A Crusade to Recover Jewish Art Lost During the Holocaust

Elizabeth Rynecki is on a quest to find the missing paintings of her great-grandfather, who was murdered by the Nazis. Her documentary film, screening next week at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival, chronicles her globetrotting efforts.

Elizabeth Rynecki holding her great-grandfather's self-portrait at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.
Sławomir Grünberg

When Elizabeth Rynecki was 16, her grandfather George tried to share some notes he had jotted down about his Holocaust experiences. But, at the time, she showed very little interest.

“I guess you could say I was not a very wise teenager and I just didn’t get it,” she says in hindsight. “My understanding of World War II history at that age was pretty minimal.”

The one thing she did know – and, indeed, could not avoid knowing – was that George’s father Moshe Rynecki had been an artist before the war, and a very prolific one at that. After all, his paintings of Jewish life in pre-war Poland adorned the walls of her childhood home in northern California.

“Chasing Portraits,” a documentary film that will have its Israeli premiere next week at the annual Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival, chronicles Elizabeth’s crusade to track down her great-grandfather’s lost paintings. She calls it a “companion piece” to the book by the same name, which she authored and had published two years ago.

Not long after George passed away, Elizabeth and her father were cleaning out his home when they discovered the completed version of his Holocaust memoir. By then, she had developed a keen interest in her family history and was ready to dive in.

Elizabeth Rynecki holding her great-grandfather's self-portrait at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.
Shoey Sindel Photography

There was one segment among its many pages that jumped out at her, she recalls. It explained why her grandfather had decided to commit his Holocaust memories to writing. “There are hundreds of books on the subject,” he wrote. “Nevertheless, I’m a Jew and I write, and I’ll do it until the end of my days, if only for my granddaughter Elizabeth to know the truth and not be afraid of it.”

What exactly he meant by that, Elizabeth couldn’t really be sure. It seemed that her grandfather wanted her to carry on where he had left off in keeping the family story alive. But how could she bear witness, she recalls asking herself, if she had never personally experienced the atrocities of the Holocaust?

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But then, an idea took root. “I started to realize,” she says,” that my great-grandfather’s paintings were survivors too, survivors with no voice, and that they are a powerful reflection of life in Poland before the war that not many people are aware of. I felt that I could rescue that legacy and share it with the world.”

Born in 1881 in a small town outside Warsaw, Moshe Rynecki began drawing at a very young age and eventually attended the Warsaw Academy of Arts. His very distinctive work captures Jewish life in pre-war Poland in all its diversity – from men and women engaged in work and recreation to scenes of religious observance and celebration. It includes numerous portraits as well, among them quite a few self-portraits. Although some of his paintings were exhibited in galleries, Moshe never managed to sell any of them while he was alive. For their livelihood, he and his wife Perla ran a store that sold writing and painting supplies.

When World War II broke out, Moshe began searching for a safe haven for his collection of roughly 800 works. Eventually, he divided them up into bundles and hid them with people he knew in various locations around the city. A letter explaining where they could be found was left with his wife and son.

After the Jews of Warsaw were forced to move into a ghetto, Elizabeth’s grandparents and father, along with Moshe’s wife, found refuge outside its walls, hiding among non-Jews. Moshe, however, said he wanted to “stay with his people,” according to his son’s memoir, and insisted on remaining in the ghetto.

He did not survive. Like many Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto, he is believed to have been transported to the death camp of Majdanek sometime in 1943, where he died in the gas chambers. After the war, his wife was able to retrieve only one bundle of 120 paintings that he had hidden. She found them in the cellar of a home in the Praga district of Warsaw.

One of those paintings was later donated to Yad Vashem, and another to a museum in California. Two others were apparently gifted by Moshe’s son to friends of the family, and the rest remained with the Rynecki family.

Elizabeth began her quest to share her great-grandfather’s legacy by creating a website in his honor, to which she uploaded photos of all the paintings that had been salvaged, with brief descriptions of each. Her family had always assumed that the rest of the collection had been lost or destroyed during the war. But once the gallery went online, she suddenly started hearing from collectors and curators around the globe who were familiar with the work of Moshe Rynecki. To her great delight, she learned from them that there were many other paintings that had survived the war.

To date, Elizabeth has discovered another 80 paintings of her great-grandfather’s, which had been hitherto unknown. More than 50 of them were found lying in the archives of two museums in Poland: the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw and The National Museum in Warsaw. She was contacted by a Jewish collector in Canada, whose family had purchased a large number of Moshe Rynecki pieces immediately after the war under somewhat mysterious circumstances, who invited her to see and photograph them. A non-Jewish collector in Poland, who had another piece in his possession, gifted it to her. Thus far, it is the only piece to be returned to the family.

Repossessing the paintings, Elizabeth says, has never been her goal. After all, she is cognizant of the fact – or at least wants very much to believe – that in most cases, her great-grandfather’s paintings were purchased or acquired in good faith. Her only wish, she says, is to be given the opportunity to see them with her own eyes and to photograph high quality images of them so that they can be added to her online gallery.

Elizabeth knows of a woman in Israel, a cousin of the Canadian collector, who owns several of her great-grandfather’s works. That woman, however, has thus far rebuffed her ongoing pleas to pay a visit and see them up close.  That is one of the reasons, she says, that she is flying to Israel this week to attend the screenings of her film.

“I’ve asked this woman’s cousins to convey to her I’m hoping that she comes to see my film because I believe that if she does,” she says, she will better understand the story and grant me the right to see those paintings.”

“Chasing Portraits,” which will screen in Jerusalem on December 5 and December 6, is one of several films in this year’s festival lineup devoted to the fate of Jewish art during the Holocaust.  “Also Life is an Art – The Case of Max Emden” tells the story of a prominent Jewish-German collector whose paintings were looted by the Nazis and who died a pauper.  “Hitler Versus Picasso and the Others” explores the Nazi obsession with art.