World War II looting of Poland
The looting of Polish cultural artifacts during World War II was carried out by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union side by side after the invasion of Poland of 1939. A significant portion of Poland's cultural heritage, estimated at about half a million art objects, was plundered by the occupying powers. Cataloged pieces are still occasionally recovered elsewhere and returned to Poland.
Priceless pieces of art still considered missing or found in Russian museums include works by Canaletto, Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowiczowa, Józef Brandt, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Lucas Cranach the Younger, Albrecht Dürer, Anthony van Dyck, Hans Holbein the Younger, Jacob Jordaens, Frans Luycx, Jacek Malczewski, Raphael, Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter Paul Rubens, Henryk Siemiradzki, Veit Stoss, Alfred Wierusz-Kowalski, Leon Wyczółkowski, Jan Matejko, Henri Gervex, Ludwig Buchhorn, Józef Simmler, Henri-Pierre Danloux, Jan Miense Molenaer and many others.
As part of the efforts to locate and retrieve the missing pieces of art, the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage founded the Database of War Losses, as of 2013 containing over 63,000 entries. The list is periodically sent to over 100 auction houses around the world, published by the Ministry and also submitted to the National Institute of Museology and Collections Protection, Polish embassies, and the Central Registry of Information on Looted Cultural Property 1933-1945 (lootedart.com). In addition, the Ministry also founded the Lost Museum website, a virtual museum containing historic photographs of many pieces of art still missing.
At the beginning of the 1939 invasion of Poland, the Polish interwar government attempted to conceal the nation's most valued cultural heritage such as the royal treasures of the Wawel Castle in Kraków. The royal accessories including the Jagiellonian tapestries were secretly shipped to Western Europe and then to Canada among other places. At the end of the war, two parallel Polish governments, the Western-supported Polish government-in-exile and the Soviet-backed government in Communist Poland laid claims to these national treasures. The cultural artifacts were released by Canada to the People's Republic of Poland in February 1961.
Following the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the occupation of Poland by German forces, the Nazi regime attempted to suppress Polish culture. As part of that process, the Nazis confiscated Polish national heritage assets and much private property. Acting on the legal decrees of October 19 and December 16 (Verordnung über die Beschlagnahme Kunstgegeständen im Generalgouvernement), several German agencies began the process of looting Polish museums and other collections, ostensibly considered necessary for the "securing" of German national interests.
Thousands of art objects were plundered, as the Nazis carried out a plan put in place before the start of hostilities. The looting was supervised by experts of the SS-Ahnenerbe, Einsatzgruppen units, who were responsible for art; and, by experts of Haupttreuhandstelle Ost, who were responsible for confiscating businesses and more mundane objects. Nazi officials responsible for carrying-out the plan included Hans Posse, Josef Mühlmann and his half-brother Kajetan (a.k.a. Kai, both from the SS), overseen by Dagobert Frey, an SS historian originally also from Austria, selected by Berlin to validate Poland as a "Teutonic land" without Jews. In addition to the official looting by Nazi authorities, some looting was also carried out by individuals acting on their own initiative; in fact Mühlmann complained as early as on October 6, 1939, that many items he was tasked to secure had already been moved or simply stolen. While the Nazis kept extensive documentation of newly acquired looted art pieces, the system was not foolproof, and they lost track of much of the looted goods during the increasingly haphazard evacuation of Polish territories in 1944.
Most of the important art pieces had been "secured" by the Nazis within six months of September 1939; by the end of 1942, German officials estimated that "over 90%" of the art previously in Poland was in their possession. Some art was shipped to German museums, such as the planned Führermuseum in Linz, while other art became the private property of Nazi officials. In 1940, Hitler received a "gift" from Hans Frank, governor of occupied Poland - a collection, prepared by Mühlmanna, of 521 of the most valuable art pieces. Frank aided by Oberführer Mühlmann, an art connoisseur, amassed a large collection of Polish art pieces. The total cost of the Nazi theft and destruction of Polish art is estimated at 11.14 billion dollars (value in 2001 dollars).
Over 516,000 individual art pieces were taken. The exact number is uncertain as not all art was registered, and much of that documentation was lost as well. Assessment of losses began during World War II under the auspices of the Polish government in exile and the Polish Underground State; in 1944, Karol Estreicher published in London the first work on this subject, Cultural Losses of Poland. A 2010 estimate gave a figure of 75% for the percentage of cultural heritage lost by Poland during the war (though that estimate covers both destroyed and lost cultural heritage). The looted art included 11,000 paintings by Polish painters; 2,800 paintings by other European painters; 1,400 sculptures; 75,000 manuscripts; 25,000 maps, 22,000 books printed before 1800 (starodruki); 300,000 graphics, and hundreds of thousands of other items of artistic and historical value. The number of looted or destroyed books is estimated at 1.5 million to as high as 15 or 22 million. Even exotic animals were taken from the zoos.
During the genocidal campaign against the Polish Jews culminating in the Aktion Reinhard of 1942, extortion and mass looting became part of German economics, not only Nazi policy towards Poland's heritage.
Robbery of Polish Jews and looting of their property became the norm. In every town and village, Jews were forced to hand over not merely gold, currency and other valuables, but virtually anything consumable, including furniture and clothing. Even items such as birdcages, door handles and hot-water bottles were looted. Any excuse, or none at all, became the pretext for extortion.
After the Soviet Union invaded Poland on September 17, 1939, it similarly engaged in the looting and destruction of the Polish cultural heritage. It is estimated that soon after the invasion, about half of Polish museums and similar public institutions were dismantled in the territories occupied by the Soviets. Many items were shipped to Soviet museums such as the Moscow Museum of History and the Central Anti-Religious Museum (also in Moscow). Other collections were simply done away with. For instance, during the liquidation of the Poland's Lwów Historical Museum in the early 1940, its holdings were transported to the basement of the Black (Czarna) Kamienica (pictured), away from public eye, and deliberately destroyed there.
Following the Soviet advance across the German-occupied Polish lands, the looting and plunder of anything of value continued up to 1947 even though the looted territories were theoretically assigned to its own ally, the communist Poland already. The Soviet forces engaged in particularly extensive plunder in the former eastern territories of Germany that were to be transferred to Poland, stripping them of any piece of equipment left behind. Even the Polish Communists felt uneasy about the scope of their crimes. In 1945, the future Chairman of the Polish Council of State, Gen. Aleksander Zawadzki, worried that "raping and looting of the Soviet army would provoke a civil war"
The operations of these "war trophy brigades" were regulated by detailed orders issued by Soviet vice-minister of defence Nikolai Bulganin in early 1946. Until 1948 these brigades sent at least 239'000 freight cars to USSR transporting natural resources, complete factories and individual machines. Town of Bydgoszcz lost 30 complete factories and 250 ships, from Grudziądz the army confiscated all machinery from factories, regardless of their size. From Toruń all gristmills were taken, causing temporary deficit of bread. Blachownia Śląska lost a large, German-built synthetic fuel producting installation, transported to USSR on 10,000 train cars. Similar production line in Police was transported using 14,000 cars. Gliwice lost a pipe factory, Bobrek and Łabędy - iron furnaces. Complete power stations were taken from Miechowice, Zabrze, Zdzieszowice, Mikulczyce, Blachownia Śląska i Chełmsk Śląski. Smaller industries were also confiscated in Sosnowiec, Dąbrowa Górnicza, Częstochowa, Zgoda, Chorzów, Siemianowice, Poznań, Bydgoszcz, Grudziądz, Toruń, Inowrocław, Włocławek, Chojnice, Łódź, Dziedzice and Oświęcim.
Farming animals were also significant target of looting: until 1 September 1945 the Red Army confiscated 506,000 cows, 114,000 sheep and 206,000 horses. In February 1945 alone over 72,000 tons of sugar was taken. In Toruń region alone 14,000 tons of grain, 20,000 of potatoes and 21,000 beetroots were taken during that period. These number represent looting alone, as the Polish government also supplied food to the Red Army officially at that time (150,000 tons of grains, 250,000 tons of potatoes, 25,000 tons of meat and 100,000 tons of straws).
Individual Red Army soldiers were also allowed to send home "war trophies", with the weight depending on their rank, which resulted in widespread looting of private houses of anything valuable, including food, clothes, shoes, radios, jewelry, utensils, clothes, bicycles and even ceramical toilet bowls. Scale of individual looting can be estimated by the example of Russian town of Kursk, which received only 300 personal parcels from soldiers in January 1945 but till May their number reached 87'000.
After these transports were finished, the Red Army also started looting the train infrastructure itself - repair yards, signalling installations and the rails themselves: around 5500 km of rails were looted.
Efforts to locate and reclaim the lost art
After the war, the Polish Ministry of Culture and Art took over efforts to compile a list of lost art, locate it and recover it. The Bureau of Revindication and Damages (Biuro Rewindykacji i Odszkodowań) operated from 1945 to 1951. The realities of the Cold War made retrieval of looted cultural heritage difficult, and it was only in the 1980s and 1990s that the situation changed. In 1991, a new body was formed for that purpose, the Bureau of the Government Representative for Polish Cultural Heritage Abroad (Biuro Pełnomocnika Rządu ds. Polskiego Dziedzictwa Kulturalnego Za Granicą), operating at the Ministry of Culture and Art. In 1999, the initiative received support from the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Once a looted piece of art is located, the Polish government issues a request for its restoration, and as noted on the Ministry website, all requests to date have been successful. As of October 2012[update], the Ministry listed 30 objects which had been retrieved in the years 2001-2012. Among the recovered art is the Aleksander Gierymski's Jewish woman found by surprise at the Eva Aldag auction house in Buxtehude in November 2010; returned to National Museum, Warsaw at the end of July 2011 and restored.
On 1 August 2012, the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that one of the most famous pieces of Polish art, Raphael's painting Portrait of a Young Man, had been found "in a bank vault in an undisclosed location"; a ministry spokesman was confident that the painting would eventually be returned to Poland.
Both Germany and the countries of the former Soviet Union still have much Polish material looted during World War II. In particular, recovering looted art from the former states of the Soviet Union, such as Russia, is proving difficult.
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