By Marcus Dysch
August 14, 2009
I don’t want to go all Tony Blair on you, but there is something a little bit special about feeling the hand of history on your shoulder.
Joining Baroness Ruth Deech in Krakow last week to collect her family silver – hidden away for nearly 70 years – was a remarkable privilege.
While the trip lacked the pomp and circumstance of an official visit or a hand-over ceremony, what happened in the small flat in Mazowiecka Street, with just six people in attendance, held enough sentiment of its own to not miss a couple of politicians elbowing their way into things.
They may have been tiny, a bit mucky and in need of a professional polish, but here, in Baroness Deech’s hands, were mini pieces of history. If I’m honest, I was a little too nervous to actually touch the silver myself. Getting locked in a toilet at Stormont is one thing; dropping priceless cutlery is another.
Here in front of us were pieces smuggled away from the Nazis, hidden by a man risking his life by having them in his possession, and then shovelled away for more than half a century before seeing the light of day in the hands of a third-generation descendant of those they had once belonged to.
That Baroness Deech and her family were ever put in a position to get the cutlery back is little short of a miracle. Professor Waniek, who hid the package for so long, died at the age of 102. Had his innings been a shorter one, even by five or ten years, the cutlery would have disappeared without trace. No doubt those who inherited Prof W’s estate would have sold the items on to a dealer and no more would have been known of them.
That his friend happened to read a magazine article in which the professor’s home village was given passing mention was probably little more than chance as well.
You genuinely could not have made it up.
As remarkable as this reunion was, however, it was striking to wonder, walking through the streets of Krakow, just how many more packages were tucked away, how many more knives and forks and silver and gold is hidden somewhere, or already gone forever.
Baroness Deech’s success on this occasion was historic, was special and was a wonderful modern day two-fingers-up-to-the-Nazis moment. But this was also just the tip of an iceberg.