Repatriation of a Polish art collection with an eventful history
A treasure of art history lies hidden in Le Moyne College, a small Jesuit school in Syracuse, NY Polish Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.
They have been at Le Moyne since 1958, when a former associate professor and Polish émigré named Stefan de Ropp donated them to the college. But now they are set to return to Poland to be exhibited in a new Polish history museum in Warsaw.
Peter Obst, director of the Poles in America foundation, said efforts to bring the collection back to Poland were decades underway.
“I’ve known the collection for a long time because it’s such a Polonia legend,” he said, using the term for the Polish diaspora in America. The local Polish cultural center in Obst’s parish even has prints of the paintings hanging on the walls. “However, the copies do not come close to the originals,” says Obst. “Not even 10 miles close.”
Poles have been trying to persuade Le Moyne to repatriate art since the early 1990s, when a group including Boguslaw Winid, a former Polish representative to the United Nations and current adviser to Polish President Andrzej Duda, traveled to Syracuse to present their case . The mission proved unsuccessful, as did many subsequent attempts in the decades that followed.
Inga Barnello, Le Moyne’s director of libraries, said the college values the collection – known as the De Ropp collection after its donor – and was reluctant to part with it for many years.
“We’re not in the business of giving away our art collections,” she said. “It was a present.”
Obst said that while the college was never antagonistic, it was adamant about the works.
“Le Moyne blew people away for a long time,” he said. “There were just different points of view and some misunderstandings that needed to be cleared up.”
“There are no villains in this story, except maybe Hitler and Stalin,” he added.
It was only a few years ago that it looked as if the prospect of repatriation might become a reality. In 2019, Obst and Deborah Majka, the Polish Honorary Consul to Southeastern Pennsylvania, secured a meeting with then-Provost Reverend Joseph Marina, SJ. (Father Marina served as Acting President of Le Moyne from 2020-2021 and is currently President of the University of Scranton, another Jesuit institution).
Obst described this meeting with Father Marina as a “breakthrough moment” in the years-long search for the return of the collection. After the meeting, the college, for the first time, agreed to part with the artwork provided it would have a safe home and be on public display.
“I think I managed to appeal to his Jesuit sense of social justice and fairness,” Obst said. “The Polish people will get their heritage back. That motivated me. So, even if it took a little while, I think it was worth the effort.”
The Polish Ministry of Culture, long interested in repatriating the collection, contacted Le Moyne and asked if Le Moyne would consider sending it to Warsaw for display in a yet to be established Polish history museum. After a few years of back and forth, Le Moyne agreed.
“When we found out that they were seriously going to build a new national history museum in Warsaw and go there, we felt a little better,” Barnello said.
A delegation from Poland arrived in Syracuse on Wednesday to sign an official agreement with Le Moyne and celebrate their mutual appreciation of art. The delegation included Piotr Glinski, Minister of Culture of Poland, and Robert Kostro, Director of the Polish History Museum.
Le Moyne communications director Joseph Della Posta said the two sides had agreed not to disclose details of a financial arrangement related to the art’s repatriation.
The artwork will travel around Poland in temporary exhibitions from autumn 2023 and will be featured in a permanent exhibition in 2024 when the Warsaw Museum opens. The paintings depict important scenes from Polish history and highlight the country’s contribution to democracy in Europe.
“The focus of [Polish National History] Museum will be the history of democracy and freedom in Poland,” said Kostro. “The paintings of Le Moyne are of great importance in this regard.”
A historical – and historical – collection
The De Ropp collection consists of seven wall-sized paintings, each over two meters long, and four large tapestries. The paintings were all executed jointly by a group of 11 Polish artists known as the Brotherhood of St. Luke; The tapestries were made by Mieczysław Szymański, a student of the brotherhood’s founder, Tadeusz Pruszkowski. All were intended to educate an international audience at the World’s Fair about Poland’s role in the advance of Western civilization. Some of the scenes they depict include the establishment of the first habeas corpus in Kraków in 1430; the Warsaw Confederation of 1573, which granted freedom of religion in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth; and the Polish army that repelled the Ottomans from Vienna in 1683.
The artwork adorned the central Hall of Honor of the Polish Pavilion – an integral part of an exhibition crucial for interwar Poland, independent of the Prussian Empire and not yet under German control, to establish a revived national identity.
“When Poland was reborn after 1918, people didn’t know they had their own country for over 100 years,” Obst said. “It was so important to them to present themselves in this pavilion because it was about projecting their identity and their national consciousness.”
“The pictures are about Polish history, but they are also a part of Polish history,” Kostro said.
Art never returned to its homeland. In September 1939, just a few months after the pavilion opened, Nazi Germany invaded and occupied Poland. In the years that followed, the artworks were either sold to pay off debts or acquired by cultural institutions. Many pieces from the pavilion ended up in the Polish Museum of America in Chicago; others went to diplomatic posts, such as the Polish Embassy in Washington, DC. A statue of King Ladislaus Jagiello, who directed the World’s Fair, was erected in Central Park in New York City, where it remains to this day.
So how did these paintings of the Brotherhood of St. Luke end up in a tiny Jesuit college in upstate New York?
Drive to Le Moyne
Stefan de Ropp, the commissioner of the Polish pavilion, found himself in two difficult situations after the 1939 world exhibition.
The German invasion, which took place just months after the exhibition opened, left De Ropp and his family stranded in America – in addition to art. Cut off from Poland’s spending accounts for the exhibition, De Ropp paid off his debts by selling many of the items on display after the fair was over.
After the war ended, Poland became part of the Soviet Union, and De Ropp did not return. Obst said De Ropp tried to send the paintings back, but that the new Soviet government was not interested in art with such overt nationalist and religious undertones.
“The paintings shared the fate of many Poles who had to emigrate because of the war and then couldn’t return because of the communist dictatorship,” said Kostro. “Today, when Poland is a free, democratic, independent country, they can finally return to Poland – and such is the story of the paintings.”
In the 1950s, helpless and broke, De Ropp found employment at Le Moyne College as a part-time lecturer in Russian. By this time he had sold or donated almost all of the pieces in the World’s Fair, but he retained the artwork of the Brotherhood of St. Luke, the central element of the exhibition. In 1958 he gave it to his employer to exhibit in the university library.
“He said, ‘Let’s put them here in this Catholic college — there’s a lot of Catholic history in there [the paintings],’” Barnello said. “And they were huge! It would have been difficult to store them.”
“[De Ropp] wanted to keep the paintings but couldn’t afford to store them… the guy was standing by the wall,” Obst said. “Some people accused him of taking them without permission, but I think he did his best.”
During its first two decades at Le Moyne, the collection hung in a small, ancient library, uncased and exposed. Barnello says they were in poor condition until 1983, when the college’s then-president, Frank Haig, had them restored and moved to a newly built library.
“They were dusty, dry. Children drew mustaches on the people in the paintings,” she said. “There was no glass on it. They were easily accessible in the old library.”
After the collection was restored, Barnello noticed some interest in the art of local Polish-American cultural associations. But for the most part, the pieces just existed in the college library — grand and beautiful, she said, but far from the public eye.
“For the past few years, we’ve tried to sponsor programs and shows,” Barnello said. “But there just wasn’t a big audience for them.”
A bittersweet farewell
For Barnello, who has worked at Le Moyne College Library since 1982, parting with the De Ropp collection is bittersweet. She plans to retire in June and hopes to be gone before the paintings are removed.
“I understand it’s the right thing to do, but I will miss my friends,” she said. “I’m glad I’ve been able to nurture them in a small way over the last 30 years. It was really a pleasure.”
One of Barnello’s post-retirement plans is to finally visit Poland, the country for which she has come to hold a deep esteem over the decades spent tending and studying the De Ropp collection. And she doesn’t expect to one day visit her old friends in her new home on the other side of the Atlantic.
She probably won’t be alone if she takes in the art. For the first time since the 1939 World’s Fair, the paintings and tapestries will be presented to the general public in the country where they were created and whose history they celebrate.
“It’s going to be a big thing in Poland,” said Obst. “My personal feeling is that in the first few weeks [of their exhibition]more people will see them than in the 30 or so years they hung in the library.”