- The Strange Odyssey of Poland's National Treasures, 1939-1961: A Polish-Canadian Story
The history of German and Soviet occupation of Europe during the Second World War is about death, destruction, and suffering but also about robbery. Numerous scholarly works are devoted to the latter issue. Sometimes, however, the thieves in German and Soviet uniforms did not manage to steal the booty they desired. The history of Poland's national treasure is one of these few cases when the oppressed outsmarted the oppressors. Relatively unknown, a story of the evacuation and safekeeping of ancient and valuable objects from the Wawel Castle, a former residence of Polish kings in Cracow, is a fascinating tale that even the most talented suspense writers would not be able to invent.
In September 1939, during the German and Soviet aggression against Poland, a group of the Wawel Museum employees brought 136 Renaissance tapestries and a considerable number of golden cups, clocks, pieces of armour, and jewellery from Cracow, through Romania, the Black and Mediterranean Seas, France and England to Canada. On its way to safety and later kept in Ottawa, the treasure grew, since many ancient objects from France and the Polish gold bullion from London were added. After the war, the Communist government of Poland tried to recover the valuable deposit. Yet many Polish émigrés, linked to the Polish government-in-exile and abandoned by the Western Allies in 1945, and several Canadian institutions did not want the Communists to take control of the most precious artefacts of Polish national heritage. In 1961, after years of diplomatic wrangling and serious accusations of theft and conspiracy, the treasure returned to Poland.
Gordon Swoger, who tells this complicated story, faced a difficult task. He had to explain many complicated details concerning Polish history, the Second World War, the Cold War, and Canadian politics without disrupting the flow of the fascinating narrative. A graduate of McGill and McMaster universities and a high school history teacher who taught history and English in Poland in the 1990s, he does it well. He retains the suspense, explains the riddles of Polish history, describes the valuable objects and the people who participated in this unusual enterprise. The book could be better edited, though. A serious publication cannot disregard diacritical marks in the Polish alphabet. Many Polish names are misspelled, sometimes beyond recognition. The book's bibliography reveals an impressive archival research. Unfortunately, the short history of Poland that parallels the main story is not free of mistakes and shortcuts.
Most readers, however, particularly among the non-Polish audience, will probably not notice these shortcomings and will find a very interesting text, easy and pleasant to read. From the Polish point of view, there is [End Page 431] another reason to rejoice: together with the books of Norman Davies (a revised edition of God's Playground, Microcosm, and Rising '44), of Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud (A Question of Honor), Alexander B. Rossino (Hitler Strikes Poland), and Katherine R. Jolluck (Exile and Identity), Swoger's Strange Odyssey belongs to a growing series of books published recently in English by non-Polish scholars and writers who find and present a history of Poland as a fascinating topic, worth international attention and further studies. [End Page 432]
Piotr Wrobel, Department of History, University of Toronto