by Elizabeth Rynecki
I grew up surrounded by my great-grandfather’s painting; images documenting the life of Polish-Jews in between the two World Wars. I understood from an early age that my great-grandfather, Moshe Rynecki (1881-1943), perished in the Holocaust, but I knew little about how Dad and his parents survived.
In 1992 that changed when Grandpa George passed away and we discovered a rough draft of his memoir in which he recounted life in Poland before the war and some of his wartime memories.
Much of my motivation for writing my book and making the documentary came from a passage in the memoir in which he spoke to me:
“Some say it will never happen again. Well, It’s too easy. It did happen. They killed openly without fear. Where and how did they have that much hatred towards us? It could happen again. We cannot and will not forget. We will carry it, like the Bible, forever. There are hundreds of books on the subject. Nevertheless, I am a Jew and I write. I’ll do it till the end of my days. If only for my granddaughter, Elizabeth, to know the truth, and not to be afraid of it. It’s funny how we are not afraid to tell the truth.”
It is an honor to be asked to know the truth and to pass the history onto the next generation, but it also became a burden that I didn’t exactly know how to address. That changed in in late 1998 when Dad proposed building a website to showcase my great-grandfather’s paintings to give the world greater access to his images.
Building the website turned out to be a brilliant and fortuitous decision; as people discovered the website, they reached out to tell me about paintings in their possession or works they had seen at museums in Poland.
And then in 2005, YouTube launched and making a video for our website seemed like a good idea. I approached a documentary filmmaker for help and when he heard my story, he said I had enough of a story for an entire film.
In 2008 we shot our first footage, and then needed a title for a proof of concept trailer. Ultimately, I settled on the title, “Chasing Portraits,” to emphasize my role as a genealogist, art historian, and detective, often feeling like I was running around trying to grab on to elusive bits of facts and history. Sometimes, people who knew the answers to my questions were already gone or those who could help me weren’t exactly interested in extending a helping hand.
The word “Portraits,” carries a variety of meanings as well; the actual portraits of individuals my great-grandfather painted, the portrait of a community he knew and loved, and the overarching portrait of my great-grandfather gleaned from his body of work and my research of his life.
CHASING PORTRAITS has been on the film festival circuit for the past year, screening in Poland, Israel, and across the United States. The film had its NYC theatrical release April 26, 2019. It opens in Los Angeles at Laemmle Music Hall May 17th. Rynecki will be there for special filmmaker Q&As opening weekend. It will continue showing across the country.
The film’s official website features paintings, events, a blog and more.
Elizabeth Rynecki is the Director/Producer/Writer of CHASING PORTRAITS, her first film. She has a BA in Rhetoric from Bates College (’91) and an MA in Rhetoric and Communication from UC Davis (’94). Her Master’s thesis focused on children of Holocaust survivors. 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.
Elizabeth’s grandfather, George J. Rynecki wrote Surviving Hitler in Poland: One Jew’s Story.
Her book, also titled Chasing Portraits, was published by Penguin Random House in September 2016.
Read an excerpt on EatDrinkFilms, see more paintings and watch the author read from her book and offer an illustrated presentation the project.
Following the paintings is a biography of Moshe Rynecki.
“Chasing Portraits is a miraculous story of heartbreaking loss and spine-tingling discovery. In her search for her great-grandfather’s paintings, Elizabeth Rynecki 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. Her memoir will break your heart, but it will have you cheering wildly too because every new discovery is a triumph of art and love over hatred and loss.”—Amy Stewart, New York Times Bestselling Author of The Drunken Botanist
“In recent years, there has been an increase in the awareness of the problem of looted and stolen art, and Chasing Portraits makes an important contribution to the field. But it’s 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. For this reason, it sets itself apart from the rest of the field.”—Anthony M. Amore, Author of Stealing Rembrandts and The Art of the Con.
Jewish Life In Poland The Art of Moshe Rynecki (1881-1943) is a collection of a few dozen of his paintings and is available as a printed book or ebook from the publisher or Kindle (ignore the book pricing on Amazon).