People making connections through art

Stories Behind the Canvases – My Relationship to an Art Legacy

Elizabeth Rynecki

Elizabeth Rynecki

Moshe Rynecki (1881-1943), my great-grandfather, was a prolific Polish-Jewish artist in Warsaw in the inter-war years. He was a visual narrator with a keen eye for exploring and documenting the daily rhythm of life, such as the work of artisan laborers, scenes from inside the Synagogue, and moments of leisure.  At the outbreak of the Second World War, Moshe became concerned about preserving his life’s work. In the early days of the war he divided his oeuvre of approximately 800 works into bundles and hid them in and around Warsaw. He gave lists of the caches’ locations to his wife, son, and daughter, in hopes that ultimately, the family would retrieve the bundles and reassemble the collection. Unfortunately, Moshe perished in Majdanek, and after the war the family was only able to recover approximately 100 paintings in the cellar of a home in Warsaw’s Praga district.

Although 100 is only a small fraction of the collection, it is a lot of pieces to display in my father’s and grandfather’s homes, so I grew up literally in the shadow of Moshe’s work, with his art sometimes seeming to be on every wall.  Some people get to know deceased family members from old and yellowed photographs; I grew up gazing upon the scenes in Moshe’s paintings, understanding scenes of a rabbi gesticulating to his congregation, young children peeking in a window, and a group of men playing chess, as an extension of my own family.  I even became fond of the personas I perceived in certain pieces and wove the characters in the paintings into the fabric of my life.

In the Park

In the Park

People buy and collect art for a plethora of reasons.  My situation, of growing up with not only the art, but the stories behind the canvases, means my relationship to the collection is decidedly different than someone who chooses to buy pieces as an investment, as an aesthete, or as a collector.  While as a child I didn’t really understand or appreciate my great-grandfather’s paintings, I have grown to treasure that what my family has is not just an art collection, but a legacy that brings with it a rich set of historical connections as well as a sense of responsibility.

When my grandfather George passed away in 1992, we found in the trunk of his car a memoir he had been writing.  In it he said he felt compelled to write, “If only for my granddaughter, Elizabeth, to know the truth, and not to be afraid of it.”  Those words once haunted me.  The sense of responsibility I felt to ensure future generations would learn my grandfather’s story of loss and survival overwhelmed me.  I had read about the Holocaust and understood how it had impacted my family, but it always seemed abstract and somehow out of reach, part of the family background but slightly out of focus. Reading my grandfather’s memoir made my family’s history much more immediate and real to me.

The Water Carriers, 1930

The Water Carriers, 1930


Perhaps George did not think about me sharing his story, but after reading his memoir, I felt strongly that it was up to me to both conserve his father’s work and to share it with others. Where I once viewed the task of searching for the lost and missing pieces of the original collection and sharing his work as a Sisyphean task, with no conceivable end, today I think my goal to make his place in the history of modern Jewish art known is both worthwhile and attainable.  While I grew up literally beneath many of Moshe’s canvases, I never imagined that this passion that started out as a modest and deeply frustrating hobby would one day become such an important and rewarding part of my life.  I started out just trying to display the paintings we had on a website, and to find out if other paintings survived.  Over time, I found out that well over 100 other pieces survived, and finding “new” works that I haven’t seen before is still an amazing experience, each one an unexpected gift.    The project has grown and morphed over time from the website into my current projects, consisting of a book and documentary film about my quest to better understand his life and art.  

My great-grandfather passionately painted the Polish-Jewish community.  Because of his choices, today we have a glimpse into a whole generation and community destroyed by the Holocaust. But for me, the paintings are more than just a view of the past – they are an actual, physical link to the past.  The paintings that hang on the wall of my home are objects my great-grandfather actually touched. The brush strokes on the canvas are an extension of his very being.  I am compelled to write this story because I want to share the stories behind the paintings and the stories of the people whose lives the works have touched. It is the stories that bring understanding – understanding of a vanished culture the paintings portray, and in them, the echoes of my great-grandfather.  

 

In the Study, undated

In the Study, undated

People buy and collect art for a plethora of reasons.  My situation, of growing up with not only the art, but the stories behind the canvases, means my relationship to the collection is decidedly different than someone who chooses to buy pieces as an investment, as an aesthete, or as a collector.  While as a child I didn’t really understand or appreciate my great-grandfather’s paintings, I have grown to treasure that what my family has is not just an art collection, but a legacy that brings with it a rich set of historical connections as well as a sense of responsibility.

When my grandfather George passed away in 1992, we found in the trunk of his car a memoir he had been writing.  In it he said he felt compelled to write, “If only for my

granddaughter, Elizabeth, to know the truth, and not to be afraid of it.”  Those words once haunted me.  The sense of responsibility I felt to ensure future generations would learn my grandfather’s story of loss and survival overwhelmed me.  I had read about the Holocaust and understood how it had impacted my family, but it always seemed abstract and somehow out of reach, part of the family background but slightly out of focus. Reading my grandfather’s memoir made my family’s history much more immediate and real to me.

Perhaps George did not think about me sharing his story, but after reading his memoir, I felt strongly that it was up to me to both conserve his father’s work and to share it with others. Where I once viewed the task of searching for the lost and missing pieces of the original collection and sharing his work as a Sisyphean task, with no conceivable end, today I think my goal to make his place in the history of modern Jewish art known is both worthwhile and attainable.  While I grew up literally beneath many of Moshe’s canvases, I never imagined that this passion that started out as a modest and deeply frustrating hobby would one day become such an important and rewarding part of my life.  I started out just trying to display the paintings we had on a website, and to find out if other paintings survived.  Over time, I found out that well over 100 other pieces survived, and finding “new” works that I haven’t seen before is still an amazing experience, each one an unexpected gift.    The project has grown and morphed over time from the website into my current projects, consisting of a book and documentary film about my quest to better understand his life and art.  

 

Synagogue Interior, 1930

Synagogue Interior, 1930

My great-grandfather passionately painted the Polish-Jewish community.  Because of his choices, today we have a glimpse into a whole generation and community destroyed by the Holocaust. But for me, the paintings are more than just a view of the past – they are an actual, physical link to the past.  The paintings that hang on the wall of my home are objects my great-grandfather actually touched. The brush strokes on the canvas are an extension of his very being.  I am compelled to write this story because I want to share the stories behind the paintings and the stories of the people whose lives the works have touched. It is the stories that bring understanding – understanding of a vanished culture the paintings portray, and in them, the echoes of my great-grandfather. 

 

You can read more about Elizabeth's search for her great-grandfather's paintings, and more images at www.rynecki.org


Published on by Linton Atlas.

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Wonderful Art Images.. 

-- Linton