Book Review: ‘Chasing Portraits’

A majestic tale of stolen art during the Holocaust gets bogged down by unnecessary details.

Elizabeth Rynecki with one of her great-grandfather’s paintings (photo credit: Courtesy)
Elizabeth Rynecki with one of her great-grandfather’s paintings
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Though it was the greatest theft in human history, the Holocaust was not really about theft.
Nazi booty taken from European Jewry has been estimated at somewhere between $150 billion and $200b. in today’s money. But the Nazis murdered millions of Jews, humiliated, tortured and starved them, forced them into slave labor and conducted medical experiments on some of them.
Nevertheless, the quest by many descendants of Holocaust victims and survivors to regain their stolen property is fully justified.
In Chasing Portraits: A Great-Granddaughter’s Quest for Her Lost Art Legacy, the reader learns of Moshe Rynecki, a prolific artist who painted some 800 artworks, scenes of Jewish life in Poland in the 1920s and ’30s, as well as creating some sculptures.
When the Nazis arrived in Warsaw, Rynecki divided his paintings and sculptures into packages and entrusted them to friends and acquaintances to hide until after the war. He was murdered by the Nazis, and when the war was over, his wife, who survived, found 120 paintings.
The family assumed that was all that remained of his works.
Moshe’s great-granddaughter, Elizabeth Rynecki, who authored the book, later discovers a memoir that her grandfather, Jerzy, who was Moshe’s son, had written. In 1999, she built a website to display her great-grandfather’s art. Through contacts she made from that site and other sources, she discovered that much of Moshe Rynecki’s art survived the war; some was privately owned and some held by museums.
The book chronicles her search for Moshe’s paintings, her desire to find the art and her perseverance in the effort.
Due to many complications in the search, Elizabeth chose to become a historian of her grandfather’s paintings rather than try to take possession of them.
“But I didn’t want to just be a historian,” she writes. “A historian gathers information to document the past or learn about a particular era or culture. I wanted to be a historical advocate for my great-grandfather’s work, to give voice to the family story and my great-grandfather’s legacy.”
Rynecki began to speak publicly about her searches for Moshe’s creations and uncovered more and more of her great-grandfather’s art along the way. Her journey is truly remarkable, but her memoir is badly in need of editing. Why some passages found their way into the book is a mystery.
For example, she tells of a wedding before World War II, which Moshe and Jerzy attended.
“The wedding began with the rabbi blessing the couple under the chuppah, and then quickly turned into a festive party...
The tables were laden with food, wine and sweet liquor. Later the bride opened presents with her mother.”
If the rabbi had cursed the couple, if there had been a shootout after the ceremony, if bread and water were on the menu or if the bride and her mother had burned the presents, then that story’s placement might have been justified.
Otherwise, what’s the point? Later in the book, she tells us that on a trip in New York for the project, she and her party stopped at “a classic American diner for breakfast.” But then she heard from the woman Shula, whom they were to meet.
“‘You’re coming for breakfast, right?’ Shula said.
‘We’re at a diner down the road,’ I said.
‘But I picked up bagels, lox, white fish, fresh fruit and coffee,’ Shula said...
‘We’ll be there in a few minutes,’ I said before hanging up.”
She arrives at Shula’s apartment house, contacts her by intercom and gets in the elevator.
“When the elevator doors opened on Shula’s floor,” she writes, “I headed down the long hallway, looking for her door number. Reaching a dead end, I realized that I had somehow missed Shula’s apartment despite her detailed instructions, so I retraced my steps. Halfway back I saw a woman step out of her apartment.
“‘Elizabeth?’ she said.
‘Oh my gosh, I walked right by it!’ ‘It happens all the time. Not to worry! Come in, come in.’” Such literary ramblings detract from the flow and, more important, from the theme of the book.
Rynecki’s obvious passion for her great-grandfather’s art and for learning about him from his paintings often gets lost in the verbiage. Unfortunately, the book fails to match the majesty of her mission, and it’s a real shame.
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and the Washington Jewish Week. His novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available online.