Gen-Xer shows great-grandpas Holocaust art on Web

Even when he was confined to the Warsaw Ghetto, where food was scarce and life problematic, Moshe Rynecki found a way to paint.

Only three of his watercolors survive from that period of internment. They depict wrinkled figures, twisted from torturous work.

Moshe Rynecki did not survive the war — nor did many of his paintings. Even after the war, few could see his work, which has rarely been exhibited in museums. But thanks to his great-granddaughter, his work has suddenly become accessible worldwide.

Elizabeth Rynecki, 30, never knew her great-grandfather, who died in Majdanek in 1943. But she keeps his paintings close to her heart and hangs them in her Alameda County home. This summer she also created a Web site — www.rynecki.org — to hang her great-grandfather's art digitally.

"I've been wanting to figure out ways to exhibit his paintings," she said. "I feel as a Generation-Xer that my responsibility is to carry [his memory] forward."

She had first contacted Jewish and Holocaust museums, but they declined to house the several dozen paintings.

"I figured there are so many people on the Web, it's a great way to get exposure. And the Web is something I'm really comfortable with."

Moshe Rynecki's paintings have traveled a long way to make it to the Internet age.

Born in 1881 outside of Warsaw, he devoted himself at an early age to a painter's life.

He painted in bright colors and light strokes, filling his canvases with people in motion. He had an exhibit in Paris with work that seems to show the influence of such modernists as Marc Chagall. It's not known whether he ever sold a painting.

Elizabeth Rynecki believes that her great-grandfather was driven to paint because, "like any artist, he wanted his work to be recognized. I think that both his style and what he captured in his paintings is important. He was trying to speculate and reflect on what his generation and his culture was about."

Several of Moshe Rynecki's paintings depict congregational life. The synagogues are cluttered with people and washed in sunlight.

The artist was taking a great risk in painting about his Judaism. Graven images of holy activities were looked down upon during the artist's time, his great-grand daughter said.

"To know something is forbidden but still document it is to say it's important to you," she said. "He recorded a period and a way of life that is really gone."

No one knows how Moshe Rynecki continued to paint in the Warsaw Ghetto, where supplies must have been next to impossible to come by. "I'm completely curious. Maybe he smuggled something in," his great-granddaughter said.

Only three paintings survive from the ghetto years — "In the Shelter," "Forced Labor," and "Refugees." Elizabeth Rynecki highlighted them on the Web site.

"If you look at those three canvases, the style is very different," she said. "He used very quick strokes. It appears he didn't have much time and didn't have a lot of paint. But I have no idea if that's correct."

When it became clear that the Nazis intended to destroy the Jews, Moshe Rynecki arranged to have his paintings stashed with friends and relatives all over Europe. He left a list of the locations with his wife and son. They survived.

In 1949, the remaining family members scoured the continent for his paintings. Some were found cracked or torn. One had a boot print on it. Elizabeth Rynecki believes many paintings were destroyed or remain hidden.

Some years ago, Rynecki saw an exhibit catalogue for the Jewish Museum in Warsaw. One of her great-grandfather's paintings was on display.

The Rynecki family does not want to sell the paintings but they have donated one to the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley and are willing to exhibit others.

Three paintings hang in Elizabeth Rynecki's home. "I picked paintings that put a smile on my face and felt more cheery," she said.

"My favorite is a painting of a carousel at a fair. I always feel I can imagine the music playing. I don't know if I had taffy then, but I'd eat it if that was there."

Moshe Rynecki also painted portraits of his family members, many of whom died in the Holocaust.

His great-granddaughter finds a self-portrait particularly gripping.

"It's almost spooky," she said. "We don't have a photo of him. It makes you wonder if he had survived the war, what was this person like, what drove him to paint, what would it be like to hang out with him?"

Elizabeth Rynecki was always eager to show the paintings to visiting friends. But she felt something more needed to be done.

"In the spirit of children of Holocaust survivors, I feel like it's my responsibility to share," she said. "The survivor has the obligation and the burden to tell the rest of the world what happened."

It's a story that, for Elizabeth Rynecki, has a bit of a happy ending.

Despite the loss of "so many people" and so much culture in the war, she said, "this beautiful thing survives. This is a family treasure. I'm very proud of him and I want people to know about it."