Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine, the Royal Castle, and the Monuments Men

The Royal Castle in Warsaw in 2013.

There is a new feature film, fact-based and shocking, about the destruction, looting, and recovery of artworks by the Nazis. George Clooney's "The Monuments Men" is a work of fiction, but "The Rape of Europa" - a 2006 documentary that first brought these issues to the world's attention, is not.  I found its depiction of the whole scale purposeful robbery and vandalism conducted by Germans in the whole Europe to be fascinating, with lots of unknown footage and mind-boggling examples. The four countries that are at the heart of the story were treated differently by the race-obsessed Germans: the artwork of the inferior, "slave" Slavic races of Poles and Russians could, or should, be destroyed, the artwork of Italy and French just stolen. Modern art was destined for destruction everywhere, but "classics" had a chance - especially if they could be integrated into the mythology of the "Aryan" race.

Ruins of Warsaw's Royal Castle in 1945.

Apparently, the mass murderers from the NSDAP and SS were ardent admirers of high quality antiques and masterpieces of Western art. So much so, that they took and hid these pieces for their own "consumption" and for placement in their own "museums." A lot of that art was looted from Jewish owners, targeted and systematically stolen, while the owners were murdered. Some paintings and sculptures were taken from state museums, some from palaces of aristocrats and kings, some from art galleries. Nothing was sacred.

The Castle Square (Plac Zamkowy) in the Old Town of Warsaw.

Poland, the first target of Hitler, the nation destined for physical extermination and cultural annihilation, suffered some of the most grievous losses of WWII.  It never surrendered, did not form a "colaborator" government that worked with the Nazis, like the Vichy in France. The Holocaust of Jewish Poles and Polish Jews is a crime without parallel. But the suffering of Poles was immense, too. Poland lost 3 millions of its Jewish citizens and 3 million of its Polish inhabitants. The destruction of Polish culture was a particularly significant goal for the Nazis, along with the killing of the cultural and national elites - officers, professors, artists, the clergy. Anyone with a brain and a position of power could become a target. Members of my mothers' family were on the list: two priests, Karol and Feliks Wajszczuk, ended up in Dachau, one survived, one was killed - for supporting the underground resistance.

In 1944, the Royal Castle and the whole city of Warsaw were systematically destroyed, holes drilled into walls, stuffed with dynamite, and exploded; fire-throwers used to set the interiors and libraries aflame. Poles rebuilt what they could after the war, recovered  some artwork, not all - it was returned by American Monuments Men, by the Soviet government. But many important pieces disappeared without a trace. The destroyed buildings were reconstructed, the originals irreparably lost.  I used to go to music school in the Old Town, Music High School named after Jozef Elsner, the teacher of Chopin. The school was on Miodowa street and the best way was to take the tramway no. 26 and go through the W-Z Tunnel, under the old town. When I was coming back from my lessons I looked up into the empty window hole in the last wall of the palace, pointing towards heaven, lonely, damaged, forlorn.  I still remember its angular shape next to the full  moon, above the rooftops of the old town. I was happy to see it rebuilt; it took many years. But the palace looked too new for me, and still does. It is a simulacrum, a model, not the real thing.


In 1944, a beautiful song was written by a Polish-Jewish popular music composer, Albert Harris, a farewell to the dying city. He composed it in Italy, at Monte Cassino, as a member of the Polish army that was fighting at the Nazi stronghold. Harris joined the General Anders' Army that was formed from Polish refugees, and prisoners in the Soviet Union, then joined the British army in liberating Italy. After the war, the soldiers were scattered around the world. Britain did not want them, they went to Canada, Australia, the U.S.. Harris ended up in America. His Warsaw song became so popular after 1945, that it was even translated into Danish and became one of Denmark's greatest hits. = Albert Harris, Song about My Warsaw (Piosenka o Mojej Warszawie), in Polish, recorded by W. Sypniewski in 1945, illustrated with pictures of Warsaw in 1939 and after its liberation. = Albert Harris, Piosenka o Mojej Warszawie in Danish, recorded in 1946.


The famous portrait by Leonardo of the Lady with an Ermine was one of the most notable recoveries of the Monuments Men. An image of the mistress of Italian Duke Sforza, painted in 1490, the portrait belonged to the Czartoryski family of aristocracy and kept in their private museum in Krakow, Poland. After being stolen and hidden, it returned to Poland, thanks to its discovery by the Monuments Men of General Eisenhower - art historians sent along with troops to organize the recovery and restoration of stolen or damaged artwork. They found the Lady in a hunting lodge of Nazi ruler of Poland, General Governor Hans Frank. It was then returned to Poland to the museum of its original owners, the Czartoryski family, and then "nationalized" - now it is found at the other Royal Castle of Poland, Krakow's ancient Wawel Castle (the kings moved to Warsaw in the 17th century, and Wawel was not destroyed, so its old walls are really old...).

The painting's story is quite convoluted, its beauty - still astounding. I decided to write a poem in praise of its beauty and history. Here it is, a brand new reflection on Leonardo's gift to the world.

The Lady with an Ermine

Leonardo’s brush created a vessel for her to inhabit,
a grey blue sky they painted black much later –
she was pregnant, her son – a Sforza heir, 
her lover – a Duke, a white ermine – his emblem.

In 1830, with her Polish princes, she went
into exile through Dresden to Paris, locked
in a box of precious wood. She came back.

In 1940, hidden again, she was safe until Nazis 
found her – Governor Hans Frank fell in love,
in a palace he had stolen in Krak√≥w, 
in a hunting lodge he had built in Bavaria. 
The Red Army was closing in.

She felt a slight discomfort in the crisp winter air
when American soldiers held her up, 
for the cameras of Monuments Men.

Another train ride. The navy darkness of a museum wall.
Under a muted spotlight, schoolchildren play a game:
Walk briskly from right to left, don’t let your eyes  
leave her eyes, see how she is watching you.

Her eyes follow me around the room
with that secretive smile she shares
with her famous cousin. She sees my delight,
caresses  the smooth, warm ermine fur.

She knows that I know that she knows

© 2014 by Maja Trochimczyk, written on February 11, 2014

This is the first draft of the poem, subsequently revised and posted on this blog in 2015,

as well as on the Mary Evans Photo Depository, in their poetry blog:

There is a recording of me reading this poem in Paris:

If you need to read love poetry on Valentine's Day or its weekend, visit Moonrise Press Blog for sample poems and a series of links to other poetry of love and reflections on Valentine's Day and types of love, and its folly.

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