Your silver, baroness. I hid it in the garden

By Anshel Pfeffer, October 10, 2008

In June, we reported Ruth Deech's plans to sue Poland's government over family property lost in the war. She has now returned - and had an emotional reunion in Krakow.

It was a story of two Polish families that had not been told for almost seven decades. One Jewish, the other Catholic - the Frankels and the Wanieks; living just a street away from each other, with children of similar ages playing together, the mother of the Catholic family giving private piano lessons to the Jewish children.

Then came the Second World War, followed by Communism and the closing of the Iron Curtain. The Jewish family fled Poland, and the friends lost touch with each other.

But over the passing years, Eugeniusz Waniek never forgot his Jewish neighbours, and kept some of their possessions safe - first buried underground in the village of Ustrzyki Dolne, then in a hidden drawer in a desk in Krakow. Finally a few days ago, he was able to hand those possessions back.

No-one has any idea just how much private property - books, religious objects, furniture, jewellery - belonging to the three-and-a-half-million Polish Jews and lost during the Holocaust still remains in Poland. Much of course was plundered by the marauding German and Russian armies, or destroyed or melted down. But in many thousands of cases, the candlesticks, dinner-sets and libraries, treasured family heirlooms of great sentimental and often financial value, travelled a very short distance, sometimes just across the road to the homes of neighbours. Many of them took advantage of the misfortune of the Jews, appropriating their possessions in the belief that they would never return. But in some cases, they were taken into safe-keeping, hidden until the day the rightful owners, or their heirs, might turn up.

Four months ago, the JC published a report on plans by Baroness Ruth Deech - the former BBC governor and Oxford college head - to sue the Polish government for compensation for properties owned by her family before the Second World War. These included the home of Moshe Frankel, who had served as the mayor of Ustrzyki Dolne in South-Eastern Poland, and a now-derelict oil refinery near the small town.

The story was reprinted in the Polish media, including in a local Krakow newspaper, and brought to the attention of 101-year-old Eugeniusz Waniek, a former artist. He had lived in Krakow since before the war, but Ustrzyki Dolne was his home town, and he knew the Frankel family well - he and his sister had been close friends with the Frankels' six children, some of whom had been taught privately by his mother.
Through Professor Norman Davies, a renowned historian of Poland, he contacted Baroness Deech in Britain. Two weeks ago, she returned to Poland, along with her daughter and two more relatives, to meet Mr Waniek.

Jewish demands for restitution are far from popular in Poland, and Baroness Deech was aware that her plans to take legal action would not endear her to the locals. There was also a fear that the contact with Mr Waniek might be part of an attempted fraud, designed to buy her off or otherwise complicate matters.

But upon entering his tiny flat in Krakow, accompanied by Professor Davies, the doubts were dispelled as he began regaling them with his memories of the Frankel family. "He was born at the same time in the same village as my father," said Baroness Deech on he return from Poland, "and the outstanding part of his story was the harmony in which the different parts lived before the war.

"Their house was opposite the tavern and Shmuel the baker's shop. On the next street was our family. His mother had taught the children of our family as a private teacher, and he and his sister Adele were close friends."

About 4,000 people lived in Ustrzyki Dolne, half of them Jews, the other half part-Polish and part-Ukrainian. In 1939, Eugeniusz Waniek was already living in Krakow where he taught at an art academy. Baroness Deech's mother was a student at the academy, and knew him there.

However, he was back home in Ustrzyki Dolne recovering from a bout of pneumonia when the war broke out and the Russian Red Army arrived, as part of the Soviet pact with the Nazis which gave them control of Eastern Poland.

The Russians arrested and exiled the "intellectuals" of the village. Four of the Frankel children had already left Poland by then, but one remaining brother was deported to Siberia and executed there. Adele Waniek was sent to Kazakhstan, where she starved to death.

Eugeniusz Waniek still has a postcard written to his sister by one of the Frankel children, Edmund, sent from Brussels in 1939. Mr Waniek himself avoided arrest only because he was officially registered as living in Krakow.

Two years later, in the summer of 1941, it was the Germans' turn to invade. When they arrived in the town, they immediately ordered the Jews to hand over all their valuables.

Says Baroness Deech: "When the Germans arrived, he [Waniek] saw Jewish women being shot because they didn't give up their valuables fast enough. My aunt Helena, who was bringing the things from her house, grabbed some silverware in a tablecloth and gave it to Waniek to keep."

Shortly afterwards, the Frankels, along with the rest of the surviving Jewish community, were deported from the village. Mr Waniek buried the 16 pieces of silver cutlery in his garden, where they remained until the war ended in 1945. He had no idea whether any of the family members had survived, and under the new Communist regime in Poland, contacts with the outside world were severely regulated.

He could have sold the cutlery, or even used it himself, but he remained loyal to the trust shown in him by Helena. He moved the silverware to his home in Krakow, where it lay in a hidden drawer in his desk. He used the tablecloth - which he has now also returned to Baroness Deech - to wrap up his baby daughter in winter. "It was very disturbing in a way to meet someone of that age who knew our family," said Baroness Deech. "He is almost 102, with a very sunken face, but very fluent and emotional."

Eugeniusz Waniek, who never joined the Communist Party, angered the authorities by painting dissidents, and was denied tenure at local art academies. Only in 2006, on his 100th birthday, was his work first exhibited in Ustrzyki Dolne.

He insisted on meeting the descendants of the Frankel family in person and formally presented them with the silver. "He is a highly intelligent man and a very good artist with a rebellious streak and he marvellously held on to what was given to him," said Baroness Deech, who plans to continue legal proceedings over the family's property in Poland.

She has not yet decided what to do with the 16 knives and forks, and will discuss with other members of her family whether to donate them to a Holocaust museum or distribute one each to family members. The irony is that, by Polish law, she is not allowed take them out of the country without a licence. So for now, her family's heirlooms remain in Krakow.

Last updated: 4:38pm, September 23 2009