I am a writer, a reader, a lover of words on the printed page. The bookshelf in my office is filled to bursting with Holocaust-era memoirs, words put to paper to document the horrors and atrocities of the past. Each shelf has a row of books lined up neatly, but above each row are horizontal stacks of books crammed into every available inch. The shelves are bowed from the strain of holding up the books. Above the bookcase, next to a pair of windows, hangs a painting, Luna Park. It’s probably my favorite Rynecki painting. It’s not large, nineteen by thirteen inches, but the fairground it portrays is somehow larger than the canvas itself—a sprawling carnival with brightly colored tents and the Polish flag, a horizontal bicolor of white and red. At the center is a swing ride, a carousel where eight figures in chairs, suspended from the rotating top, fly across the blue sky. Below, wandering between the green, pink, and blue tents, a large crowd lingers. My great-grandfather’s paintbrush rendered them as a multitude so deep and full of life, it’s impossible to distinguish individuals. At the right is a merry-go-round with wooden horses.
So often when we think of Jews in Poland, we think of all that was lost and destroyed in the Holocaust. We focus on the devastation and destruction, and we wonder how it is possible the world went so dark, and how there could be such a deep, vicious, and murderous hatred. My great-grandfather’s paintings have taught me that while we endeavor to understand this history, we must also remember beyond that, to a time in Poland when Jewish life flourished. I think this is why I love Luna Park so much, because I can almost hear exuberant, cheerful music floating across the fairgrounds. It is a painting of hope and joy.
Beyond that, Luna Park is a direct link to my great-grandfather, an idea made real through the expression of his paintbrush. Each of his works is, in some sense, an extension of his very being. In their own way, they are Holocaust survivors, and as links to him, they feel like members of my family. Like family, some, such as Luna Park, feel as close as a sibling, some are like relatives I visit infrequently, or more distantly know of but haven’t met, and many more I don’t know at all.
My great-grandfather, Moshe Rynecki (1881-1943), was a prolific Warsaw based artist who painted scenes of the Polish Jewish community. A visual narrator, he had a keen eye for exploring and documenting the daily rhythm of life such as the work of artisans and laborers, scenes from inside the synagogue, and moments of leisure. When the Germans invaded Poland in September, 1939, he divided about 800 works into bundles and hid them in and around Warsaw. After the war my surviving family recovered just a small percentage of the original body of work.
Moshe’s son, my Grandpa George, died in 1992 believing that nearly 90 percent of Moshe’s paintings had been destroyed and were gone forever, but now more than 200 works are known to have survived, and each new find is a ray of hope for me that he never got to see. Though it sometimes makes me sad that his collection can never be whole again, I don’t feel a great need to possess all of Moshe’s surviving works, in part because there is no way to display them and share them with the world. I try to do what I can by virtually sharing many of his known surviving works on the Moshe Rynecki: Portrait of a Life in Art. Though I don’t need to physically possess all the works, I have a deep need to know what survived and their stories of survival. I want to know these works are cared for and that they are in good homes. I feel a kinship and a sense of stewardship for these paintings, because each is a memory of a moment, a story of a vanished culture, and a clue to understanding my family’s art legacy.
Adapted from Chasing Portraits: A Great-Granddaughter's Quest for Her Lost Art Legacy by Elizabeth Rynecki. Copyright © 2016, published by New American Library.
To learn more about Elizabeth and Chasing Portraits, please follow the link: http://www.chasingportraits.org/