Elizabeth Rynecki grew up in a house filled with her great-grandfather’s artwork. Moshe Rynecki’s paintings, which beautifully depict the lives of the Jewish community in Poland before World War II, may have covered the walls of Elizabeth’s family home, but they made up only a fraction of his total body of output. Most of his paintings were lost during the Holocaust after he was sent to the Majdanek Concentration camp, where he was killed. Moshe’s wife managed to save a number of pieces, but the rest were either destroyed or scattered across the world.
In Chasing Portraits, Elizabeth attempts to track down those lost works of art while filling in the blanks of her family’s history. Under her own direction, it’s an extremely personal film, made only more intimate through her raw, handheld footage, which gives us the impression we’re watching a family’s collection of home movies. The documentary isn’t smooth or flashy, and it doesn’t need to be. With its compelling tale of a family’s trauma and recovery, Elizabeth’s story is captivating throughout every stage of her journey.
As the years go by, the number of living Holocaust survivors shrinks, and the importance of preserving this part of history through the younger generations grows. Elizabeth makes the decision early on to look for the paintings as a historian and not as a way to reclaim Moshe’s lost art. At first, she clearly hopes to bring her great-grandfather’s works home to her family because she views the art as an extension of him. Each brush stroke and every wrinkle in the paper acts as a physical connection between her and her ancestor. She is emotionally attached to the paintings, and the act of an art collector unexpectedly gifting his own Moshe Rynecki piece to Elizabeth brings her to tears. It’s a touching moment but makes other meetings with different outcomes all the more difficult to watch.
Elizabeth struggles to leave her grandfather’s art scattered across the world. She experiences resistance with art museums in Poland that seem to fear the pieces being taken from them. Even when she assures them her intentions of visiting the paintings for historical purposes only, Elizabeth doesn’t sound very convincing. Throughout the film, we are privileged to witness Elizabeth and her father process their family’s past and look towards the future. With every new discovery, she begins to see the joy that her great-grandfather’s art brings to the current owners. The most notable interview comes from Yehudit Shendar, the retired Deputy Director and Senior Art Curator for Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, who explains the impact of Moshe’s art in a post-Holocaust world.
“There’s no other place in the world that gives the Holocaust such an impressive large comprehensive stage to tell the story [as Yad Vashem],” Shendar states. “It’s a chance, not only for us to have this work of art, but for your great-grandfather’s to be displayed in the museum that tells the annals of his people, which he opted to stay with. [Moshe Rynecki’s] style has something in it which makes you feel the trembling of time because it was not an outsider lookin in, he was part of it. That’s what makes it such a statement.”
Chasing Portraits shows the pain and impact of the Holocaust spanning every generation and also showcases the strength it takes to heal. Elizabeth Rynecki has created a beautiful portrait of loss and growth and in doing so has brought the gift of Moshe Rynecki’s art to a new, thankful audience.