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Wartime trove leads to a new battle

Nazis hid the valuable manuscripts -- some by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven -- in what's now Poland. Germany wants them back.

October 21, 2007|Tom Hundley | Chicago Tribune

KRAKOW, POLAND — Monika Jaglarz closed the door to the small office and drew the shades. She spread a green velvet cloth over a wooden table and pulled on a pair of white gloves as though about to perform surgery.

"I have had a few years of experience with this now," said Jaglarz, a librarian at Krakow's Jagiellonian University. "But I have to admit, the first time my hands were trembling."

This time her hands were steady as she untied the ribbons on the folders and tenderly laid out the contents on the velvet cloth:

* A letter written by Martin Luther in 1530.

* A decree signed by Louis XIV dated 1664.

* Correspondence from George Washington, commander of the beleaguered Continental Army, in the winter of 1781.

These treasures and others in the vaults of the Jagiellonian Library -- including original music manuscripts from Bach, Beethoven and Mozart -- have become the subject of a bitter diplomatic debate between Poland and Germany.

The Germans contend these items, hidden here during World War II, are legally and morally part of its national patrimony and should be returned. Poland insists Germany forfeited any legal or moral claim to the collection long ago. In an interview last month, Polish President Lech Kaczynski said bluntly that it would not be returned.

The argument underscores the increasingly acrimonious relationship between the two ostensible NATO allies and European Union partners. It also suggests that more than 60 years after the end of World War II, some of the ground beneath Europe's great battlefields remains unsettled.

In early 1941, when it became clear that Allied bombers could hit Berlin, Nazi authorities took the precaution of moving the capital's cultural treasures to the countryside, out of harm's way.

Two years later, when the carpet-bombing of Berlin began in earnest, thousands of items from the Prussian State Library, including most of the items now in the Jagiellonian's vaults, had already been shipped to Grussau (now Krzeszow) in Lower Silesia, a part of southern Poland that Germany annexed at the start of the war. The crates were hidden in various monasteries and castles.

In 1945, the collection, which also includes handwritten manuscripts of Goethe and Schiller as well as some of the earliest printed books, was discovered by a group of Polish librarians, who secretly moved it to another hiding place.

About the same time, Allied leaders meeting in Potsdam decided Poland's postwar borders would be shifted westward.

The Soviet Union took a large swath of Polish land in the east, compensating Poland with a smaller area in the west that had been German territory. This included the site of the hidden treasures.

"We got the 'German' land and all of the assets that were on the land," Kowalski said. "The Polish state became the owner, and the property was nationalized."

Despite having solid legal claim to the treasures, the Polish government maintained a 30-year silence on the matter, refusing to acknowledge its possession of the collection.

"In my opinion, this was a mistake," said Zdzislaw Pietrzyk, director of the Jagiellonian Library. But that was the way Moscow wanted it.

The silence was broken in 1977 when Edward Gierek, the leader of communist Poland, presented Erich Honecker, his East German counterpart, with several of the collection's most valuable pieces, including Mozart's handwritten score for "The Magic Flute" and Beethoven's manuscript for the last movement of his Ninth Symphony. This was billed as a gesture of German-Polish brotherhood under Soviet auspices.

After the 1990 reunification of Germany, the government made its first official inquiries about the return of the collection. The Poles demurred, but talks were opened and, for the first time, Poland allowed some of the manuscripts to be put on public display.

In 2000, with Poland eager to join the EU, Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek presented German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder with another prize from the collection: Luther's German Bible.

Since then, negotiations have slowed. Now, with the highly nationalistic Kaczynski brothers in power -- Lech is president, twin Jaroslaw is prime minister -- the talks appear to be dead in the water.

The Kaczynskis are often accused of manipulating lingering resentment of Germany for political gain, but in this case there has been heavy-handedness on the German side as well.

Tono Eitel, a veteran German diplomat involved in the negotiations, described the manuscripts as "the war's last prisoners." An article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper referred to the collection as beutekunst , a term usually used to describe the artworks looted from Germany by the Red Army.

This infuriated the Poles.

"We saved this collection. We didn't rob or loot anything," Kowalski said.

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