Chasing Portraits is a very personal story for director Elizabeth Rynecki as she seeks to recover her great-grandfather’s lost artwork.
Prior to World War 2 and the rise of Hitler, Poland had a thriving Jewish community numbering some 3 million. Among those who died include Warsaw-based artist Moshe Rynecki. The artist would be murdered at Majdanek, a Nazi concentration and extermination camp. After the war, a mere ten percent or so would survive. A once thriving community and center of the European Jewish community…gone in the blink of an eye. Among the survivors would be Elizabeth Rynecki’s father, Alex and grandparents. After the war ended, her family was able to recover some 120 paintings. This is only a fraction of the overall work, which numbered in the 800s. As this film shows us, more paintings would survive.
On a trip to her late grandfather’s ranch in 1992, Elizabeth discovers a typed memoir. One could say that this memoir inspires her to seek the truth. In time, Elizabeth becomes the first to go to Poland to find missing paintings. While her father is supportive of this endeavor, one can understand why he chooses to not go back. Many survivors have trauma when it comes to the Holocaust so naturally, this makes sense on many levels.
It’s not impossible to believe that other paintings would also survive the war. Family members have put forth lawsuits over the years in hopes of getting artwork returned. A recent narrative feature that tells such a story is 2015 drama Woman in Gold. Elizabeth would set up a website in 1999 devoted to her late great-grandfather’s work in which she learns more paintings did survive. It’s through her efforts that more paintings would be located. Others, however, are still out there.
George Rynecki’s memoir would eventually be published. This would lead Elizabeth to ask her father to record his own wartime testimony. Sharing one’s story isn’t easy but it’s still very important for future generations. It would not be unfair to say that it can be hard to revisit the memories. Where Elizabeth wants to know more about the past, she doesn’t want to hurt her own father.
Going back to the paintings, some people are reluctant to talk about how they got the art. This is perfectly understandable. While one may have legally obtained the artwork, the art itself could have been illegally obtained from the previous owner. There are some who refuse to even show Elizabeth the art. Could it quite possibly lead to a court battle? Perhaps. Maybe.
For a first-time filmmaker, this is not a bad film. It could certainly be longer but just shy of 80 minutes is not a bad length either. When one thinks of Holocaust stories, they usually think of a documentary on survivors or the time period itself. This film is less about the Holocaust than learning what happened to Holocaust era artwork. For Rynecki, it’s a lengthy quest but truly worth it in the long term. In finding more paintings and learning more about her great-grandfather, it enables her family to get the healing that they need. It’s a different journey for each family member.
Unfortunately for us, there are an increasing number of people don’t know of the tragedy that befell the Jewish people. This is a tragedy in its own right but it is also a story for another day. It goes without saying that Holocaust history is important. This is one area where education should never stop. No matter how depressing things can get, future generations must learn to prevent the same mistakes. It’s because of this era that Jews across the world always stress “Never Again.” When we say Never Again, we mean it!
Chasing Portraits is less about the value of the art but the story behind it.
DIRECTOR: Elizabeth Rynecki
FEATURING: Elizabeth Rynecki