Restitution of Polish cultural treasures – what the Bolsheviks gave back to us after 1920 (Part 2)

Wawel Royal Castle in Cracow (Photo taken between 1925-35) (Source: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe)

The Treaty of Riga, though sometimes assessed critically, brought tens of thousands of archives, works of art, and state symbols back to Poland. Without them, Poland would be a devoid of its most valuable artistic collections and souvenirs.

Jerzy Miziołek


From the Royal Castle in Warsaw, it is time to move to the Wawel Hill. The local castle, recovered from the Austrian hands in 1905, was plundered to the same extent as the royal residence in Warsaw. As is commonly known, the Wawel tapestries, commissioned by King Sigismund Augustus in Flanders and bequeathed by him in his will to the entire nation, give the halls of the Wawel Royal Castle a special meaning. Their fate was extremely dramatic, and only due to the great determination of the Polish recovery commission, and especially to Marian Morelowski, were we able to recover most of these relics that were taken to Russia. The preserved documents show, on the one hand, the aforementioned determination of the Polish side – as proven by the numerous letters of President Olszewski and the erudite memorial of Morelowski in over a dozen pages, and on the other hand, the unusual dispersion and disastrous treatment of the priceless collection by the Russians. In his previously quoted report, Wojkow wrote as follows: “We recognized the right of Poles to 156 magnificent tapestries and handed over to them 101 of those that were taken in 1606 from the Krakow castle called Wawel, first to Warsaw, and in 1794, after the suppression of Kościuszko’s uprising to Petrograd before Catherine’s feet. Then they were distributed and sent to various places, including the palaces in Gatchina and the Winter Palace, the Academy of Fine Arts, the Koniuszy Museum, etc. These priceless tapestries decorated the walls of Arakcheyev’s mansion, and it was necessary to have a fireplace and drive hangers into the walls of the house, he did not hesitate to cut out spots in the tapestries for hooks to be nailed in or smoke boxes connected to the fireplace inserted. We found cut out pieces discarded somewhere in the warehouses and returned them to the Poles together with the tapestries”.

In the following years, we managed to recover more tapestries, used, inter alia, to upholster sofas, but unfortunately the desired number of 156 has not been reached to this day. Currently, there are 137 tapestries in total (one of them, returned after World War II, is in the collection of the Royal Castle in Warsaw). Their return, carried out in parts, lasting until 1928, was one of the greatest achievements in the recovery of Polish cultural goods. In view of the destruction of the royal insignia and the destruction of the Crown Treasury, annihilated by the Prussians in 1795, the Sigismund tapestries and Szczerbiec – the coronation sword of Polish kings – gained the role of key symbols of Polish statehood.

Tapestry depicting Adam and Eve at the Wawel Royal Castle, 1927. (Source: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe)

The history of Szczerbiec, one of the most beautiful and mysterious swords of the Middle Ages, is extremely complex. Initially, the Russians did not agree to send it to Poland, as it was not stolen, but bought for the Hermitage after a series of intricate twists in the history of the cultural property. “In the end – writes Zdzisław Żygulski – there was a peculiar exchange: Poles received the longed-for Szczerbiec, resigning from the restitution of an excellent painting from the collection of King Stanisław August – ‘The Stolen Kiss’ by Jean-Honoré Fragonard”. Such a change was possible only because, on the one hand, the prevailing belief in Russia was that the sword was not authentic, and on the other, it is known how much certain influential Russians cared about the charming work of the French painter.

Let us refer to the report of June 17th, 1924 by Antoni Olszewski and his deputy Edward Kuntze: “The value of returned cultural treasures for Poland is very difficult to include in an appropriate amount of money. For Poland, which has been systematically stripped of almost everything that had to do with the history and culture of the nation for 150 years, the return of any item is of exceptional importance. […] The volume statistics of property already imported to Poland shows 319 wagons, 172 of which are state-owned. “Thinking about these 319 wagons, it should be remembered that the Russians, withdrawing from the German troops in the summer of 1915, plundered many institutions of literally everything (just like the German army after the fall of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944). A good reference point of ​​the scale of the robbery in 1915 can be seen from this fact: 65 wagons were filled with the equipment of the Royal Castle in Warsaw alone. We know what the interior of this monument looked like at that time from the previously quoted fragment from the memoirs of Wojciech Kossak.

Joy from the recovered national identity

In one of the photos documenting the implementation of the provisions of the Treaty of Riga, we can see the interior of a large room with a huge number of microscopes taken from Warsaw universities. The background for these numerous scientific instruments and the figures of the secretaries of the Polish and Russian delegations – Aleksander Łada and Iwan Duwan – immortalized in the photo – is the painting by Henryk Siemiradzki, “The Apotheosis of Copernicus”. This work – created in 1891 and donated to the University of Warsaw by Barbara Pankratjewowa née Gorczakow – returned to the walls of the University Library on October 23rd, 1925, but the public presentation took place in the library only in June 1927, with the participation of the university authorities, a group of professors, and numerous readers. The priceless photograph commemorates this very event, in which one can feel the atmosphere of curiosity and quiet joy. Unfortunately – like many of the works recovered from Russia – the painting of Siemiradzki was also lost during World War II.

The joy from the recovery of national cultural goods is present both in the pages of numerous publications authored by participants in revindication negotiations, and in the publications of researchers who had the privilege of publishing the recovered treasures first. One of the privileged ones was Stanisław Pereświet-Sołtan, the publisher of the recovered letters of our greatest composer: “For many admirers of Chopin’s genius, it will be easy to understand my joy when, in ordering the archives returned to us by Russia between various old junk in the Archives of Historical Records in Warsaw, between the list of underwear and the bill from the tailor for the work of the navy blue tailcoat (literally!), I was lucky to find cards with a clear signature: ‘F.F. Chopin’. All thirteen letters were written by Frederic Chopin in the years 1824–1827”. These priceless letters are a source of priceless information about Chopin’s high school and university years. Without them, our knowledge of his life, likings, and education would be extremely modest, or rather poor.

Thanks to the victory in the war of 1920 and the signing of the Treaty in Riga, it was possible to recreate archive collections, reconstruct the interiors of royal castles in Krakow and Warsaw, organize and assemble the Łazienki Park and start – after the recovery of documents, manuscripts (such as “Holy Cross Sermons”1), incunabula, and books – research on the history of the Republic of Poland reborn after long years of captivity.

1 the oldest prose text in the Polish language that is still in existence, dating back to around the late 13th century

This article was published in “Do Rzeczy” magazine in 2021