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Ermatinger, T/4 Charles J. | Estreicher, Karol | Ettlinger, T/4 Sgt. Harry L.


Estreicher, Karol  

Major, Polish Armed Forces, Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA)

Dr. Karol Estreicher was born on March 4, 1906 in Kraków, Poland and earned his Masters in 1928 and PhD in 1947 at the Jagiellonian University. As one of Poland’s most prominent art historians, he was a member of the Commission of History of Art of the Academy of Science and Letters in Kraków, Director of the Diocesan Museum in Sandomierz and Keeper of the Cabinet of Prints and Engravings in Kraków. Shortly after Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, his father, Stanislaw Estreicher (1869-1939), a distinguished Law Professor at Jagiellonian University, was transported to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in November 1939 and died soon thereafter.

Estreicher’s turbulent life during the German invasion of Poland was described in his memoir, September 1939, published in 1940 under the pseudonym Dominik Wegierski to protect his surviving family in Poland. Dr. Karol Estreicher was forced to flee Poland and while in exile he served as Secretary to the Polish Government-in-Exile’s Premiere General Wladyslaw Sikorski, who had fled to France and later Great Britain. While in Paris and later London, Estreicher directed the Polish Office for Recovering Works of Art which assisted with the removal of cultural treasures from Poland as well as the recovery of their confiscated artwork and cultural items. In September 1939 Polish authorities evacuated some of their national treasures which were sent to Paris and Aubusson, via Romania. In early June 1940, just prior to the German occupation of France, Estreicher escorted the Polish treasures, including the Frédéric Chopin musical manuscripts and the Pelplin Gutenberg bible, from France to England on a small commercial ship, the MS Chorzów[1]. In 1940, due to the impending invasion of England, the Polish treasures were then sent to Canada where they remained until their return to Poland in 1959 and 1961.

While exiled in London, Dr. Estreicher and his team recorded every detail regarding lost or confiscated Polish art and cultural items. Contacts inside Poland and Germany, risking their lives, aided with the endeavor to compile data as the war progressed. Estreicher’s card catalogues traced lost objects, identified individuals who participated in the looting and recorded every item of news, no matter how small, related to the missing Polish objects.[2] In an effort to inform the American Allies of the dire Polish situation Estreicher traveled to the U.S. between November 1942 and April 1943 to meet with American organizations and individuals who were interested in the endeavor.[3] Estreicher’s accounts of German looting in Poland further inspired the ongoing U.S. efforts to aid in the protection of European cultural treasures. In 1944, after nearly three years of intensive research, Estreicher and his research group published Cultural Losses of Poland: Index of Polish cultural losses during the German occupation, 1939-1944 which provided the groundwork for more detailed restitution endeavors in Poland. Estreicher described the difficulty of compiling the data during wartime in his introduction:

The book is the first of its kind and includes only those losses about which information was received in London up to the middle of 1944. This information was often contradictory and had to be considered critically, taking into account war-time conditions, the fact that it was obtained by underground methods, the distance from the country and separation from our libraries.[4]

Directly following the war, Estreicher served as the Polish liaison Officer at the Munich Collecting Point, overseeing the return of confiscated Polish treasures. The photograph above shows Dr. Estreicher at the Kraków railway station holding Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine. Dr. Estreicher also recovered the Wit Stwosz Mariacki Altar (commonly known as the Veit Stoss Altarpiece) and the Wavel tapestries.

During the years of the Polish People’s Republic, Dr. Estreicher re-edited and completed the unfinished Bibliografia Polska (a reference work on all significant Polish authors from the 15th to 19th centuries) which was initiated in 1870 by his grandfather Karol Jozef Estreicher (1827–1908) and continued by his father Stanislaw Estreicher (1869–1939). Dr. Estreicher also published numerous other Polish art and history books and after his death, the “Society of the Friends of Fine Arts” published his diaries under the title The Chronicles of Accidents covering the years 1939 through 1972.

Dr. Estreicher retired in 1976 and died in Kraków on April 29, 1984. He was buried in the family plot in Rakowicki Cemetary.

[1] Jerzy T. Petrus, “L’odyssée des trésors polonaise” in Le retour des trésors polonaise (Musée du Québec exhibition, Feb. 8 to May 6, 2001), 40.
[2] Dominik Sackmann, translated by Susan Gillespie, “Classical Music: A State Secret,” The Music Quarterly (Spring 1998): 162.
[3] Alice Prochaska, “The Cultural Restitution of Manuscripts and Other Historical Materials” (paper presented at the Fellows of the Whitney Humanities Center, Yale University, April 2003.)
[4] Karol Estreicher, editor, Cultural Losses of Poland: Index of Polish Cultural Losses during the German occupation, 1939-1944 (London, 1944), xvii.
 

 


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