Poster for the Polish Pavilion
Pavilion Commissioner Stephen de Ropp
The magnificent latticed tower
King Wladyslaw Jagiello in Central Park, NYC
Polish Museum of America in Chicago IL
Tadeusz Kosciuszko portrait by Arthur Szyk
Casimir Pulaski at Wyandotte, MI
Some finely crafted wrought-iron artwork
Stained glass window "Polonia Reborn"
Detail dedicated to Polish Armed Forces
Bell of the Struggles for Independence
Bottom detail on the Ball
Paintings on display at the Le Moyne Library
All 11 artists signed the paintings
Polonia Nike from the Polish National Museum
Polonia Nike full size copy as it is now
(courtesy Bad Nauheim DE city archive)
Eagle legged display table in Philadelphia
Angel tapestry at Le Moyne Library
Armorial crest tapestry at KF Hq. in New York
Locomotives from Pavilion Catalogue
Locomotive #1 as it is now at Polish Museum
Locomotive #2 as it is now at Polish Museum
Library on the Le Moyne College campus
Meeting on Oct. 23, 2018 at Le Moyne Library
(l. to r.) Hon. Consul Deborah "Debbie" Majka; Inga Barnello - Le Moyne College Library Director; Fr. Joseph Marina - Le Moyne College Provost
Signing the agreement of return, May 4, 2022
at the table (l. to r.) Robert Kostro, director of the Poland National History Museum; Minister Piotr Glinski head of the Ministry of Culture (MKiDN); and Linda LeMura, president of Le Moyne College
------ by Peter J. Obst
A stately exhibition hall
When Robert Moses, New York city planner, announced plans for the 1939-40 World's Fair, now remembered widely as the "World of Tomorrow Fair," to take place in Flushing Meadow on Long Island NY, government leaders in Poland took notice.
The Polish Republic was ready to celebrate its twentieth anniversary. One opportunity to do so, and show the accomplishments of the reconstituted Polish state, was to take part in the World Fair slated to open that year in New York.
The pavilion planned for the New York World's Fair was designed by a committee that consisted of a select group of Poland's finest artists and architects. Their aim was to present Poland as a modern country with a long history, a people who had a place within the fraternity of Western European nations and one which was industrializing and looking forward to a bright future. Chosen as Commissioner General to manage the pavilion exhibit was Stephen de Ropp, a man with impeccable credentials, who already had extensive experience from his directorship of the annual International Poznan Trade Fair.
The pavilion, built on Flushing Meadows in Queens County, was a very fine example of early twentieth century modernistic architecture. A separate building housing a Polish cuisine restaurant, where waitresses in folk costume served customers, flanked the pavilion. In front was a spectacular 50 meter (142 foot) lattice tower covered with shield-like crests, suggesting a medieval fortress. Pools ran alongside to form a symbolic moat. This imposing facade served as a backdrop to an equestrian stature of Poland's warrior-king Wladyslaw Jagiello. The fact that under Jagiello's leadership, Lithuanian and Polish forces dealt a decisive blow to the encroaching power of the Teutonic Knights in 1410 was not lost on German visitors to the fair.
Pavilion film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVzrMLit9Dc
Within, the latest and brightest of Poland's technological achievement was displayed to fit into the fair's World of Tomorrow theme. No effort was spared in providing the best examples among Poland's industrial products and inventions. Notable among these were two scale models of steam locomotives that reflected current Polish production. They were meticulously crafted and each was a tour-de-force of the model-maker's art with every rivet, valve and gear faithfully rendered.
The industrial exhibit had models of aircraft and ships on prominent display. There was an airplane engine, telephone switching equipment, a radio locator as well as a standard commercial receiver, hospital surgical equipment, a cigarette making machine and electrical equipment.
An article in the New York Times from May 19, 1939 waxed poetic in describing the contents of the pavilion. The participation of Kosciuszko and Pulaski in the American Revolutionary War was mentioned, as well as the statistic that (at the time) 5 million Americans were of Polish background.
Additional pavilion information: https://www.1939nyworldsfair.com/worlds_fair/wf_tour/zone-1/poland.htm
Chief among the historically themed exhibits in the Hall of Honor within the pavilion were seven paintings that portrayed pivotal scenes from Polish history. These were 120 by 200 cm tempera paintings on wood, executed in a pre-Raphaelite style that was reminiscent of medieval painting.
They were a group project commissioned by the Polish government from the Brotherhood of St. Luke, a group of artists assembled by Tadeusz Pruszkowski in Kazimierz on the Vistula. The artists were: Boleslaw Cybis, Bernard Frydrysiak, Jan Gotard, Aleksander Jedrzejewski, Eliasz Kanarek, Jeremi Kubicki, Antoni Michalak, Stefan Pluzanski, Janusz Podoski and Jan Zamoyski. Each worked at his own specialty in painting, whether it was faces, costume, background, architecture, nature and so on. All signed the finished works.
The subject matter portrayed was as follows:
1. Boleslaw the Brave Greeting Otto III on his Pilgrimage to the Shrine of St. Adalbert at Gniezno, 1000 AD
2. The Baptism of Lithuania, 1386 AD
3. Granting of the Charter of Jedlnia, 1430 AD
4. The Act of Union at Lublin, 1569 AD
5. The Warsaw Confederation, 1573 AD
6. The Relief of Vienna, 1683 AD
7. The May 3rd Constitution, 1791 AD
View detailed information: https://resources.library.lemoyne.edu/arts/de-ropp-polish-art-collection
There were also four tapestries. Three portrayed scenes that included King Jan III Sobieski and his Queen Marysienka. The remaining one was of an angel. These came from the Lad workshops and were designed by Mieczyslaw Szymanski. They were first shown at the International Paris Exhibition in 1937.
The pavilion opened in May 1939, and these works were quickly acknowledged as jewels of the exhibit. Near the paintings were glass topped display tables with replicas of important documents from Polish history. The tables were supported by carved eagles that formed the legs.
But these were but a few of the only artistic items shown in the pavilion. Visitors could gaze with admiration at a huge stained glass Poland Reborn window depicting a figure of a woman Polonia holding a sword and a sheaf of grain. The figure is surrounded by small panels depicting Polish people at work and city coats of arms. At the top is a small depiction of Our Lady of Ostra Brama. On the bottom are panels dedicated to the Polish armed forces.
Continuing this theme was the finely cast Bell of Liberation covered by beautiful bas-reliefs executed by Alexander Borawski, one of Poland's greatest artist sculptors. The decoration on the bell included bas-reliefs of Polish national heroes and city crests. Symbolic portrayals included Polonia Unchained and a tribute to Polish Legionaries. There was also room for the patriotic words of Maria Konopnicka and Kasper Miaskowski. To some it seemed that the bas-relief composition formed a compact history of Poland.
Polish national heroes were also represented as statuary. There was a bronze bust of Jozef Pilsudski and a full figure of a sword-wielding Casimir Pulaski. Tadeusz Kosciuszko was represented in a painting by Artur Szyk. Among the other sculptures was a life size rendition of Edward Wittig's Polish Nike, a classical composition from 1917 that foretold Poland's reemergence from being a partitioned nation. There were also depictions of Maria Sklodowska Curie and Ignacy Jan Paderewski.
One wall was partly filled by a huge tapestry that displayed various historical armorial crests of cities.
According to some estimates the pavilion display consisted of as many as 11 thousand individual items, and, in addition to those already mentioned, included antiques, paintings by Polish artists, ceramics, folk art, interior decor, utilitarian objects, and furniture.
Gone with the wind
Though the pavilion opened with great fanfare on May 3, 1939 and was a favorite among the fair goers, the joy was short lived. On September 1, 1939 Poland was invaded and World War II had begun.
In these circumstances Commissioner de Ropp was cut off from his funding but managed to keep the exhibit going using income from the restaurant, donations from American friends of Poland and good will. He mounted a photographic exhibit showing the outrages done to Poland by the invaders.
Anna Obst, who escaped during the invasion and made her way to New York, went to the fair. "The first pavilion [we saw] was the Polish one and I had tears in my eyes for our dear Poland was no more," she wrote in her journal.
A 10 page typed document, date stamped September 18, 1939, issued by the Polish Art Service located at 149 East Street in New York listed a number of artworks and display objects from the pavilion that were for sale. The first item on the list was: seven historical paintings by painters of the Brotherhood of St. Luke. Price - 3,100 USD for each, or the entire set for 20,400 USD. The four tapestries were also available - at 1,400 USD each, or the entire set for 5,100 USD. The purchased items would be available to buyers at the conclusion of the exhibition.
When the Fair ended in 1940 the commissioner, facing many many bills from the exhibition that he was obliged to pay, started to sell off items from the pavilion. He had no one to guide his actions, little support from the Polish government in exile, but unlimited responsibility for acting honorably in dealing with creditors and managing the objects in his charge.
First to go was the graceful tower which was sold for scrap metal as the pavilion was demolished.
Stephen de Ropp worked hard to place the large sculptures in locations where they would be appreciated. King Jagiello from the front of the pavilion was relocated to New York's Central Park thanks to Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Casimir Pulaski's statue was placed in Wyandotte, Michigan. The Pilsudski Institute in New York acquired the gun-metal figure of its namesake.
The Kosciuszko Foundation in New York has the exquisite tapestry of armorial crests and at Philadelphia's Polish Cultural Center one can admire several of the exhibit tables that have beautifully carved eagles as legs.
The finely cast bell, decorated with figures of Polish saints and heroes, found a home at the Holy Name Church in Stamford, Connecticut. It was purchased for 6 600 USD for the parish by Fr. Francis M. Wladasz with money donated by Polonia.
A large number of artistic items and artworks from the pavilion found their way to the Polish Museum of America in Chicago for which de Ropp was paid 23,000 USD. While this seems a modest sum, adjusted for annual inflation it translates into 480,000 in 2022 dollars.
A most impressive item in the collection, one among many, is the large stained glass Poland Reborn window which may be seen at the museum in Chicago along with the locomotive models, paintings, murals, and other artworks.
The evocative statue Polonia Nike was purchased by an American. In 1980 it was sold to a German art dealer and presently is located in front of an office building in Bad Nauheim, Hesse.
The surgical hospital equipment was given to a hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Other items found a home in Polish diplomatic outposts and with Polonia organizations. By 1958 the only items that remained in de Ropp's possession were the seven historical paintings and four tapestries. He was also owed a back salary of 30,000 USD for 9 years of his service to the Polish government.
The commissioner's dilemma
During World War II de Ropp was Chairman of the United Nations Information Board as chairman, representing Poland among the 27 allied governments who took part. This board was a precursor of the organization known today as the United Nations.
Before the objects from the pavilion were dispersed he used them for display in an international exhibition in Cleveland, Ohio that took place in January of 1941. Stephen de Ropp served Polish interests well. His efforts were recognized when New York City made him an honorary citizen, a distinction infrequently granted.
In 1958 he decided to place the seven paintings and four tapestries into the care of Le Moyne College, a Jesuit school in Syracuse, NY, where he was employed as a part-time lecturer of History and Russian Literature.
To justify this action he wrote a 10 page document entitled History of the Series of Paintings in the Le Moyne College Library. In this text he argued that the Commissariat, set up to operate the Polish Pavilion, was an independent body and thus, under wartime conditions, had the authority to dispose of the artifacts that formed the exhibit. Furthermore, he stated that August Zaleski, President of the Polish Government in Exile, suggested that he take over the artworks in lieu of the salary owed to him by the Polish Government.
Stephen de Ropp continued the explanation stating that certain art dealers from Brazil approached him and were willing to sell the artworks to wealthy Polish exiles living in Sao Paulo. He turned down that proposal recognizing the cultural and historical value of these works which he wanted to keep together because they were linked by a strong theme that ran through Polish History.
His decision was summarized in the statement: "When the possibility of a gift of the collection to Le Moyne College was weighed, the Commissioner realized that no better opportunity could be found eloquently to plead with each successive generation for the freedom of Poland. This was all the more so because of the Catholic character of the institution, basically averse to the atheist penetration of communism into Poland, a nation attached uninterruptedly for 10 centuries to the Roman Church."
Thus the paintings were placed under the stewardship of the College. Over the years it proved to be a good caretaker of this treasure. The college invested considerable funds in having the paintings and tapestries restored. The newly framed panels were placed on the walls of the Noreen Reale Falcone Library which was built in 1981.
A side benefit for Stephen de Ropp was derived from the fact that over the course of time he was able to claim a painting or tapestry each year as a charitable gift, gaining a slight deduction on his federal income taxes.
A long and winding road
During the post-war years many memoranda concerning the recovery of artifacts from the Pavilion passed between Polish diplomatic outposts in the USA and the PRL government in Warsaw. Polish diplomats weighed the merits and costs of undertaking such an action.
In a letter from the Peoples Republic of Poland (PRL) Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dept. III, dated 10 May 1958 we find the following: "It seems that the restitution of this category of objects could be justified on non-material grounds and that it would not be difficult to obtain the support of the Polish diaspora in America. It is obvious that the recovery of cultural values could be appropriately used for propaganda purposes."
However, the return to Poland of artifacts from a prestigious international exposition organized by the inter-war government would run counter to the image that the PRL government was trying to create. The official history portrayed the Second Polish Republic as a time of ignorance and exploitation. In addition the religious subtext of the paintings did not fit into the ideology of Poland's communist masters.
Eventually, in 1962 the PRL government seceded all rights to the artifacts held by the Polish Museum of America in Chicago. Possibly it was an attempt to curry favor with American Polonia. In any case, it ended any discussion about the return of the art and other exhibits to Poland, at least those in the Chicago collection. Whatever the motivation, the result was one of the finest collections of Polish paintings and art objects in the United States that is now accessible to Americans and Poles in the United States.
After 1989 there was new interest in the set of seven paintings at Le Moyne. Newspapers carried articles about the lost art from the Polish Pavilion of the 1939-40 Worlds Fair. Some painted Commissioner de Ropp in unfavorable light, ignoring the mountain of difficulties that he had to face under the circumstances which the war brought.
Memoranda started flowing again between the Republic of Poland (RP) Ministry of Culture and Polish diplomatic outposts. Two individuals who took up the challenge were Boguslaw Winid, Deputy Chief of the Polish Mission in Washington DC, and Marek Skulimowski, Vice Consul at the Polish Consulate in New York. They made a careful inspection of the artwork and engaged Richard Boncza an art appraiser and the law firm of Herrick, Finestein LLP as legal advisors. The lawyers commented that pursuing the matter through the courts would be a long and costly process, with slim chance of success. They recommended that the matter be settled via negotiations.
So began a correspondence with the then president of Le Moyne College, Father Charles J. Beirne SJ in an attempt to convince him that the paintings and tapestries were the rightful property of the Polish people.
In 2005 Polish Television (TVP) Polonia produced a documentary entitled Lukaszowcy N.Y. '39. The program presented information about the Brotherhood and included interviews with Fr. Beirne, Boguslaw Winid and others.
View the film (in Polish language only) on YouTube:
Part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K05qQ02BmhU
Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pEWPb_DwfRo
On March 24, 2006 Kazimierz Ujazdowski, Minister of Culture, sent a Restitution Claim to the office of the President of Le Moyne College. Fr. Beirne's answer was negative. He reiterated that the paintings were acquired in good faith and that the college was taking excellent care of them. His position was that they would best remain in their present location at the Library.
In the filmed interview Fr. Bierne expressed these same sentiments. He was quite annoyed by the fact that the paintings were somehow placed among the Ardelia Hall Collection, a list of paintings looted by the Nazis during WWII.
Furthermore, Krzysztof Pruszkowski (grandson of the brother of Tadeusz Pruszkowski) added more confusion to the situation by claiming that the paintings were only on loan from the artists in 1939 and that they were the true owners. This assertion had no substance as the artworks were commissioned by the Polish government specifically for the New York Pavilion. In addition each artist was paid 2,400 zlotys for his work.
In March of 2016 the new Minister of Culture, Piotr Glinski wrote to the new president of Le Moyne College Linda LeMura. In a very diplomatic letter he explained the significance of the paintings to the Polish people. He also offered 70,000 USD in compensation for the restoration and conservation of the artworks in case they should be returned to Poland.
He received no reply. The matter stood at an impasse.
Walls of Jericho
In my work at the Poles in America Foundation, started by Edward Pinkowski a well known historian of Polonia, living in Philadelphia, I encountered much information about personalities and events that reflected on the history of Polish emigrants in America. My study of the life of Boleslaw Cybis, and his ceramics workshop, also familiarized me with the story of the Brotherhood of St. Luke and the seven paintings at Le Moyne. I was surprised when Jolanta Kessler Chojecka, a filmmaker with whom I worked on a documentary film about Kazimierz Pulaski, brought up this subject. On behalf of her close friend of Izabella Galicka, an activist in Poland's museum circles, she asked if I was willing to become involved in an effort to return the paintings to Poland. As I had no official standing in the matter, the best I could offer was to write about the paintings. In 2015 two of my articles on the subject of the Le Moyne paintings and the Polish Pavilion appeared in Nowy Dziennik, a Polish language newspaper published in the vicinity of New York City which has a large readership among Polonia.
Sometime after that I received a letter from Jacek Miler, Director of the Department of Cultural Heritage Abroad and War Losses, asking me if I could contact Le Moyne College about the Minister's unanswered letter and perhaps persuade them to take the Polish point of view into consideration.
Acting as Amicus Poloniae I started a correspondence with president LeMura. While not willing to discuss a return of the paintings, she was receptive to my argument that, despite there being a Polish community and a Polish Home in Syracuse, there was little audience for the paintings. A new web page was designed to show the collection on-line. An art expert, Samuel D. Gruber was hired to explore new ways of presenting the collection and chair an advisory council.
A select committee, headed by college provost, Fr. Joseph Marina SJ was to examine the matter of the painting and tapestries. Unfortunately, following their review of documents and thorough discussion, the committee concluded that the paintings should remain at LeMoyne. After some time had passed I asked Honorary RP Consul in Philadelphia, Ms. Deborah Majka to request a meeting with Fr. Marina for an opportunity to present the Polish side of this case. He agreed, and on October 23, 2018 a meeting was held at the Le Moyne College library where the paintings were located. It was attended by: Fr. Joseph Marina, library director Inga Barnello, honorary consul Majka and myself.
There we discussed the significance of these paintings in Polish history and culture, as well as the manner in which they were deposited at the college, what documents existed on this matter, Commissioner de Ropp's intentions and more. The conversation was very positive and ended on an upbeat tone with a decision to continue the discussion at a later time. However, a few weeks later I received information from Fr. Marina that he was ready to talk to the Polish Ministry of Culture about the paintings and the conditions under which they would return to Poland.
Initially, during our meeting, it was suggested that these artworks should be included in the display at the National Museum of Polish History under construction in Warsaw. This argument was very important because everything focused on the fact that the paintings should fulfill their original role, that is to present Polish history to a wide audience, and the new museum would be a perfect place to do that.
I wrote a comprehensive report and submitted it with my recommendations to Minister Glinski at the Ministry of Culture. In September of 2019 I met with him at his office. There he promised to make the matter of negotiating for the paintings his personal priority.
On May 4, 2022 a delegation headed by Minister Piotr Glinski, including museum director Robert Kostro, arrived in Syracuse to sign an agreement between Le Moyne College, Poland's Ministry of Culture and Poland's National Museum of Polish History in Warsaw for the return of the seven paintings and four tapestries back to their homeland. The long wait was over.
----- Peter J. Obst, born in Poznan Poland, worked as a software engineer in the US after earning a BS degree in Commerce and Engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia and an MA in Central and East European Studies from LaSalle University. However, his interest in the history of Polish immigrants resulted in working for the Poles in America Foundation, started by Edward Pinkowski an eminent historian living in Philadelphia. He has translated several books from Polish into English. He also designs and maintains websites for several Polish societies. At present he is president of the Polish Heritage Society of Philadelphia (2022-2024). He was awarded the Cavalier Cross of the Order of Merit in 2001 and the Eagle of the Polish Senate in 2009. On May 5, 2022 Minister Piotr Glinski presented him with the Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit by decree of RP President Andrzej Duda.
----- The Polish Pavilion at the New York World's Fair (1939-1940) and its Subsequent Fate.
by Krystyna Nowakowska
English text by Ted Mirecki
This bi-lingual (Polish and English) book is a must read for persons interested in learning more about the magnificent Polish Pavilion at the 1939-40 Worlds Fair.
----- Le Moyne College: Polish Legacy
by Fr. Frank Haig SJ and Frances Campion
This 12 page booklet is an explanation of the history and content of the seven Brotherhood of St. Luke paintings and four Mieczyslaw Szymanski tapestries.
----- Polonia Nike (Nike Polska)
by Edward Wittig (1879-1941)
This evocative classical allegorical composition from 1917 portrays Polonia (the mythical female personification of Poland) at a moment of decision. The Great War was coming to a close and this was an opportunity for Poland to break free from the grasp of the three occupying powers that had partitioned her out of existence in 1795. Her face is determined, looking ahead. The sword is firmly held at the ready, but pointing down in a peaceful gesture. Two winged companions of the Greek goddess Nike (victory) flank her. On her right Zelos (zeal, envy) seems to be holding her back - grasping the edge of the sword. Her left arm is around Kratos (strength) who is pointing the way forward and seems to be leading her.
The original bronze is in the Polish National Museum - the figure is only 60 cm high. A copy is at the city museum in Grenoble, France. A full human-sized version was cast by the Wankiewicz Brothers foundry in Poznan in 1939 for the Polish Pavilion exhibit at the New York Worlds Fair 1939-40.