The Nazis were famous for raiding and ruining art collections throughout Europe during World War II. Author Elizabeth Rynecki’s great-grandfather Moshe Rynecki was a Jewish artist in Poland who created hundreds of paintings depicting everyday life. Moshe distributed them so they wouldn’t be destroyed. He later died in a concentration camp, but his son George (Elizabeth’s grandfather) survived and wrote a memoir.
"Chasing Portraits" is Elizabeth Rynecki’s story of trying to track down her great-grandfather’s paintings and piece together the rest of her family’s history. She spoke with CapRadio's Donna Apidone about her quest and the book that resulted from it.
I want to talk about two individuals and something that occurred between them: Moshe died in a concentration camp but he made decisions that led him there, whereas his son George made a different set of decisions that led him to a different place.
Moshe decided he wanted to be in the ghetto in the 1940s when the Nazis built the Warsaw ghetto. Over 400,000 Jews were ultimately in the ghetto, which was about 1.3 square miles, which if you go home and measure that for your own city and think about it, it's really a profound number. But I think he felt very torn. He, I think, didn't trust the Germans [and] thought going into the ghetto was a bad idea. But I think that he felt compelled to be with his people. And my great grandfather and my Grandpa George had a phone call, and my Grandpa George said, “I can get you out.” And my great grandfather said, “No I'm going to stay in the ghetto, and if it's death, so be it.”
Things in life happen in a linear fashion, but memories hardly ever do. So, Grandpa George wrote them down as he thought of them. A lot of that message, he made very clear, was for you to know. Not so much for your dad, not so much for anyone else, but he specifically identified it being for you. Talk about that responsibility.
For those of you not familiar with the quote, basically what Grandpa George said in the memoir is, “I'm writing this down and there are a lot of survivors who are writing these things down. And I don't care, I'm writing them anyway. And I'm writing them if, for no other reason than for my granddaughter Elizabeth to know and not to be afraid of the truth.” …I can still sort of feel a [weight] on my shoulders. And it’s a huge responsibility as well.
So, in 1992 when he died … To me survivors could bear witness and everybody else could listen. But that was kind of it. And I didn't know what the heck I was supposed to do with that. He was gone. I didn't understand what my relationship to that history was. It wasn't my history. I didn't have to process it. But I realized that survivors were going to start dying. And so it was some point between my dad self-publishing Grandpa George's memoir, building the website, discovering more paintings had survived the war and wondering what had happened to the other 700. And suddenly pieces just started to come into shape. And I realized that the paintings were survivors. And that they couldn't speak, but I could tell their story. And that I was in a really unique position to tell their story.
And it's important to make that clear: you were not trying to claim these to say they're my family’s or my great grandfather’s. I want them back. That might have been your goal, but it's not your goal now.
Right. When I started this process I was really angry. That's me being very polite. I wanted the paintings back. This was ridiculous. My great grandfather's name was on them. He signed them. They were his. He was murdered and they belonged to my family. I started talking to a lot of people who were a lot smarter and a lot better informed about provenance research and laws and how this whole process works.
Artists give paintings away, they sell paintings, they trade them, they barter them. How could I prove that what somebody else had actually belonged to my family? And so it just became incredibly difficult. You're dealing with all sorts of stuff that's super complicated.
What is your goal?
My goal eventually became to be a historian to rescue my great grandfather's legacy. That to me seems more of a win. Having people aware of who my great grandfather was and what his art was and what it tells us about Polish Jews before the war seems to me more valuable than my having another painting to shove in a closet.
Donna Apidone interviewed Elizabeth Rynecki on Nov. 14, 2017.
Music by PREMIUMAUDIO/POND5.