19th century Polish manuscript found in Moscow

When I hear of looted cultural artifacts I think of the image of train cars stuffed with Old Master paintings and objets d’art steaming back in the opposite direction of equally packed troop trains. Then come accusations and bitter quarrels, pleas of national patrimony and then lawsuits and more lawsuits.

In fact many of the artifacts under dispute are forgotten dusty manuscripts hidden away in a library such as Russia’s National Library, where a lost manuscript by Polish Romantic poet Juliusz Słowacki was just recently found. Many of the objects also have a more complicated story behind them then a group of ravenous soldiers filling their bags with canvases and burnished gold.

Słowacki’s Diary of Travels in the East recounts the poet’s travels through the Middle East in 1836-37 as well as some ideas and drafts of future poems. The manuscript survived the war and ended up in Moscow because it had been sent on loan to Słowacki’s birthplace in Krzemeniec (in today’s Ukraine) for the 130th anniversary celebration of his birth on September 4, 1939.

With the German invasion of Poland beginning September 1, 1939 and the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland following soon after the manuscript was actually fortunate in being out of Warsaw, where the Krasinski Library which housed it was virtually destroyed, along with much of the city.

Polish academics have been given unrestricted access to the manuscript and are obviously thrilled about the find of Jagiellonian University history professor Henryk Gleblocki. “It’s an epoch-making event,” Professor Andrzej Wasko from Krakow’s Jagiellonian University told Polish daily Rzeczpospolita. “One of the treasures of our culture has been found.”

Whether the Russians will give the manuscript back is not clear yet. Disputes over cultural artifacts, even seemingly obvious and simple ones – “you took it, please give it back” – often get bogged down in political and cultural wrangling, and that is not even accounting for the contributions of lawyers.

Polish-Russian relations are sensitive at the best of times. Słowacki spent much of his life in exile from Russian occupation, dying in Paris like so many other 19th century Polish artists. The Załuski Library was a storehouse of Poland’s cultural riches until being looted by Russian troops in the aftermath of the 1794 uprising and sent to Catherine the Great’s court in St. Petersburg. While some of the objects were returned by the Soviet Union in 1921 (only to be destroyed during the war) much of the collection remains in Russia, though scholars have access to it.

Pictures – “The Return of the Cossacks” by Józef Brandt (1894), Portrait of Juliusz Słowacki by Władysław Barwicki, “A Nude Woman” by Wacław Borowski (1930)

The paintings by Brandt and Borowski are two of the multitude of Polish paintings lost or destroyed between 1939 and 1945.

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Categories: Literary History

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