By Matthew Bonner
We arrived in Krakow, Poland on May 21st, greeted by a thunderstorm and the smell of fresh perogies. My personal mission in Krakow was to explore how museums and neighborhoods feature Polish artwork, as the country has had a turbulent history with its cultural treasures. Over the course of the Spring semester, I researched Nazi art looting during the Second World War, touching on the story of art from preparation to restitution. While researching I focused mainly on France, but Poland’s experience specifically captivated me. According to the Nazis, most Polish and other Slavic artwork was deemed “degenerate artwork” – meaning it did not align with Nazi ideology or was made by Jewish people, immigrants, or other enemies of the Third Reich. In Poland the Nazis waged a violent war against Polish culture by targeting monuments and artwork. Additionally, as Poland was the site of a majority of Europe’s Jewish population before World War II, the Nazis attempted to eradicate both the Jewish community and its cultural artifacts. However, the Poles also possessed a multitude of artwork from all over Europe, as Krakow had long been the capital of Poland, that the Nazis systematically targeted, confiscated, and shipped back to Nazi Germany.
The two Polish masterpieces I had the opportunity to visit were among those not targeted for Nazi destruction, but instead were looted from the country by Nazis for Hitler’s proposed Führermuseum. The Veit Stoss altarpiece is a massive wooden altar that took 12 years to create in 1477 and stands in the heart of St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow’s Main Market Square. Before the war, Poland attempted to protect the cultural treasure from looting by dismantling the altar and shipping it to the countryside. However, Hitler tracked down the altarpiece and shipped it to Germany, due to its creator’s German origin. Additionally, I had the pleasure of viewing Da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine, one of three surviving oil paintings by the master painter. Older than the Mona Lisa, the portrait is a depiction of Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Leonardo’s employer Ludovico Sforza, holding an emblematic ermine. Before the war, the painting was also shipping to the outskirts of Poland for protection, but was seized in 1939 by Nazis and sent to Berlin. In 1945 the painting was restored to Poland.
The Veit Stoss altarpiece, located behind the High altar of St. Mary’s Basilica.
Looking at these pieces of artwork in real life was a surreal experience after reading about their tumultuous stories the past semester. The art fell into many people’s hands and was hunted down for years to finally end up in their current buildings for visitors’ viewing pleasures. Though some pieces such as these two made it out of the war intact, the same cannot be said of other Polish artwork and cultural sites. Specifically, Rembrandt’s Portrait of A Young Man was lost in the war and could have been destroyed. In the Czartoryski Museum there is a blank wall stating that the art piece was lost during the Second World War, possibly destroyed or still owned illegally. The wall and empty picture frame symbolize the thousands of other sculptures and paintings lost or destroyed by the Nazis.
Matthew Bonner with a copy of “Lady with an Ermine”, at the special exhibit in the Main Krakow Museum.
Additionally, when traveling through the streets of Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter of Krakow, I visited the Old Jewish Cemetery. The cemetery was used to bury members of the Jewish community from 1552 to 1800 and is considered one of the most important Jewish cemeteries in Europe. During the war, the Nazis took a place of reflection and prayer and desecrated the graves. Now, the shattered gravestones form a mosaic wall surrounding the cemetery and the adjoining synagogue serves as one of the only practicing Jewish religious sites in Krakow.
Old Jewish Memorial wall featuring gravestones broken during Nazi occupation and persecution.
After visiting the artworks and sites in Krakow, it is obvious that Poland is still attempting to reclaim and restore its great cultural treasures. The Nazis waged a war of destruction against the Polish people, with the goal of eradicating an entire culture, people, and memory. Though it is shocking that only around 200 Jewish people in remain in Krakow, what was once a vibrant Jewish community and cultural hub of as many as 68,000, Krakow is rebounding to its former glory. Street art is rampant throughout the city, new exhibitions are featured in museums, and the Old Jewish Cemetery was filled with Jewish community members praying. Although the arduous work of restoring Polish artwork to its original owners and rebuilding damaged sites is ever evolving, that which remains is celebrated and showcased. This is both a testament to the Polish people and evidence that though the Nazis murdered millions, the legacy, culture, and memory of those lost will never be destroyed.