Karol Estreicher: The Polish Monuments Man
This is the sixth in an ongoing series of posts on real-life Monuments Men. Today’s post is by Dr. Sylvia Naylor. See related posts on Sir Charles Leonard Woolley, Walter J. Huchthausen, Seymour J. Pomrenze, Mason Hammond, and Edith A. Standen.
The forthcoming movie, The Monuments Men, has focused great attention on the Monuments Men (and women) and their work during and after World War II. Of course the movie cannot tell the story of the over 300 individuals involved in Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A) work, so focuses on three: George Stout, James Rorimer, and Rose Valland, played by George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Cate Blanchett respectively. Over the course of the next two months, Dr. Greg Bradsher and I thought it would be illustrative to discuss some of the lesser known individuals.
This post focuses on Dr. Karol Estreicher, the Polish Monuments Man and is the sixth in the series of blogs on the Monuments Men.
Karol Estreicher, Jr. was born on March 4, 1906 in Cracow, Poland into a prominent family. His father Stanisław was a renowned law professor at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow and his mother Helena was a homemaker. Karol received his Ph.D. from Jagiellonian University and went on to become one of Poland’s most prominent art historians, as well as a bibliographer, writer and professor.
Dr. Estreicher fled Poland during the Nazi invasion in 1939 and worked for the Polish government-in-exile in Paris until the fall of France in 1940. He then moved to London and became the head of the Cultural Losses Restitution Bureau (Biuro Rewindykacji Mienia Kulturalnego) for the Polish government-in-exile in London. This Bureau, which worked closely with the Polish underground, was responsible for gathering information regarding cultural losses in Poland received from archivists, librarians, and museum staff in occupied Poland and Germany. Estreicher and his team were dedicated to documenting and cataloguing information on lost, looted or confiscated Polish cultural property and art items. As a result of this work, Estreicher edited and compiled a publication entitled Cultural Losses of Poland: Index of Polish Cultural Losses During the German Occupation, 1939-1944 (London, 1944). According to Estreicher, “This index is intended to give precise and concise information concerning the losses sustained by Polish cultural institutions through the German occupation…”
Dr. Estreicher traveled to the United States between November 1942 and April 1943 in order to inform Americans of the scale of Nazi destruction of European culture and to advocate for the restitution of confiscated Polish property. While in the United States he gave several lectures and speeches at universities, including Columbia, Harvard, and Yale. He also met with American officials, including Francis Henry Taylor, the director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, who shortly thereafter became a member of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in Europe (Roberts Commission).
Estreicher played a key role in the establishment of the Inter-Allied Commission for the Protection and Restitution of Cultural Material (Vaucher Commission) in April 1944. Composed of representatives of the varied Allied governments, the Vaucher Commission had as its purpose the study of problems relating to protection, restitution, and reparations and the collection and organization of information relating to looting for the eventual use of the Allies in post-war restitution efforts. The secretariat of the Vaucher Commission functioned as a central bureau for information on looted objects supplied by the different national commissions and issued lists of looted objects for the use of Monuments officers until its dissolution in November 1945. Dr. Estreicher was a very active member of the Commission. At a meeting on May 15, 1944, he presented a proposed method of how to gather information for post-war restitution efforts. According to the meeting minutes:
Dr. Estreicher pointed out that after the last war efforts had been made only to track down the objects which had been looted or lost. It would be much more effective to track down the men who looted them or who had information about them, and this was his basis of his approach to the problem. He had made a particular study of the careers and personal histories of German art connoisseurs…
It appears that the United States clearly agreed with this approach. For example, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Art Looting Investigation Unit conducted interrogations of several Nazi art dealers and individuals involved in art looting activities.
Following the end of World War II, Dr. Estreicher had become the official restitution liaison officer of the Polish government in the American zone of occupation. In this role, he worked with the U.S. Army Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A) Section to oversee the return of looted and confiscated Polish cultural items to Poland. He was instrumental in returning many of Poland’s looted treasures, including the Veit Stoss altar (Ołtarz Wit Stwosza), which is considered a national symbol of Poland’s cultural patrimony. German sculptor Veit Stoss moved to Cracow in 1477, where he spent the next 12 years working on the altarpiece. In 1489, he completed the three story high wood carved altarpiece (42 feet high and 36 feet wide), which is located in St. Mary’s Basilica in Cracow and is considered the largest Gothic altarpiece in the world.
A few weeks before the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939, the Polish government made the decision to dismantle the Veit Stoss altar and evacuate it from Cracow to Sandomierz in order to protect it from Nazi looting. Dr. Estreicher oversaw these activities to dismantle and evacuate the altar. The Germans conquered Cracow on September 6, 1939 and soon after found the hiding place. According to Nazi racial ideology, any pieces of art created in Germany or by a German individual belonged in the Third Reich. Since Veit Stoss was a medieval Nuremberger, the altarpiece was viewed as “German.” The Sonderkommando Paulsen, an SS unit, located the figures of the Apostles and sent them to Berlin in October 1939. The rest of the altar followed shortly afterwards. The altar was transferred to Nuremberg Castle in March 1940. The Polish government-in-exile carefully tracked the fate of the altarpiece during the war. By 1943, they knew that it was being kept in Nuremberg through information provided by Polish slave laborers in Germany.
During his first restitution mission in the U.S. zone of occupation, Estreicher traveled to the Nuremberg castle to retrieve the altarpiece. He wrote to the Minister of Arts and Culture in Warsaw:
In the cellar of the castle in Nuremberg I found the altar of Veit Stoss in good conditions. The work of counting the sculptures & carved architectural structure recently began. The figures of the altar were taken out from the wooden cases, in which they were packed in 1939. One relief with the Assumption of Christ and some figures of prophets and angels still missing. The American authorities give full help and assistance in searching them. The counting, packing and sending of the altar must take about eight weeks time. The American authorities will provide the means of transportation to Cracow with a special guard & will pay all expenses. Please inform the Polish press about the generosity of our American Allies…
On April 30, 1946, a twenty-seven-car train carrying the altar and numerous other looted Polish treasures, including Leonardo da Vinci’s Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (Lady with the Ermine), arrived in Poland. The train was accompanied by U.S. military escort, including a guard contingent, three Monuments Men, and Estreicher himself. The delivery was positively received by local Polish authorities and the Polish people. However, it was marred by problems resulting from tensions between the Communist militia and anticommunist protesters that resulted in the shooting of 30 anticommunist demonstrators on May 3 and the subsequent shooting of two Communist militiamen by one of the American soldiers during an attempted robbery.
Over the next two years, Estreicher engaged in seven additional trips to the American occupation zone. Throughout this time, he worked closely with his American colleagues to assist in the return of looted Polish cultural property, including books, paintings, and other artwork, from the American occupation zone to Poland.
Following the war, Dr. Estreicher resumed his academic career in Cracow. He produced several publications on art history and related topics and was an editor of “Rocznik Krakowski,” the publication of the Cracow Heritage Society (Towarzystwo Miłośników Historii i Zabytków Krakowa). In addition, Dr. Estreicher was a member of PEN-Club and was dedicated to the “Society of the Friends of Fine Arts” (Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Sztuk Pięknych). He retired in 1976 and died on April 29, 1984 in his beloved Cracow.
1. Minutes of the Meeting of May 15, 1944; Minutes, 1944-1945 (National Archives Identifier 1552677); Records of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historical Monuments in War Areas (The Roberts Commission), 1943-1946 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1944, roll 154); Records of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, Record Group 239; National Archives at College Park, MD.
2. Photographs of the Veit Stoss Altarpiece (Local Identifier 260-MCCP-4-3a and 260-MCCP-4-3b); Photographs of the Restitution of Art and Other Activities at the Munich Central Collecting Point, 1945-1945 (National Archives Identifier 541595); Records of U.S. Occupation Headquarters, World War II, Record Group 260; National Archives at College Park, MD.
3. Handwritten Notes by Dr. Karol Estreicher; General Records, 1946-1948 (National Archives Identifier 1560051); Records Concerning the Central Collecting Points (“Ardelia Hall Collection”): OMGUS Headquarters Records, 1938-1951 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1941, roll 20); Records of U.S. Occupation Headquarters, World War II, Record Group 260; National Archives at College Park, MD.