J. Robert Kudelski

Among the most precious works of Medieval art in the whole of Poland is a Gothic altarpiece from the high altar of St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow depicting the Dormition of Mary. Consisting of over 200 figures, some of them nearing 3 meters in height, the altarpiece was produced by the Nuremburg master Veit Stoss over a period of 12 years, reaching completion in 1489. Altogether, the monumental work’s central cabinet and side panels measure 11 by 13 meters, making it the largest altarpiece of its kind in Europe. Such a distinction quickly turned the altarpiece into a symbol of Krakow, beckoning the faithful to St. Mary’s Basilica for the next 450 years.

Several weeks prior to the outbreak of World War II, the altarpiece was partially disassembled and the removed elements were hidden in Krakow and Sandomierz. However, by September 1939, the Germans had learned of their whereabouts and managed to seize the crates in which they were packed. In 1940, the altarpiece was taken to Nuremburg and it remained there until the end of the war.

It returned to Poland in 1946 in a well-documented event of which numerous photographs, articles and radio coverage remain to this day. It can thus be acknowledged that the wartime fate of the St. Mary’s altarpiece is rather well understood. Several publications on the subject present various key documents, eye-witness testimony and accounts given by individuals involved in the theft of Veit Stoss’s work as well as in the search for it and the subsequent efforts to have it returned to its homeland – for example: A. Bochnak, Wojenne losy Ołtarza Mariackiego Wita Stwosza, Przegląd Artystyczny, no. 5, 1946; A. Mężyński, Kommando Paulsen, (Warsaw, 1994); or Burzliwe dzieje Ołtarza Mariackiego Wita Stwosza wg Profesora Karola Estreichera jr. (Krakow, 2007). Yet, there are still many details that remain unclear, as pointed out by the author of the present article in his book Zrabowane skarby. Losy dzieł sztuki na ziemiach polskich w czasie II wojny światowej (Krakow 2012), of which one entire chapter is devoted to the wartime fate of the St. Mary’s altarpiece. Yet, even that publication, which makes use of some quite obscure archival materials, has not fully exhausted all of the questions connected with the subject. Further study has made it possible to acquire documents which shed light on the involvement of Allied forces in the search for the altarpiece and in its repatriation to Poland. One such aspect concerns the handing over of the work to Polish authorities in May 1946: an interesting issue seeing as how the events surrounding the arrival of the first restitution shipment from American-controlled German territory nearly ignited a serious diplomatic scandal.



The Veit Stoss altarpiece before World War II (photo: Ignacy Krieger, National Library - www.polona.pl)


The dramatic story that saw Veit Stoss’s magnificent altarpiece taken from Krakow to Nuremburg begins in 1939 with the arrival to Europe of the dark clouds signalling the outbreak of another world war. Spotting the signs foretelling of the conflict, Krakow art historians took measures to secure the Medieval work of art. Spearheading the initiative was Dr. Karol Estreicher Jr., who by 1939 had already devised a plan of action for the evacuation of the St. Mary’s altarpiece in the event of war. He even entertained the idea of having the work sent to New York City. Utilising the then-underway World’s Fair as a pretence, Estreicher planned to ship the altarpiece across the ocean and keep it there until the political situation in Europe had stabilised. What stood in the way of these plans being realised was the St. Mary’s parish priest Fr. Józef Kulinowski along with civil and military authorities, the latter being concerned that the altarpiece’s evacuation could spur wide-scale social unrest. It was only in the summer of 1939, when military movement was reported, that Estreicher was given the green light to begin measures to safeguard the most valuable works of art in the Krakow region, the Veit Stoss altarpiece from St. Mary’s Basilica being one of them. Preparations for its evacuation began on 15 August 1939. Years later, Estreicher recalled the process thusly: “… with Professor Tadeusz Szydłowski, Archpriest Kulinowski from St. Mary’s Basilica and Vicar Siedlecki, we decided to dismantle from the altarpiece only the reliefs and sculptures (figures), leaving its main construction intact.”[1]The disassembly was performed with the assistance of the fire department. It was decided to leave the altarpiece’s cabinet in the church because none of the decision-makers could imagine that a liturgical work of art would ever fall victim to theft. “We simply did not take such a possibility into consideration when we left the massive 13-meter-high altar cabinet in place […] No art historian in Poland would even dare dismantle that huge cabinet that had stood there undisturbed for 450 years.”[2] The figures were packed into 30 wooden crates and the remaining small elements into several boxes. The parcels were then hidden away in a Krakow artist’s cellar and under the floorboards of the Art History Department of Jagiellonian University in Krakow (Collegium Novum).[3] Finally, late-night on 28 August 1939, it was decided to modify the original plan of action and to evacuate the altarpiece figures from Krakow to Sandomierz, from where the parcels would be shipped off to Gdańsk and eventually Sweden should the political situation escalate further. The shipment reached Sandomierz on the very day that World War II broke out – 1 September 1939, and the contents were hurriedly put away in the local cathedral and in the diocesan seminary. Estreicher returned to Krakow two days later and he made sure that the remaining elements of the altarpiece were put in the care of trusted persons. After that, Estreicher did like Poland’s civil and military authorities and left the country.

Several days after the beginning of the war, German clerks arrived in Krakow with an aim to “secure” works of art in occupied Poland, their foremost priority being to seize the St. Mary’s altarpiece. It soon became clear that one of the individuals directly involved in the operation was the head of the Reich Main Security Office,SS-Gruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, who chose a team led by Untersturmführer Prof. Peter Paulsen to carry out the assignment. It was not long before the Germans managed to catch scent of where the altarpiece figures had been concealed. As early as 1 October 1939, Prof. Paulsen despatched three furniture-moving trucks to Sandomierz in order to take possession of the figures hidden in the cathedral and diocesan seminary and to transport the precious cargo to Berlin. “The removed crates holding carved elements of the Veit Stoss altarpiece – counting 32 pieces – may have been deposited in the vault of the new Reichsbank on 14 October… The altarpiece frame was left on site [in Krakow] since its dismantling would necessitate a larger team of technicians, which was not available at the time.”[4] The final destination of the altarpiece remained in dispute for some time thereafter, with Adolf Hitler himself joining the discussion. It was Hitler who decided that Stoss’s largest work ought to be made available to the people of Nuremburg on account of that being the city of the artist’s birth. Nuremburg’s mayor Willy Liebel personally made the trip to Krakow to finalise the formalities connected with the expatriation of the remaining altarpiece elements with Governor-General Hans Frank. Soon after Liebel’s courtesy visit, work began on the disassembly of the altarpiece cabinet. The operation was performed “with the aid of a special scaffolding measuring 3 x 3 x 8 m erected in front of the altarpiece, with the lifting and moving of heavy elements done using a boom crane. The work was carried out by 20 engineers from a unit stationed in Krakow.”[5] As the work was being done, the Germans also seized other elements of the altarpiece found in the hiding places that Estreicher had chosen in Krakow. Within five days, the Germans had disassembled the altarpiece frame. “Over the next two evenings, [the individual elements] were taken to the freight rail station. The crates holding the altarpiece wings were once again loaded onto a low-floor car, the disassembly scaffolding was taken down, and installed in the space where the altarpiece frame used to be was an altarpiece from Wawel Castle depicting the Mater Dolorosa [a triptych showing Our Lady of Sorrow with Christ as the Man of Sorrows, from the Holy Cross chapel in Wawel Cathedral]. […] From what I understand, the transport out of Krakow took place on 15 March 1940 and arrived in Nuremburg 24 hours later.”[6] Two days thereafter, a team of clerks delegated by the mayor of Nuremburg arrived at the Reichsbank to take possession of the crates holding the altarpiece elements that Prof. Paulsen’s men had seized in Sandomierz. The transport took up “two covered freight wagons in an express train, the first available one in the timetable. (According to Mayor Liebel, the decision to use rail transport was made by Hitler, believing that the use of truck was unsafe.)”[7] The Nuremburg authorities planned to deposit the altarpiece in an underground bunker beneath Obere Schmiedgasse street, the same location that housed a collection of Holy Roman Empire regalia brought there from Vienna in 1938. That modern bunker was also one of the factors coming into play in the decision to place the St. Mary’s altarpiece in the care of Nuremburg authorities. After the war, Heinz Schmeissner, an architect who had worked with city’s mayor, testified that the final decision on the matter was made in early 1940. At that time, “Mayor Liebel gave instructions concerning the bunker’s latest, nearly-completed rooms and made it clear that, on Hitler’s orders, the Krakow altar was to be put there. As far as I remember, that information was conveyed to him by the man serving as the General Building Inspector at the time and
later as a Reich minister – Speer. […] In transporting and storing the artefact, Mayor Liebel was executing the written orders of the General Building Inspector [Albert Speer].”
[8] Even with the central authorities’ decision regarding the altarpiece’s placement, it was also coveted by the SS and General Government officials. Governor-General Hans Frank was opposed to the deportation of any works of art found within his jurisdiction. A ruling issued on 15 November 1939 named the General Government as the rightful owner of all the fixed and moveable property within the state of Poland. But despite that decree, in occupied Poland there were still numerous agencies from outside of Frank’s jurisdiction vying for and seizing the property of museums, archives and libraries. To combat their efforts, the Governor-General ordered that all artefacts seized from Polish museums be extensively inventoried, with the outcome being a catalogue of all of the most valuable pieces hitherto belonging to public institutions and private collections, titled “Sichergestellte Kunstwerke im Generalgouvernement.“[9] Included therein was information on 521 of the most prized works of art seized within General Government territory. “Veit Stoss’s altarpiece from the St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow was listed in the catalogue of secured works as part of a special campaign ordered by the commissioner Dr. M [Dr. Kajetan Mühlmann].”[10] Yet, the Governor-General’s efforts to keep the St. Mary’s altarpiece in Krakow proved to be in vain. Hitler would not change his decision to allot the artefact to the mayor of Nuremburg. So, Veit Stoss’s work remained in the shelter beneath Obere Schmiedgasse street until Allied bombing raids became a realistic threat to the city. With ever more German cultural treasures being deposited into the underground vault, officials decided to transfer the structural elements of the altarpiece cabinet to Wiesenthau Castle near Forchheim. The relocation of the structural elements is mentioned in, among other documents, the testimony of Dr. Wilhelm Schwemmer, who served as interim conservator at the Städtische Galerie und Kunstsammlungen in Nuremburg. Schwemmer admits that “the transport of the cabinet elements from the repository at Obere Schmiedgasse to Wiesenthau Castle was overseen by the heritage site protection department of the city building office; in addition to the building supervisor Link; also informed about the matter was one of his subordinate architects Dr. Friedrich August Nagel.”[11]

Karol Estreicher, serving as the head of the Bureau for the Restoration of Polish Cultural Property in London under the Polish government in exile, continued his search for information regarding the whereabouts of Veit Stoss’s altarpiece for the duration of the war. In a letter to his fiancée back in Poland, he writes: “My beloved Teresa, I cannot complain here. Life is comfortable and easy; my work is dull but it satisfies that passion of mine which you know so well – the St. Mary’s altarpiece. That, besides you, is my only passion. The rest is unimportant to me.”[12] In his several years of working in London, he was unable to unequivocally determine where the altarpiece had been taken. Only after the conclusion of the war did information begin to surface in Germany regarding the fate of works of art looted by the Nazis. In a journal entry dated 13 June 1945, Estreicher noted that the Polish politician and diplomat Emeryk August Hutten-Czapski had caught scent of the Stoss altarpiece. “The Nuremburg location of Veit Stoss’s altarpiece from St. Mary’s Basilica: Obere Schmiedestrasse 52, opposite the house of Albrecht Durer. The cellar repository is managed by Stadtrat Fries [city clerk Walter Fries]. The cellar in which the altarpiece resides is one of the most secure in Nuremburg and is free of damage from bombing. I have been given this information by the Military Government in Nuremburg.”[13] The works of art and altarpiece elements discovered in the shelter were seized by American occupying authorities with aid from an Allied-forced commission charged with investigating works of art looted by the Nazis (the Monuments Fine Arts, and Archives program – MFAA). Karol Estreicher decided to return to Poland in spite of the warnings of his friends and colleagues, who feared the new Communist authorities. In his first days back in Poland, the historian began efforts to acquire official permission to act as a representative of the government for the recovery of the St. Mary’s altarpiece. Promising his assistance in this areas was the deputy Minister of Culture and Art, Leon Kruczkowski. During their meetings, Kruczkowski informed Estreicher that efforts to recover Veit Stoss’s work had also been undertaken by members of the Polish émigré community in London. This led to a conflict of jurisdiction which delayed the Krakow historian’s trip to Nuremburg. It was only in late October 1946 that the Americans granted permission for Polish cultural property to return to its homeland. For the purpose of working out the details concerning the operation, Estreicher met with MFAA members Cpt. Edwin C. Rae, Cpt. D.V. Thomson and Cpt. Frank Albright. With their assistance, he was given permission to visit the storage location of the altarpiece which he had tried so devotedly to hide away in 1939. In a journal entry dated 14 November, Estreicher writes: “at the foot of the castle, a great iron door past a cottage – no-one would ever suspect, the entrance to the cellar. There they stood, a great many of them. Statues of the apostles, Madonnas, relief sculptures… what a sight.”[14] A few months later – in January 1946 – the Ministry of Culture and Art sent a request to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for “Dr. Karol Estreicher, delegate of the Ministry of Culture and Art in charge of restitutions, [to be granted] authority to take possession of the altarpiece by Veit Stoss in addition to other Polish works of art and collections within the American occupation zone of Germany.”[15] Though, by then, the recovery of the altarpiece seemed to be nothing more than a formality, its return was obstructed by protests filed by members of the Polish government in exile, who attempted to persuade the Allies that the Stoss altarpiece was the rightful property of the church and not of civil authorities. They believed that the altarpiece should be handed over to representatives of the church or despatched to Rome. In the end, the Americans upheld their earlier decision to allow the Polish nation to take possession of the artefact but they delayed its return shipment until the spring of 1946 in fear of continued protests. In a letter dated 6 March 1946, Estreicher notified the Ministry of Culture and Art that Veit Stoss’s altarpiece and other Polish cultural treasures found within the American occupation zone will be despatched in a convoy escorted by armed soldiers and MFAA members. A group of journalists was also to accompany the convoy. The news met with concern on the part of Polish leadership in Warsaw as they feared the potential entry of foreign intelligence agents into Poland. The officials’ uncertainty deepened further when they became informed of the actual number of persons due to arrive with the shipment. The special train consisting of 27 rail cars was to be safeguarded by 13 American troops commanded by Lt. Robert King. In addition to the soldiers, another 12 individuals were expected, among them the convoy’s commanding officer Lt. Frank P. Albright and Cpt. Everett P. Lesley of the MFAA. Also on board the train were Karol Estreicher, two officers, an aide-de-camp and the Polish correspondent Karol Małcużyński.

The train carrying cultural property looted by the Nazis in occupied Poland departed Nuremburg at 2.40 am on 28 April 1946. The train was routed through Czechoslovakia and, while on a rest stop in Prague, the members of this uncanny expedition were met by Polish attaché Stanisław Gajewski. Upon entering Poland in Zebrzydowice, the train was boarded by representatives of local authorities who bestowed the Americans with declarations of gratitude for their contribution to the recovery of the Polish artefacts. On the evening of 30 April 1946, the train pulled into Krakow, where it was greeted by a delegation headed by the city’s mayor Stanisław Wolas. The Americans were well aware of the event’s importance to the communist authorities. “It must be emphasised that in all certainty, the time of year selected for the return of the altarpiece to Poland was not without significance. The arrival date of the work of art, one of Poland’s greatest treasures, delivered by the Americans in a gesture of democratic good will, coincided with the celebration of Labour Day on 1 May and Constitution Day on 3 May.”[16] It was not lost on the Americans that their arrival could be exploited for propaganda purposes – by the communist authorities and the anti-communist opposition alike. Cpt. Lesley wrote in his report that “the altarpiece and all of the persons connected with its reinstatement became an unwittingly focal point of demonstrations of solidarity and of resistance to the government in power.”[17] The authorities made attempts to neutralise this effect in fear of its inciting demonstrations on 3 May (the anniversary of 3 May 1791, when the Sejm of the Republic of Poland ratified the national democratic constitution – one of the oldest constitutions in the world). The Americans were invited to participate in the Labour Day celebrations on 1 May while also being encouraged to avoid prolonging their stay in Poland. The record of the opening of the rail cars and receipt of their contents was produced on 2 May at the Krakow freight station, identifying “107 crates holding parts of the Veit Stoss altarpiece from St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow along with the wings, beams and central cabinet of the said altarpiece.”[18] Other parts of the train contained equally-valuable works of art – paintings from the collections of the Czartoryski Museum (by artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Dieric Bouts and Taddeo di Bartolo), Wilanów Palace (Lucas Cranach), the National Museum in Warsaw (Pinturicchio, Cornelis Gerritsz. Decker), Royal Łazienki Palace (Simon de Vos, Gerrit Dou) and Wawel Castle (Jacob van Ruisdael, Bernardo Bellotto, Pieter Bruegel), in addition to liturgical objects from St. Mary’s Basilica and Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, sculptures, jewellery from Limoges and 13th-15th-century manuscripts. After completing the report, the officials turned their attention to finalising the formalities that would allow the Americans to promptly return to the West. It was even suggested that their continued presence in Poland was impossible on account of their not having the necessary documents allowing them to serve a military function outside on the European Theater of Operations.The concerns of the authorities grew even stronger when the Ministry of Public Security caught wind of anti-communist demonstrations being planned for 3 May. With the formalities dragging on, Polish civil authorities decided to take the Americans on a trip to Zakopane. When they returned to Krakow, they learned that riots had broken out in the city, and that “militia officers and the army descended on the city centre in tanks, some in American Jeeps, and opened fire on the crowd. City officials stated that 30 people had been shot dead.”[19] On 4 May 1946, Cpt. Lesley and Lt. Albright travelled to Warsaw to meet with a military attaché from the US Embassy, Col. Walter Pashley. Again, Polish officials organised a ceremonial reception in honour of the American officers who returned the looted art to Poland. Yet, all the while, there was pressure for the Americans to leave Poland without delay. Officially, the reason was still the aforementioned lack of authorisation to remain in a country lying outside of the American military operations zone. The situation would soon get out of hand.

At 1.45 am on 5 May 1946, the head of security on the train, Lt. Robert King, informed Cpt. Lesley that a serious incident had occurred. “In the evening, when he and Sgt. George Ramos were in a café, an officer of the Polish secret police and several soldiers entered the establishment and showed him .45 calibre round which, according to him, had been discharged by an American soldier in the direction of one of the Polish police officers.”[20] The bullet was purportedly intended to wound the officer. Tensions escalated to a dangerous level and the matter was taken up by the American military attaché, who immediately assembled an investigative committee to get to the bottom of the situation. The Polish civil authorities did their best to cover the whole thing up on account of the formal ceremony being put on in connection with the return of the artworks by the Americans, planned for 5 May at St. Mary’s Basilica and the National Museum in Krakow. It was only on 7 May 1946 that the persons involved in the alleged shooting had a chance to face each other. At that time, the Polish investigators arrived with a witness as well as the aggrieved. Everyone assembled then made their way to the train in which the American officers and soldiers were gathered. “At that point, the police officer and the witnesses [Poles] identified Private Curtis Dagley, ASN 31507191, from A Division of the US Army, 34th Battalion APO 9, as the soldier who had fired the shot.”[21] Private Dagley, however, disputed the accusation, claiming to have been in a hotel room at the time of the shooting, as could be corroborated by his witnesses. The Polish security service officers protested that Private Dagley’s colleagues had been previously “prepared” for the inquiry, and a decision was made to delay the train’s departure for Nuremburg until the matter was resolved. “The train was surrounded by guards armed with rifles and machine guns.”[22] The Americans found themselves in a difficult spot. That afternoon, one Private Calvin L. Vivian came to the train car occupied by the officers to confess that he was the one responsible for the shooting. He testified that “around 1.45 am on 5 May 1946, he and a girl went for a walk near the hotel, when suddenly, several armed men approached them. Shots were fired, the girl immediately ran off into the bushes, and the private returned fire as he fled in the direction of the hotel. He also claims that shots continued to be fired long after he had reached his room.”[23] The officers wrote down Private Vivian’s testimony and informed Col. Pashley of the new developments, who ordered the perpetrator detained in one of the train compartments. The Polish investigators, however, were not informed about any of this. The Americans decided to turn in Private Dagley to the Office of Public Security and to file a request for permission to depart for Nuremburg. The Polish authorities promptly granted the request and the train set off for Czechoslovakia at 7.20 pm on 7 May 1946. “Immediately upon arriving in Prague, Private Vivian’s testimony was filed with a US military attaché and a wire was sent to the United States Embassy in Warsaw stating that the true culprit had come forward and that the United States calls for Private Dagley’s release. The decision to handle the situation that way was meant to enable the US government to demand the release of the falsely-accused soldier by the Polish secret police while also preventing Private Vivian from being tried by a Polish court.”[24] On 10 May 1946, Col. Pashley issued the necessary paperwork to the Polish side. This infuriated officials from the Ministry of Public Security as they believed it to be a mockery of their institution – one of the highest organs in the communist state. Nevertheless, Private Dagley was released. Upon his return to the West, his superiors commended Dagley’s conduct, saying that in demonstrating “magnanimity and personal courage, he protected the Unites States government and his fellow members of the mission from potentially dangerous political consequences.”[25] And that was the end of this rather unusual episode in the process of recovering one of the greatest works of Gothic art ever to known in Poland.  


[1] Record of Karol Estreicher’s testimony before the Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes, given on 21 June 1972, in: Burzliwe dzieje Ołtarza Mariackiego Wita Stwosza wg Profesora Karola Estreichera jr., Krakow 2007.

[2] Ibid.

[3] A. Bochnak, “Wojenne losy Ołtarza Mariackiego Wita Stwosza”, in: Przegląd Artystyczny, 1946, no. 5.

[4] Statement of Prof. Peter Paulsen from 4 January 1940, in: A. Mężyński, Kommando Paulsen, Warsaw 1994, p. 48.

[5] Statement of Heinz Schmeissner from 6 December 1945, Institute of National Remembrance NTN 298, p. 99.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] J. R. Kudelski, Zrabowane skarby. Losy dzieł sztuki na ziemiach polskich w czasie II wojny światowej, Krakow 2012.

[10] Explanation of Dr. Erwin Meyer-Hasing regarding the Veit Stoss altarpiece given on 19 December 1945, Institute of National Remembrance NTN 298, p. 98.

[11] Testimony of Dr. Wilhelm Schwemmer, op. cit., p. 100.

[12] K. Estreicher, Dziennik wypadków, vol. 2, Krakow 2002, p. 37.

[13] Notes of Emeryk August Hutten-Czapski from 26 June 1945, in: K. Estreicher, Dziennik wypadków, vol. 1, op. cit.

[14] K. Estreicher, Dziennik wypadków, vol. 1, op. cit., p. 810.

[15] Letter from the Ministry of Culture and Art to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs dated 26 January 1946, Archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Z (6), w. 44, t. 694, k. 13.

[16] Statement of Cpt. Everett P. Lesley on the transport of the St. Mary’s altarpiece to Krakow given on 22 September 1946, unsigned document in the author’s archives.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Record of the opening of rail cars 1 through 9 on 2 May 1946, Archive of New Records 387/58, p. 29.

[19] Report on the handing over of the St. Mary’s altarpiece and other cultural property to Polish authorities, produced on 24 May 1946 by Lt. Juliannę Bumbar, member of the MFAA, NARA, Records Concerning the Central Collecting Points, OMGUS Headquarters Records, 1938−1951, RG 260.

[20] Statement of Cpt. Everett P. Lesley, op. cit.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.