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‘Chasing Portraits’ film traces painter’s pre-WWII work, unveils ‘unexpected path to healing’

Contributed • Nov 2, 2018 at 9:59 PM

Over 70 years ago, as Moshe Rynecki watched Hitler’s regime becoming more and more ominous, the Jewish art store owner and artist began bundling his 800 or so paintings and sculptures and seeking safe places for his life’s work in and around his home of Warsaw, Poland.

“Moshe hid his work with the notion that whatever this was — nobody knew it was the World War and the Holocaust — when it was over, he would collect his paintings and his collection would be whole once again … and that’s not at all what happened,” says the painter’s great-granddaughter Elizabeth Rynecki.

Rynecki died in Majdanek, the Nazi concentration camp, while his wife, Perla, and their son and his family narrowly escaped the Holocaust with the help of Roman Catholic friends. The Ryneckis eventually, in the late 1940s and early ’50s, immigrated to the U.S., bringing one bundle of Moshe’s artwork with them.

For the last two decades, Elizabeth Rynecki has been on a quest to locate her great-grandfather’s ethnographic works, which depict 1920s-’30s Polish-Jewish culture, and archive them on a website and document the story with a book and most recently, an independent documentary.

On Monday, Nov. 5, at 7 p.m. in East Tennessee State University’s Brown Hall Auditorium, the Mary B. Martin School of the Arts at ETSU will present a screening of “Chasing Portraits” as part of the South Arts Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers. The film screening is free and open to the public and will be followed by a question-and-answer session and reception with Elizabeth Rynecki.

“It’s really a touching story all around, and as a visual artist, to me, ‘Chasing Portraits’ is a fascinating and powerful film,” said Anita DeAngelis, director of the Martin School of the Arts. “There’s such a need to remember these stories and continue to pass them down through generations.”

The Rynecki family story continued in America as George Rynecki promoted his father’s art with exhibits in his home. When “Grandpa George” died in 1992, “This burden, honor and obligation fell on my shoulders,” says Elizabeth Rynecki, who also now oversees the family real estate business. “I felt compelled and haunted by that past.

“When my grandparents died is when the Holocaust Memorial in D.C. opened and I was actually living in D.C. I started to realize the survivors were dying, and while I was not a survivor and I could not bear witness, I could tell their stories. The paintings were survivors, too, and they had no one to speak for them. If I didn’t do it, nobody else would and those stories would be lost. That propelled me forward.”

Thus began a journey that has taken Elizabeth Rynecki to Poland and across North America, seeking not only paintings, but also “historical justice for my great-grandfather.” She doesn’t try to wrest the artwork away from museums or homes. She just wants to locate them, see them and add them to her growing photographic archive.

“My family has about 120, and I think that we have discovered around 60 or 70,” Elizabeth Rynecki says. “We’ve also discovered photographs of paintings. We don’t know if those paintings survived the war or not.”

In 1999, Elizabeth designed the “Moshe Rynecki: Portrait of a Life in Art” website that displays images and archives from known exhibits she has unearthed as far back as 1928 and ’29 in Warsaw and as recent as 2016 in Berlin. The website also documents the artist’s works in museums, private holdings and collections in Poland, Israel, Canada and the United States.

“I hope that after seeing my great-grandfather’s art,” Rynecki says in an interview with the Jewish Film Institute, “audiences will love it and gain a better understanding of the rich and vibrant world of Polish-Jewish art that was lost during the war.”

Despite the loss of her great-grandfather in the Holocaust and many still-missing treasures, Elizabeth Rynecki says their family’s story now has a “happy ending.” Like her great-grandfather, she has taken up the challenge of telling the stories of her people and their unique history.

“For a long time, the artwork just hung in our home, and the only people that would see it were the few that would come to visit, come to dinner, and knew about it and might ask to come see it,” she says. “Building the website, writing the book and making the movie mean that so many more people are aware of my great-grandfather’s art and the story — and the larger story, not only of my family, but issues of war and the reverberating impact on next generations and about culture, looting, what it means to be a refugee and what it means to be the daughter of an immigrant.

“I feel really excited and honored that so many people have been so curious to learn more about my story. I hope that my film inspires them to think about their own histories and who their ancestors were, where they came from and how their particular family history fits into a larger, global history, because it’s easy to get a little isolated in our own worlds, concerns and families, and I think we just need to have a bigger-picture understanding of how we fit into politics and world history.”

For more information on the film or film series, call the Martin School of the Arts at 423-439-8587 or visit www.etsu.edu/martin. Additional information on the film is available at www.chasingportraits.org, and the Moshe Rynecki gallery can be found at http://rynecki.org.

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