The secrets to the past unfold with gentle whispers guiding the way. How else can one describe the journey of Elizabeth Rynecki in her search for her great grandfather Moshe Rynecki’s illustrations of everyday Jewish life in Poland between the inter-war years and before the Holocaust.
From the earliest age, Moshe Rynecki was an artist using whatever materials he could find – chalk, paint – to tell the story of his community. Despite family concerns of being an artist and despite even the interpretation of the second commandment – thou shalt not create graven images, he continued and persisted. For a short while, he even attended the the Warsaw Academy of Art to study art.
Moshe married Perla Mittelsbach at a young age. Together they opened an art supply store in Warsaw, which Perla managed while Moshe went off to paint.
Moshe’s dedicated his life to document the vibrant diverse Jewish community in Poland, the largest community in Europe. As the inter-war years progressed, Moshe must have had a sense of the impending destruction and felt even more compelled to document his surrounding culture. Before the family entered the Warsaw Ghetto, Moshe divided his collection of 800 paintings into bundles and had asked caretakers to protect the paintings until either he or a family member could return after the war to retrieve the paintings.
Millions of Polish Jews were killed during the Holocaust, almost the entire Polish Jewish community. Moshe’s daughter was killed in the Warsaw Ghetto and Moshe perished in the concentration camp in Majdanek.
Yet, Perla and their son, George and his family, managed to escape and survive the war. So, too, did many of the paintings.
Moshe’s illustrations are poignant windows into a life of faith, prayers in the synagogue, reading the Torah, market scenes, children playing and the timeless image of old men on a park bench. Each person had a name, a family and loved ones.
Moshe understood his role,
“I simply am a writer of sorts—instead of words, I leave my messages in pictures.”
as remembered in the memoir of his son George Rynecki.
After the war, the family was able to recover one bundle. Silently, those paintings watched as the family started new lives in the United States and left whispers of the past for the next generation. Elizabeth, Moshe’s great granddaughter, born twenty-six years after his death heard the whispers not at first but eventually. Her grandfather, George Rynecki, tried to share his experience when she was young. Yet, it was when the family discovered George’s memoir hidden in the trunk of his car after his death that Elizabeth heard. Clearly stated among the vignettes, George Rynecki explained why he wrote his own memoir,
“if only for my granddaughter, Elizabeth to know the truth, and not to be afraid of it.”
Why does she pursue these lost illustrations by Moshe, Elizabeth explains,
“It is a responsibility and obligation,”
to search for the answers, the collection and return to whole a small part of the story of the Polish Jewish community lost from memory.
With a determination to be admired, Elizabeth picked up the quest to search for Moshe’s lost paintings in 1999. At first with a youthful curiosity and now with a seasoned persistence, Elizabeth weaves the story of Moshe’s life, his art into a compelling urgent call to preserve and protect all cultural heritage.
Where are the 800 painting todays? Some have surfaced in Canada, Israel and New York. A number of prominent institutions have in their collection illustrations by Moshe Rynecki including the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, the National Museum in Warsaw and the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, The Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley.
At times, experiencing great frustration that unlike a dealer, gallery or collector, the family does not have a list with the exact details of Moshe’s illustrations. Therefore, there are no documents to legally seek the return of discovered art in institutions or in private collections. One may ask if international law and agreements adequately cover the artists and their families in their search for the return of their family’s art after war. And, if this lapse, is enough legal and moral cover for museums, institutions, governments to permanently acquire art lost or stolen in war with no legal responsibility to return art to the artist’s family.
Therein lies the challenge, the quest to seek the return of the newly discovered illustrations to the family on legal or moral grounds. Or choose the quest to discover and share the story to a greater audience of a vibrant community who perished during the Holocaust and those who protected the illustrations.
Elizabeth has chosen a global campaign to educate, share and acknowledge her grandfather’s art and the community he committed his life to illustrate.
Slowly as Moshe’s illustrations surface, Elizabeth integrates each illustration and each story of who protected the illustrations into outreach efforts via Facebook, Twitter and her web site http://MosheRynecki.org. In addition, Elizabeth has created:
- educational tools to teach Jewish art, history and culture;
- an illustrated book of Moshe’s life and art;
- a manuscript of her search for Moshe’s lost art ready for a publisher; and,
- is working on a documentary film Chasing Portraits in fiscal partnership with the National Center for Jewish Films.
“it is about looting of cultural heritage. My story crosses borders and it is a story how we treat our culture, the very things that define us as a culture, our community, our world. It is a stepping stone to have a larger discussion to protect our cultural heritage.”
One wonders what Moshe would tell other artists today? Elizabeth muses her great grandfather Moshe would say:
‘if you are passionate about painting, then you should paint.’
“Art is a commentary of our times. It can create understanding, can unify a community. Art is important. Art is a form of expression. People have always created art and art is a vital way to express.”
With the discovery of each lost Moshe illustration, one more person is remembered. Slowly, a vanished community is being illuminated, never to be forgotten.
By Keri Douglas, writer/photographers, Washington, D.C. (Please follow 9 Muses News copyright use policy.)