors, 2Gs and 3Gs brought true meaning to the anniversary observance of this facility, which was erected as a memorial from the heartache of these survivors and from the heritage taken from their descendants,” she said. (To date, the museum has welcomed more than 35 million visitors.)

“The USHMM is committed to both preserving the historical record and standing for justice today, whether it be Darfur, the Boston bombings, or any other form of persecution or violence,” Joukowsky said on the plane ride home following the event. “It is the unique institution in the world focused on America and its relation to this terrible period – on what could have been, and how we must make amends today.”

Following the April 29 ceremony and a luncheon in the tent, the museum held an open house that showcased its collections, films and exhibits, as well as a slate of workshops and discussions that included “The Future of Holocaust Memory in Europe,” “Technology in the Hands of Haters” and “Who Was Responsible for the Holocaust?” During their tours, Alfred Zenner of Brookline paused before a tribute poster to the Bielski brothers, as did Zerner before a display of the Kovno Ghetto, where she was imprisoned as a 6-year-old.

After the trip, local survivors expressed their gratitude to the donors who enabled the large group to attend, all expenses paid.

“The trip was very pleasant and meaningful,” said Berger, who came to the United States as a 15-year-old Holocaust survivor from Hungary, went on to Harvard University and the Boston University School of Medicine. Berger, who spoke with The Advocate on Monday, became a cardiologist whose efforts led to the discrediting of the questionable data from Nazi medical experimentation being used in medicine today. “We enjoyed being with the local child survivors, and it was also a pleasure to see all those young faces representing interest from second and third generations as well,” he said. “Both President Clinton and Elie Wiesel were interesting and inspiring.”

“I would like to express my appreciation for the wonderful way you managed the trip to D.C.,” Ludwik Szymanski wrote to Stein. “You were at the same time guiding us, educating, nurturing, nursing, and keeping our spirits high.” Szymanski, an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Children’s Hospital, was hidden as a child in Warsaw, Poland. Last year, he won the Lifetime Achievement Award for his commitment to assisting those with disabilities at the Children’s Hospital Boston Division of Developmental

Medicine awards ceremony.

“It was a very important tribute to attend, especially with my mother and so many other survivors from around the U.S.,” said Rivka Mascoop, who attended with her brother and mother, Eta Gluzband, who said to Stein, “We can’t thank you enough for including us.”

Liz Bobrow of Lexington, who is President of Boston 3G, said Monday she was honored to attend.

“I will never forget this trip and all of the amazing stories that were shared with me along the way,” she said, reflecting on how a survivor on the trip told her more of her story than she usually reveals. “My grandparents are no longer here, but I find that in this group of survivors each treats me like their own granddaughter.”

It was Bobrow’s first trip to the museum. “Walking through the exhibits, I found myself stopping to listen to a few survivors who were also passing through,” she said. “So many memories were being shared, and I kept thinking what it must be like to walk through a museum that tells the story of the darkest days of your life,” she said. “How brave they must be to relive this part of their past.”

In the Hall of Remembrance, Bobrow lit a candle for her family members who perished. She also went to the research department, where she was able to locate her grandparents’ video testimonial.

“Toward the end of the video, my grandparents talk about their life in America and the family they created here,” she said. “My Grandma mentions that she has started to tell me about where her and my grandpa came from and about her life in Poland. She said that she hoped that her memories would be preserved not just through her video testimonial but by sharing her story with our family.”

“The trip to me was a lifetime experience,” 3G member Josh Hipsman of Randolph said Monday. “Aside from meeting members of 3G and members from the Holocaust survivors association (who were absolutely incredible), the trip was my duty to be there for my Bubbe and Zeide.” His Zeide, Hymie Hipsman, who fled the Nazis and worked for the Resistance, was unable to attend.

“There is no way for my generation to even comprehend what it was like at all to be in the Holocaust, or in the camps, or in the woods,” Hipsman said. “We will never truly know the feeling of how awful and dehumanizing the Holocaust actually was. But it was inspiring to be in a room of over 3,500 people with Bill Clinton and Elie Wiesel all for the same reason: to never forget.”

On the plane, a man in the Boston group asked Hipsman how his grandparents, being survivors, had affected his life.

“I would not be who I am today, or I wouldn’t even be here today, if they did not survive, said Hipsman. “To me, my whole life has been affected by their experiences.”

Hipsman roomed with survivor Avraham Rogozinski, who said it was “a trip of a lifetime.” Aside from taking care of him and watching over him all weekend, Hipsman developed an actual friendship with him.

“I found out that he lives across the hall from my aunt, and in fact, I spoke with him on the phone two days ago,” he said this week. “I felt that if I could make his trip even the least bit more enjoyable, than I did my job,” he reflected. “The trip was about him, not me. He was in the camp, not me. If getting up at 6 a.m. every day of the trip to daven with him was what it took, then that’s what I did,” he said.

“We are forever grateful to Janet and her wonderful organization for providing this amazing opportunity,” said Schwartz, a child survivor who lives in Franklin and attended the event with her husband Marty. “I know that you must be exhausted, but are hopefully fulfilled by the fact that you have touched and enriched so many lives with your generosity and concern,” she wrote to Stein.

“The weekend was incredible; what an opportunity to meet so many special people in one place under the same tent!” said Judy Bruenjes of Portland, Maine, who attended with her mother, Holocaust survivor Marianne Kronenberg. “Everything seemed flawless, and my mother appreciated that I was there to participate, as well as to help her navigate around.”

“It was a momentous, memorable, moving celebration for me, not only because of the intrinsic meaning and value of the USHMM event, presenters and exhibits, but also because I shared this experience with many other survivors in attendance as well as descendants from the Boston delegation,” said Zerner, who added that the “Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration and Complicity in the Holocaust” exhibit, which opened April 30, is a must-see: “It opens the eyes and heart to human frailties, cruelties, greed of the complicity of collaborators as well as the courage of those who could resist.”

For two of the younger attendees, the opportunity will not soon be forgotten. “While I had intended to help make this trip physically easier for the survivors, I think what they appreciated even more was simply the fact that we were there,” said Bobrow. “As the second and third generations, we were able to show them that this legacy is important to us as well, and that we are fully committed to ‘never forget’ and ‘never again,’” she said.

“Every experience with Avraham opened my eyes up to wanting to be more involved with the survivors and doing anything I possibly can to make their lives better, because a lot of their lives were stolen from them,” said Hipsman, adding that the highlights from the trip included just being with everyone and seeing how they were all there in good spirits – still survivors. “The museum was incredible, and being there with the survivors made it all the more surreal,” he said. “I will never forget Avraham, my friends from 3G, or the feeling of being there with Izzy Arbeiter.”

“Watching hundreds of survivors gather in one place, stand, and be honored was a monumental privilege and indeed an experience of a lifetime,” said Stein. “Our hearts were touched and our souls comforted to know that our history will be preserved, our tragedies will be recorded, and our loved ones who perished will not be forgotten.”

November 2011 Article (Featured on the front page of the Boston Globe)

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September 2012 Article (Featured in the Huffington Post)

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3Gs Light a Candle at Boston’s Yom HaShoah Service

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July 2011 Article from Shalom Magazine on the Frozen Memorial

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May 4th 2011 Article from The New Vilna Review

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Elizabeth Bobrow and Stacy Seltzer’s Speech from August 29, 2010, given at the Cafe Europa Intergenerational Brunch

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April 20th 2010 Article from The Huffington Post

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Lexington Minuteman Coverage on Boston 3G’s Frozen Memorial

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April 16th 2010 Article from the Jewish Advocate

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April 12th 2010 boston.com coverage on Boston 3G’s Frozen Memorial

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