The war against Polish culture
In Polish museums and collections, there are still empty spots after the plundering which took place during the Second World War – writes prof. Piotr GLIŃSKI
.During the Second World War, hundreds of thousands of Polish works of art, volumes and archives, fell victim to looting or were destroyed forever. Many prominent Polish museum workers and people of culture, as well as museum employees, paid the highest price – the price of their own lives – while attempting to protect national heritage. Despite 80 years passing since the outbreak of the war, Poland has not ceased the search for and retrieval of stolen cultural property.
The targeted and precise actions taken by the Germans on September 1, 1939, and later by the Russians after September 17, 1939, led to the elimination of cultural achievements and the Polish elite. In the German concentration camp Mauthausen, thousands of Polish artists, architects, journalists, writers, poets, musicians, composers, social and political activists, university professors and students were imprisoned. About 30,000 of them were murdered.
German and Soviet crimes were targeted against the Polish intelligentsia, Polish culture, identity, independence; in a word, Poland. In November 1939, the German SS troops carried out Sonderaktion Krakau. Cracow scholars were deceptively gathered at the Collegium Novum of the Jagiellonian University in order to be transported to concentration camps. Among the victims of the crime in Palmyra – executions carried out between December 1939 and July 1941 – there were also representatives of the Polish political, intellectual and cultural elite. Fifty prominent Polish scholars, professors from Lviv, their relatives and co-workers were murdered in July 1941. We cannot forget about the many outstanding Polish artists who died fighting in the ranks of the Home Army during the Warsaw Uprising or even as a result of military operations carried out by the occupiers. Among the 6 million Polish victims of the war, including 3 million Polish Jews, a great number of representatives of the Polish intelligentsia were murdered, among others a third of the Polish elite.
From September 1939, the German authorities inventoried, seized and transported entire museum collections deep into the Reich in a methodical and planned manner. The phenomenon of the perfect organisation of the Nazi machine of confiscation and relocation of Polish heritage was based on pre-war reconnaissance carried out by German art historians. The Red Army was next to plunder Polish cultural heritage. The so-called special trophy brigades (“trofiejnyje otriady”; trofiejnyj – captured) secured and sent works of art from Poland to the Soviet Union. To this day, monuments transported from Poland remain in Russian museums. The Russians also systematically stole works of art in Poland after the end of hostilities.
The first post-war estimates listed over 516,000 looted or destroyed Polish paintings and monuments, valued together at several tens of billions of dollars.
We lost over half of our museum exhibits. One of the iconic lost works was undoubtedly Portrait of a Young Man by the famous Italian Renaissance painter Raphael Santi. Before the war, it belonged to the Czartoryski collection in Cracow. The painting was confiscated by the German occupation authorities and taken in 1944. Another lost work of the Italian Renaissance is the Lorenzo di Credi’s Adoration of the Child, which was located in the Wielkopolska Museum in Poznań before the war. In 1943, this artwork, along with most of the other stolen paintings, was transported to the forts in Kahlau and then further into Germany – to the later Soviet zone of occupation. Unlike Raphael’s masterpieces, the current location of Adoration of the Child is known. It is on display in the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. Poland is still demanding its return. Among the great works stolen from Poland during the Second World War, there are also paintings by representatives of the twentieth-century avant-garde, including Pablo Picasso. His Guitar collage was an element of the collection of the Municipal Museum of History and Art in Łódź.
.In Polish museums and collections, there are still empty spots after the plundering which took place during the war. Polish historians and museologists, supported by the Polish state, are constantly working to recover Polish works of art and collections. They are regaining an increasing number of masterpieces. But this is still just a drop in the ocean. This story is not over yet.
Prof. Piotr Gliński