Repatriating a Polish art collection with a rich history

The treasure of art history is hidden away at Le Moyne College, a small Jesuit school in Syracuse, New York. Hanging in the college’s Noreen Reale Falcone library, amid bronze busts of clergymen and statues of Jesus, is a collection of tapestries and paintings that were displayed for the first time in the Polish Pavilion at the exhibition. 1939 New York Universal.

They have been at Moyne since 1958, when a former assistant professor and Polish émigré named Stefan de Ropp donated them to the college. But now they have to return to Poland, to be exhibited in a new museum of Polish history in Warsaw.

Peter Obst, director of the Poles in America Foundation, said efforts to bring the collection back to Poland have been going on for decades.

“I have known the collection for a long time, because it is a legend of Polonia,” he said, using the term for the Polish diaspora in America. The local Obst Community Polish Cultural Center even has prints of the paintings hanging on the walls. “The copies don’t come close to the originals, though,” Obst said. “Not even 10 miles up close.”

Poles have been trying to persuade Le Moyne to repatriate the art since the early 1990s, when a group including Boguslaw Winid, former Polish representative to the United Nations and current adviser to Polish President Andrzej Duda, traveled to Syracuse to plead their cause. The mission proved unsuccessful, as were many subsequent attempts over the following decades.

Inga Barnello, director of Le Moyne’s library, said the college treasured the collection – known as the De Ropp collection, after its donor – and did not want to part with it for many years.

“We’re not here to donate our art collections,” she said. “It was a gift.”

Obst said that although the college was never antagonistic, it remained stubbornly committed to the works.

“Le Moyne, for a long time, blew people away,” he said. “There were just different points of view and misunderstandings that needed to be reconciled.”

“There are no bad guys in this story, except maybe Hitler and Stalin,” he added.

It was only a few years ago that the prospect of repatriation began to become a reality. In 2019, Obst and Deborah Majka, the Polish Honorary Consul for Southeastern Pennsylvania, secured a meeting with then-Provost Provost Rev. Joseph Marina, SJ. (Father Marina then served as interim president of Le Moyne from 2020 to 2021 and is currently president of the University of Scranton, another Jesuit institution).

Obst described this meeting with Father Marina as the “decisive moment” in the years-long quest to repatriate the collection. After the meeting, the college expressed its willingness for the first time to part with the artwork, provided it had a safe place and was on public display.

“I guess I managed to appeal to his Jesuit sense of social justice and fairness,” Obst said. “The Polish people will reclaim their heritage. That’s what motivated me. So even though it took a bit of time, I think the effort was worth it.“

The Polish Ministry of Culture, which had long wanted to repatriate the collection, asked if Le Moyne would consider sending it to Warsaw, to be exhibited in a still-to-be-built Polish history museum. After a few years of back and forth, Le Moyne agreed.

“Once we heard that they were seriously building a new national history museum in Warsaw, and that’s where they were going, we felt a bit better,” Barnello said.

On Wednesday, a Polish delegation arrived in Syracuse to sign an official agreement with Le Moyne and celebrate their mutual appreciation for art. The delegation included Piotr Glinski, Polish Minister of Culture, and Robert Kostro, Director of the Polish History Museum.

Le Moyne communications director Joseph Della Posta said the two parties had agreed not to release any details of a financial agreement associated with the repatriation of the art.

The artwork will travel in temporary exhibitions across Poland starting in autumn 2023 and will be placed on permanent display in 2024, when the Warsaw Museum is scheduled to open. The paintings depict important scenes from Polish history, highlighting the country’s contributions to democracy in Europe.

“The central point of the [Polish National History] museum will be the history of democracy and freedom in Poland,” said Kostro. “Le Moyne’s paintings are of great importance in this regard.”

A historic—and historic—collection

The De Ropp collection is made up of seven murals, all over two meters long, and four large tapestries. The paintings were all executed collaboratively by a group of 11 Polish artists known as the Confrérie de Saint-Luc; the tapestries were made by Mieczysław Szymański, a pupil of the founder of the Brotherhood, Tadeusz Pruszkowski. All were intended to educate an international audience at the World’s Fair about Poland’s place in the progress of Western civilization. Some of the scenes they depict include the establishment of the first writ of habeas corpus in Krakow in 1430; the Warsaw Confederation of 1573, which granted religious freedom in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth; and the Polish army repelling the Ottomans from Vienna in 1683.

The work adorned the central hall of honor of the Polish pavilion – an integral part of an exhibition which, for an interwar Poland newly independent of the Prussian Empire and not yet under German control, was crucial to establish a revitalized national identity.

“When Poland was reborn after 1918, people didn’t know they had their own country for over 100 years,” Obst said. “Performing in this pavilion was so important to them because it was about projecting their identity and national consciousness.”

“The paintings speak of Polish history, but they are also part of Polish history,” Kostro said.

The art never returned to its country of origin. In September 1939, just months after the pavilion opened, Nazi Germany invaded and occupied Poland. In the following years, the work was either sold to repay debts or acquired by cultural institutions. Many pieces from the pavilion ended up in the Polish Museum of America in Chicago; others have gone to diplomatic posts, such as the Polish Embassy in Washington, D.C. A statue of King Wladyslaw Jagiellon, who led the World’s Fair exhibit, has been erected in New York’s Central Park, where it remains to this day.

So how did these Brotherhood of Saint Luke paintings end up in a tiny Jesuit college in upstate New York?

Trip to Le Moyne

Stefan de Ropp, the curator of the Polish pavilion, found himself in two difficult situations after the 1939 World’s Fair.

The German invasion, coming just months after the exhibition opened, left De Ropp and his family, in addition to art, stranded in America. Cut off from Poland’s expense accounts for the exhibition, De Ropp paid off his debts by selling many of the exhibits after the fair ended.

After the war ended, Poland became part of the Soviet Union and De Ropp did not return. Obst said De Ropp tried to return the paintings, but the new Soviet government was not interested in art with such blatant nationalist and religious overtones.

“The paintings shared the fate of many Poles who had to emigrate because of the war and could not return because of the communist dictatorship,” Kostro said. “Finally today, when Poland is a free, democratic and independent country, they can come back to Poland, just like the history of the paintings.”

In the 1950s, De Ropp, adrift and broke, found a job at Le Moyne College as a part-time Russian lecturer. By then he had sold or given away almost all of the exhibits at the World’s Fair, but he clung to the work of the Confrérie de Saint-Luc, the centerpiece of the exhibition. In 1958, he donated them to his employer, to display them in the university library.

“He said, ‘Let’s put them here in this Catholic college – there’s a lot of Catholic history in [the paintings]“said Barnello. “And they were huge! It would have been difficult to store them.

“[De Ropp] wanted to keep the paintings, but he couldn’t afford to store them…the guy was against the wall,” Obst said. “Some people accused him of taking them without permission, but I think he did his best.”

During their first two decades at Le Moyne, the collection hung in a small old library, uncased and on display. Barnello says they were in poor condition until 1983, when then-university president Frank Haig had them restored and moved to a newly built library.

“They were dusty, dry. The children drew mustaches on the people in the paintings,” she said. “There was no glass on them. They were just reachable, in the old library.

After the collection was restored, Barnello became interested in the art of local Polish American heritage clubs. But for the most part, the pieces simply existed in the college library — grand and beautiful, she says, but far from the public eye.

“In recent years we have tried to promote programs and screenings,” Barnello said. “But there just wasn’t a big audience for them.”

A bittersweet parting

For Barnello, who has worked at the Le Moyne College Library since 1982, parting with the De Ropp collection is bittersweet. She plans to retire in June and says she hopes to be gone before the paintings are removed.

“I understand it’s the right thing to do, but I’m going to miss my friends,” she said. “I am happy to have been able to help promote them in a modest way over the past 30 years. It was really a pleasure.

Barnello’s post-retirement plans finally include a visit to Poland, the country she gained a deep appreciation for during the decades she spent caring for and studying the De Ropp collection. And she does not consider one day the possibility of visiting her old friends in their new home across the Atlantic.

She probably won’t find herself immersing herself in art alone. For the first time since the 1939 World’s Fair, the paintings and tapestries will be displayed to mass audiences – and in the country in which they were created, whose history they celebrate.

“It’s going to be a big problem in Poland,” Obst said. “My personal feeling is that in the first few weeks [of their exhibition]more people will see them than in the nearly 30 years they hung in the library.

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