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Book Review: Chasing Portraits: a Great-Granddaughter's Quest For Her Lost Art Legacy

Posted by Sam Mercadante, Monday 17th July, 2017

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Book cover of Chasing Portraits by Elizabeth Rynecki

The Holocaust violently ruptured history - in so many cases, what existed before did not exist after. It saw families torn apart, towns and cities destroyed, and humans turned into both predators and prey. While we often focus on the immense scale of what was lost - millions of lives, cherished homes, entire communities and traditions - there are countless stories of smaller, but no less heartbreaking, losses. Chasing Portraits: a Great-Granddaughter's Quest For Her Lost Art Legacy by Elizabeth Rynecki is one of those stories. Beginning with a trip to the newly-opened United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in 1992, Elizabeth’s quest to find not only answers about her family, but the physical paintings of Moshe Rynecki, has now spanned twenty-five years and multiple continents.

Upon returning home, people who had lost practically everything in the Holocaust faced the further ordeal that their art was also gone. Paintings, sculptures, and other invaluable ties to their previous lives had vanished, often destroyed in bombings or stolen in their absence. The Nazis are infamous for their extensive theft, either through invented taxes levied on Jews wishing to flee or through straightforward looting once the Jews were deported. For later generations, reclaiming art that was stolen in this manner can be a relatively simple endeavour: if ancestors had purchased the art, then proof of acquisition can be sufficient. However, for Elizabeth Rynecki, author of Chasing Portraits, the fight to reclaim her great-grandfather’s art was strewn with seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Moshe Rynecki, Elizabeth’s great-grandfather, was a Polish-Jewish artist who spent his childhood in the 1890s desperately trying to convince his father to let him train as a painter. Instead, Moshe’s father arranged his marriage to a girl named Perla and bought the young couple an apartment and an art supply shop in Warsaw. While Perla ran the shop, Moshe painted. He painted portraits of himself and his wife, as well as scenes of traditional Jewish life around the city. By the time the Nazis arrived in Warsaw, Moshe had painted over eight hundred canvases that catalogued intimate moments of vanishing Polish-Jewish culture.

In a desperate bid to protect his life’s work from Nazi looting, Moshe wrapped up his canvases in eight bundles of around one hundred works each, to be delivered to the homes of trusted friends. Soon after, Moshe and Perla moved to the Warsaw Ghetto, as depicted in the book many moved to the ghetto to avoid trouble, but others like Moshe's son chose to go underground so to speak and hide their Jewish identity in order to stay outside of it. Jerzy, who had false papers and refused to wear the Star of David, remained outside. He repeatedly tried to convince his father to leave the Ghetto, but Moshe simply told him, “I don’t want to leave. These are my people” (p.59). Perla eventually accepted her son’s help in escaping, and was the only one of the family to return to Warsaw after the war. By then Jerzy had moved his family first to Italy and then to the United States, and Moshe had been deported to and most likely murdered at Majdanek concentration camp outside of Lublin. Moshe and Perla’s other child, Isia, had been shot and killed by the Germans outside the entrance to the Ghetto soon after the occupation. There was no one left but Perla to retrieve Moshe’s paintings.

Sadly, Perla only managed to find one of Moshe’s bundles, scattered across the floor of an abandoned basement. This is where Jerzy’s granddaughter Elizabeth, five decades later, would pick up the thread. She had grown up surrounded by her great-grandfather’s paintings, but it wasn’t until her grandfather’s death that Elizabeth realized how little she knew of her family’s history and how much she wanted to know. Her grandfather Jerzy, who changed his name to George in the United States, left behind journals detailing the loss his family had endured during World War II, including Moshe’s art. Knowing that her family had only located a small portion of Moshe’s art and that many more pieces remained to be found, Elizabeth set out to find them.

Elizabeth’s story is certainly compelling, though her writing style has an somewhat naive tone that can leave the reader feeling frustrated at times. The situation she is navigating is monstrously complex - how could she legally prove that, because her great-grandfather painted these canvases, she was now entitled to own them? How could she even find the canvases in the first place, when many of them are in private homes, in uncooperative museums, or simply destroyed? It is also deeply emotional for her - both setbacks and newly discovered paintings often bring her to tears. Early in her search she realises the need to preserve what may seem unimportant at the time, and thus has captured parts of her journey with professional videography which is soon to be released as a documentary. The story itself is moving, and perhaps better told in documentary form than in writing. Often her writing style detracted from her telling of the story, meaning a documentary could capture moments in the story much more objectively.

While Chasing Portraits mainly focuses on the Rynecki family’s experience during the war and Elizabeth’s struggles with art reclamation, it does not do as well situating the family’s experiences in a wider context. Readers learn about the complexities of art reclamation in fits and starts, as Elizabeth attempts to navigate the process; however, she never sums it up for us, and her heavy reliance on dialogue rather than prose leaves many details muddied. Despite these faults, Elizabeth’s genuine yearning to connect with her great-grandfather glimmers through every moment of the book. Her desire to discover, see, and touch his work is also deeply linked with her need to learn more about what it means to be the child and grandchild of Holocaust survivors - a need that feels unrealized when the book ends, perhaps because Elizabeth’s quest for Moshe’s paintings also remains unresolved.

I look forward to the documentary version of Chasing Portraits, currently in post-production, as I feel it will bring some linearity and clarity to Elizabeth’s story that is lacking in the book. Her journey is unique in combining self-discovery, deep ties to a lost community, and the ways in which the Holocaust continues to reverberate in the backgrounds of our daily lives.

Chasing Portraits: a Great-Granddaughter's Quest For Her Lost Art Legacy by Elizabeth Rynecki is available to read in The Wiener Library’s Reading Room.


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