Chasing Portraits

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday April 26, 2019

'Chasing Portraits'
'Chasing Portraits'  

With her debut documentary, Elizabeth Rynecki takes a closer look at the artwork that has long graced her family home - work done baby her great-grandfather, a Polish Jew named Moshe Rynecki, who - like hundreds of thousands of other Jews - was relegated to the Warsaw ghetto after the Nazis invaded the country, and then killed at an extermination camp called Majdanek.

Elizabeth describes Moshe as a "prolific" painter who produced some 800 works. Of that corpus, only about 120 survived, most of them gathered up after the war by Moshe's widow. Moshe's son, George, fled together with his wife and son; they ended up in the United States, where Moshe's grandson grew up to become Elizabeth's father.

Much of the family history is tied up - or at least tied together - with Moshe's work, and when Elizabeth realizes that samples of her great-grandfather's paintings still survive in museums, private collections, and even stock photo sites online, she starts looking into where Moshe's work ended up, and how. Her journey takes her to Poland, a place to which her father declines to travel with her and her young son, Tyler, expresses fearful reservations about. It's hard to blame them, given Poland's role in the Holocaust; it was, after all, in Poland that a valiant uprising at a death camp resulted in hundreds of prisoners escaping... only for the locals to round many of them up and had them right back over to the Germans. Even now, Poland seems touchy about the Holocaust - witness the response when U.S. Ambassador Georgette Mosbacher recently tweeted out Passover greetings to Jewish Poles, of which there are around 300,000. She was promptly lambasted on Twitter for "offending" the country's Catholic majority, with a right-wing lawmaker denouncing the tweet as a "provocation." Well, yeah, maybe... if, that is, you are anti-Semitic and have a chip on your shoulder about it.

But Elizabeth's experience is quite different when she visits the Jewish Historical Institute, The National Museum, the residence of a private collector, and other sites; she's greeted warmly and comes to realize that Moshe's work, far from being obscure, is actually sort of important.

That opens the door for Elizabeth to expand her search and her research. "I feel as if I'm chasing ghosts," she confides, and in a sense, she is: Ghosts not only of murdered Jewish people like her great-grandfather but ghosts of now-vanished communities and ways of life. Traveling to Israel, she visits Had Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, where one of Moshe's paintings resides. "Art history," she's told, "is history... this is something that most historians don't understand." Moreover, surviving artwork "adds emotional strata that cannot be gained otherwise."

History runs all through the film - art history, of course, and family history, but also history as a living force. In order to improve her chances at being greeted favorably and gaining the cooperation of museums and private collectors, Elizabeth adopts the stance of a historian, rather than claimant, seeking to reassure those who have paintings she wishes to see and research that she's not there to take anything away from them, but rather to reconnect with a lost part of her own family. But when a cousin residing in Israel refuses to see her or allow her to view the paintings in the cousin;'s possession, Elizabeth reluctantly switches roles to that of the claimant and initiates a legal proceeding. This opens up an entirely new avenue of reflection, and of emotional responses.

Where Elizabeth's journey takes her, and the things she sees and hears along the way, inform this powerful and personal bit of filmmaking. Seeing this movie reminds one of the many reasons why it's important not to allow history and cultural memory simply to fade away into the past.


Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.