Holocaust Wounds Run Deep: “Chasing Portraits”

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Elizabeth Reynecki

This documentary is about Elizabeth Rynecki’s search to locate the paintings of her late great grandfather. Her great grandfather Moshe Rynecki was a well known painter in pre-World War 2 Warsaw. Moshe died in a Polish concentration camp while Elizabeth’s grandfather obtained false Catholic ID and despite many hardships managed to survive the war but nonetheless her father is scarred by his experiences.

Moshe carefully wrapped up his paintings and hid them in friend’s homes. The Rynecki family has the largest collection. Only 120 of 800 paintings survived the war. Given that Moshe was Jewish and his paintings mostly depicted Polish Jewish life it is a miracle any survived.

Elizabeth sets out to Poland, Canada and Israel to track down the paintings not as a claimant but as an historian. The Jewish Historical Museum in Warsaw has 52 of Moshe’s paintings making it the second largest collection. It’s a bit painful to watch Elizabeth encounter these paintings. They really are the Rynecki family property but they have been purchased in good faith so a legal claim becomes more difficult. At times Elizabeth is in tears or close to it.

How could all these paintings be held in Museums in Poland and by private collectors. It sounds and smells like theft and looting. In fact one train returning to Warsaw contained some 50 of Moshe’s paintings. The local peasants looted the train and the pictures were gone.

Elizabeth travels to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem and discovers more of Moshe’s painting. She obtains information that an Israeli family has several paintings but they refuse her request to view them. She feels she has no choice but to file a claim form but then later reverses that decision as this is what Moshe would have wanted to avoid. The art, according to Elizabeth, should unite and not divide people.

The experience strengthened family bonds and caused Elizabeth’s father to open up about his war experiences. There are so many painful memories he had preferred to lock them up inside himself.

A chilling moment when Elizabeth visits Majdanek Concentration Camp where Moshe perished. A touching moment when a private Polish collector gives Elizabeth one of Moshe’s paintings.

A great story with a well measured soundtrack and a powerful testimony of art to capture a period of time in a spiritual fashion. When people’s memories disappear, the art will be there for future generations.

(“Chasing Portraits” is a 2018 American production and is 76 minutes in length. Directed by Elizabeth Rynecki, It is part of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival and plays on May 12 at 3:30 at Cineplex Odeon Empress Walk).

Photo from Wikipedia and is a self portrait.

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