Repatriating a Polish art collection with a storied history

Art history treasure lies hidden at Le Moyne College, a small Jesuit school in Syracuse, N.Y. 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 first displayed in the Polish pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

They’ve been at Le Moyne since 1958, when a former adjunct professor and Polish émigré named Stefan de Ropp donated them to the college. But now they are slated to head back to Poland, to be exhibited in a new Polish History Museum in Warsaw.

Peter Obst, head of the Poles in America Foundation, said that the effort to bring the collection back to Poland has been decades in the making.

“I’ve known about 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 community 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 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 a current adviser to Polish president Andrzej Duda, traveled to Syracuse to make their case. The mission proved unsuccessful, as would many subsequent attempts in the following decades.

Inga Barnello, the library director at Le Moyne, said the college treasured the collection—known as the De Ropp collection, after its donor—and didn’t wish to part with it for many years.

“We aren’t in the business of giving away our art collections,” she said. “These were a gift.”

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

“Le Moyne, for a long time, was blowing people off,” he said. “There were just different points of view and some misunderstandings that had to be reconciled.”

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

It wasn’t until a few years ago that the prospect of repatriation began to look like it might become reality. In 2019, Obst and Deborah Majka, the honorary Polish consul for southeastern Pennsylvania, secured a meeting with then provost the Reverend Joseph Marina. (Father Marina went on to serve as acting president of Le Moyne for 10 weeks in 2020-21 and is currently president of the University of Scranton, a fellow Jesuit institution).

Obst described this meeting with Father Marina as the “breakthrough moment” in the years-long quest to repatriate the collection. After the meeting, the college expressed willingness for the first time to part with the artwork, provided it would have a safe home and be displayed for public viewing.

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

The Polish Ministry of Culture, which had long been interested in repatriating the collection, reached out and asked if Le Moyne would consider sending it to Warsaw, to be displayed in a yet-to-be-built Polish History Museum. After a few years of back-and-forth, Le Moyne agreed.

“Once we learned they were earnestly building a new national history museum in Warsaw, and that was where they were going to go, we felt a little better,” Barnello said.

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

Le Moyne’s communications director Joseph Della Posta said that both sides agreed not to disclose any details of a financial agreement associated with the art’s repatriation.

The artwork will travel in temporary exhibits across Poland beginning in the fall of 2023 and will be placed on permanent exhibition in 2024, when the Warsaw museum is set to open. The paintings depict important scenes from Polish history, highlighting the country’s contributions to democracy in Europe.

“The main focus point of the [Polish National History] museum will be the history of democracy and freedom in Poland,” Kostro said. “The paintings from Le Moyne are of great importance in this way.”

A Historical—and Historic—Collection

The De Ropp collection is made up of seven mural-sized paintings, 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 Brotherhood of St. Lukas; 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 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 1573 Warsaw Confederation, which granted religious freedom in the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth; and the Polish army repelling the Ottomans from Vienna in 1683.

The artwork adorned the central Hall of Honor at the Polish pavilion—an integral part of an exhibition that, for an interwar Poland newly independent of the Prussian Empire and not yet under German control, was crucial to establishing a revitalized national identity.

“When Poland was reborn after 1918, people had not known they had their own country in over 100 years,” Obst said. “Representing themselves at this pavilion was so important to them because it was about projecting their identity and national consciousness.”

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

The art never returned to its home country. In September of 1939, just months after the pavilion opened, Nazi Germany invaded and occupied Poland. In the following years, the artwork was either sold to pay off debts or acquired by cultural institutions. Many pieces from the pavilion ended up at the Polish Museum of America in Chicago; others went to diplomatic posts, like the Polish Embassy in Washington, D.C. A statue of King Ladislaus Jagiello, which helmed the World’s Fair exhibition, was erected in Central Park in New York City, where it remains to this day.

So how did these paintings from the Brotherhood of St. Lukas wind up at a tiny Jesuit college in upstate New York?

Journey to Le Moyne

Stefan de Ropp, the commissioner of the Polish pavilion, found himself in two predicaments after the 1939 World’s Fair.

The German invasion, coming just months after the exhibit opened, left De Ropp and his family—in addition to the art—stranded in America. Cut off from Poland’s expense accounts for the exhibit, De Ropp paid his debts by selling many of the items on display once the fair was over.

After the war ended, Poland became a satellite state of the Soviet Union, and De Ropp did not return. Obst said De Ropp attempted to send the paintings back, but the new Soviet government wasn’t interested in art with such blatant nationalistic and religious overtones. (This paragraph has been updated to clarify Poland’s relationship with the Soviet Union.)

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

In the 1950s, De Ropp, adrift and broke, found employment at Le Moyne College as a part-time Russian lecturer. By that point he had sold or donated almost all of the pieces from the World’s Fair, but he had hung on to the artwork by the Brotherhood of St. Lukas, the exhibition’s central feature. In 1958 he donated them to his employer, to be put on display in the university library.

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

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

During their first two decades at Le Moyne, the collection hung in a small, old library, uncased and exposed. Barnello says they were in bad shape until 1983, when the college’s then president Frank Haig had them restored and moved to a newly built library.

“They were dusty, dry. Kids 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 started seeing some interest in the art from local Polish American heritage clubs. But for the most part, the pieces simply existed in the college library—grand and beautiful, she said, but far from the public eye.

“In more recent years, we tried to promote programs and showings,” 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 she’s gone before the paintings are removed.

“I understand it’s the right thing to do, but I’ll miss my friends,” she said. “I’m glad I was able to help promote them in little ways over the last 30 years. It really was a pleasure.”

Barnello’s postretirement plans include finally visiting Poland, the country she gained a deep appreciation for over the decades she spent caring for and studying the De Ropp collection. And she isn’t counting out the possibility of visiting her old friends in their new home across the Atlantic one day.

She won’t likely find herself alone in taking in the art. For the first time since the 1939 World’s Fair, the paintings and tapestries will be displayed for mass public viewing—and in the country they were created in, whose history they celebrate.

“This is going to be a big deal in Poland,” Obst said. “My personal feeling is that in the first several weeks [of their exhibition], more people will see them than in the 30-odd years they were hanging in the library.”

Anita Shire

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