Chas­ing Portraits

  • Review
By – May 3, 2016

While help­ing her par­ents sort out her grand­fa­ther George’s pos­ses­sions after his funer­al in 1992, Eliz­a­beth Rynec­ki dis­cov­ered a mem­oir he had been work­ing on for more than fif­teen years. In this record, George described his expe­ri­ences liv­ing in Poland dur­ing World War II. Although he and his moth­er, Per­la, man­aged to sur­vive, his father, the artist Moshe Rynec­ki, was deport­ed from the War­saw ghet­to by the Nazis and mur­dered at Maj­danek. The author tells us that Moshe’s death had a pro­found impact on my choice of study and my inter­est in both my fam­i­ly his­to­ry and the broad­er his­to­ry of the Holocaust.”

Moshe Rynec­ki, a high­ly regard­ed painter of Jew­ish folk scenes and Pol­ish life, com­plet­ed over eight hun­dred works of art before the Ger­man occu­pa­tion of Poland in 1939. After the war, Per­la was able to locate 120 of them; these she brought to the Unit­ed States when she and her son immi­grat­ed. Eliz­a­beth Rynec­ki grew up sur­round­ed by her great-grandfather’s vibrant paint­ings of Jew­ish life in the 1920s and 30s.

Chas­ing Por­traits depicts Eliz­a­beth Rynecki’s deter­mined, almost obses­sive, hunt for the remain­ing works. It is a fas­ci­nat­ing, if a bit too per­son­al­ly detailed, saga of the dis­cov­er­ies and frus­tra­tions she encoun­ters along the way. Naïve at the start, the author becomes aware of the legal and even polit­i­cal fac­tors involved in the recov­ery of art and oth­er pos­ses­sions lost or con­fis­cat­ed dur­ing the Holo­caust. Gov­ern­ments and pri­vate indi­vid­u­als are reluc­tant to par­tic­i­pate in iden­ti­fy­ing or releas­ing works to fam­i­ly claimants. She cites sev­er­al exam­ples (besides the well-known Woman in Gold), and becomes wary of lend­ing her family’s per­son­al­ly held paint­ings to a Pol­ish Muse­um for exhi­bi­tion, lest the muse­um refus­es to return them. A chap­ter on the legal field of loot­ed art and the enor­mous expense of fil­ing claims is par­tic­u­lar­ly sobering.

As Rynec­ki fol­lows up on clue after clue, the sto­ry takes on a detec­tive-nov­el qual­i­ty. Some­times the search pro­vides serendip­i­tous rewards. Invit­ed to give a talk in Toron­to, Rynec­ki is told about a col­lec­tion of archived papers in the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toronto’s rare book library. This col­lec­tion con­tains pho­tographs as well as her great-grand­fa­ther’s per­son­al papers — a trea­sure trove. By con­trast, the author’s pur­suit of leads in Israel are, for the most part, unre­ward­ing. She also returns to Poland, vis­it­ing con­cen­tra­tion camps as well as Warsaw’s Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Insti­tute togeth­er with a local video­g­ra­ph­er to cre­ate a doc­u­men­tary film about her great-grandfather.

Chas­ing Por­traits pro­vides insight into the haunt­ing effect that a lost lega­cy” can have on sur­vivors’ descen­dants sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions after the Holo­caust. Due to the author’s metic­u­lous research and doc­u­men­ta­tion, this work is an impres­sive addi­tion to the genre of Holo­caust memoirs. 

Relat­ed Content:

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

Discussion Questions