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Poland: Germany Seeks Cultural Treasures

  • Roland Eggleston



Bonn, 10 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Germany says it is not only Russia that is blocking the repatriation of German cultural treasures which disappeared during World War II. Germany is also trying, so far without success, to regain treasures from Poland.

German efforts to regain more than 200,000 treasures looted by the Red Army met a setback this week when the Russian constitutional court ruled that President Boris Yeltsin was legally obliged to sign a law effectively banning their return.

In Bonn today, the Foreign Ministry says Germany has also failed to get anywhere in negotiations with Poland for the return of hundreds of rare books and priceless original music scores by Beethoven, Mozart and Bach.

The ministry acknowledges that Poland also has claims on Germany -- for instance on a 13th century liturgical manuscript known as the "Plocker Pontificale," which is now in the Bavarian state library in Munich. It was taken by the Nazis from the library of the cathedral at the city of Plock.

Germany and Poland held five rounds of talks on a mutual exchange of these and other treasures between 1992-1995 without agreement. A Foreign Ministry spokesman in Bonn said today there had been no movement since 1995. In theory the next meeting should take place in Poland but Bonn says no invitation has been extended.

Germany's eyes are focused particularly on hundreds of books and musical scores now in the famous Jagiellonian library in Cracow. According to German authorities they include items which are virtually beyond price, such as the original scores of Beethoven's eighth and ninth symphonies, part of Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte," Mendelsohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream" and other hand-written scores from almost every other prominent German-language composer, including Schubert, Schumann, Bach and Brahms. All these items went this week on public display in Cracow.

But that is far from all. The Germans say the Jagiellonian Library is also holding a part of Martin Luther's original hand-written translation of the Old Testament, a part of Goethe's "Faust" and other original works by Goethe, Schiller, Hegel, Fichte and Herder.

According to Germany, Poland is also holding about 3,000 mediaeval illuminated manuscripts, about 10,000 rare documents and around 210,000 rare autographs of famous political leaders, intellectuals, writers and philosophers.

Many of these treasures were originally in the Prussian State Library in Berlin. They were taken by the Nazis to Silesia and other areas to protect them from allied bombing raids. Some were stored at an abbey at Gruessau, now Krzeszow, in southwestern Poland. After the war, these territories became Polish and the cultural treasures fell into Polish hands.

The Polish government kept for many years its possession of the collections secret. Many believed these treasures had been lost in the havoc and destruction at the end of the war. It was not until 1977 that it became known that they were in the Jagiellonian Library, and that was largely by accident. It came out when a Polish delegation gave the East German communist leader Erich Honecker the manuscript of a Beethoven symphony and part of Mozart's "Magic Flute."

German officials acknowledge that many Polish cultural officials now show a similar attitude as that adopted by the Russian Duma -- the treasures should remain in Poland as compensation for the thousands of Polish treasures looted or destroyed by the Germans during World War II.

For obvious reasons, numbers are hard to come by but some Polish officials estimate the number at around 35,000.

A German expert familiar with the problem, Wilfried Menghin from the Berlin Museum of Pre-History, says Germany could offer an exchange but the problem is finding Polish works. Hitler was determined to destroy Polish culture and the Nazis kept few records of what they looted or where they sent it. Some is probably held in private collections or has since been sold abroad.

Immediately after the war some items looted from Poland were returned. They include a Rembrandt and a Leonardo looted from the Czartoryski collection in Cracow by the German governor, Hans Frank. They were found in his villa in Bavaria. Another painting looted by Frank, Raphael's "Portrait of a Young Man" has never been found.

Germany has also returned to Poland the so-called Posen Gold treasure, which is a collection of ancient jewelry found in the city of Poznan.

German cultural officials say there was never any matching gesture from the Polish side.

Wojciech Kowalski, a Polish official who for a time was commissioner for the Polish cultural heritage abroad, suggested a few years ago that if Germany could not find the items looted from Poland, it could make restitution in other ways -- for instance by providing the funds to build a new wing at the Jagiellonian Library.

But public opinion is also an issue and, just as in Russia, many Poles see no reason to return the treasures to Germany. For the moment, Germany finds itself in an impasse, just as with Russia.
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