It was smuggled out of the Nazis’ grasp and hidden in a secret drawer in a small Krakow flat for more than 60 years, but a set of silver cutlery finally took pride of place in the home of a British baroness this week.
In a sequence of events even a Hollywood scriptwriter would struggle to devise, 16 knives and forks, thought to be more than 100 years old, were handed back to Ruth Deech, reuniting her with the items her family had last seen in 1941.
On Monday, the former BBC governor and Oxford college head completed a four-day, 1,800 km train journey, across four countries, to bring the silverware to her home in Oxford.
Artist Eugeniusz Waniek, a neighbour of her family in the small town of Ustrzyki Dolne, in south east Poland, had protected the items for 67 years.
Baroness Deech’s aunt, Helena Frankel, had passed the cutlery to him, wrapped in a tablecloth, as the Nazis raided the town. Risking his life, he buried it in his garden, before moving it to his Krakow home.
A year ago Baroness Deech and her relatives did not know the cutlery existed. But last September, following a chance conversation with a friend, Professor Waniek revealed he still had the bundle hidden in his drawer, and traced the remaining relatives of his friends the Frankels.
He died in April, aged 102, six months after learning the silver could be returned to their descendants.
Baroness Deech’s emotional collection of the cutlery took place without fanfare or civic ceremony. Poland still has no law to compensate Jews who lost assets in the war, a situation she continues to work hard to reverse.
Before leaving Krakow’s main railway station with the cutlery at 7am last Friday, the crossbench peer admitted the trip was a labour of love. She said: “This is the end of one epic journey, for the silver, and the beginning of another epic journey for me. It somehow feels appropriate to take it home by train.”
Her journey included stops in Berlin, Cologne and Brussels, and ended with a final Eurostar train to London. Baroness Deech chose the route after deciding attempts to transport the knives by plane would be too dangerous, either for fear of having them confiscated from her handbag, or stolen from her check-in luggage.
She had collected the cutlery last Thursday, travelling straight from the airport to the home of renowned historian Professor Norman Davies, an expert in Polish history, in Krakow.
Although she had visited the city and met Prof Waniek last October, due to Poland’s export laws she could not bring the silver back to Britain on that occasion.
Instead, it was moved to Prof Davies’s flat. After attempts to get an export licence through the British consulate in Warsaw and the Polish Embassy in London both failed, she eventually received the document after a friend in Krakow helped with the paperwork.
Baroness Deech said: “I could not have risked smuggling the items out without the licence. They are small but symbolic. I touch the cutlery and I know my grandparents, whom I never met, touched it too. It’s full of meaning; I couldn’t possibly put a price on it.”
Climbing the five flights of stairs to Prof Davies’ flat may have been strenuous, but Baroness Deech was in no mood to complain.
She was greeted by the historian’s housekeeper, who led her to a wardrobe and a small cutlery box.
Easing the silverware out of the container and gently examining it in detail for the first time, Baroness Deech said: “It’s the only thing I’ve ever touched that must have been touched by all those [relatives] we lost. This is the only thing that remains.
“The Nazis would execute someone for hiding this. Prof Waniek risked his life for this cutlery.
“It is a good indication of gentility. Using this elegant cutlery obviously meant something to the family. They lived in perfect harmony until war broke out.”
As the Nazis looted the town, Prof Waniek witnessed two women being shot dead for refusing to hand over their valuables. His own sister had been sent to Kazakhstan, where she starved to death, after the Red Army invaded at the start of the war.
Holding back tears, Baroness Deech said: “This feels like a homecoming. Although my journey home [to Britain] is arduous, it’s the least I can do. I feel my family are saying they are still here. They have left a mark and now I have it here.”
The assortment of cake forks, fish knives and other items, including a large, two-pronged serving fork, were in need of a good polish, but had otherwise been preserved in almost perfect condition. Only one piece has a blade missing. Baroness Deech plans to share the items between family members in Britain and Israel.
After the quick inspection of the items she left the flat in a hurry, beaming: “Mission accomplished.”
Her daughter Sarah, accompanying her on the trip, added: “What a nice ending for Prof Waniek. He must have imagined no one would ever claim it. This was closure for him.”
Joining them at the flat was Prof Waniek’s friend Marek Marko, who had made the reunion possible, following the most unlikely turn of events.He had been reading an interview with Prof Davies in a magazine last year and spotted the name Ustrzyki Dolne. This, he knew, was Prof Waniek’s home town. The article also mentioned Baroness Deech’s grandfather Moshe Frankel, once the mayor of Ustrzyki Dolne.
“I asked Prof Waniek if he knew a Moshe Frankel,” said Mr Marko. “He said: ‘My God, how do you know about him? I knew him and his family very well and I have a package from them.’”
The old man had then got up from his chair, gone to the drawer, and produced the bundle.
His efforts to protect his friends’ belongings had been, Baroness Deech said, an act of immense bravery. “When we met [in October] he clearly remembered my aunt. For the first five minutes of our meeting he did not say anything, but then he started to talk and his memory was excellent,” she said.
“He told me stories from nearly 100 years ago, when he was a boy. How he would play with the children from my family, how his mother taught the children in the town. She taught my father and uncles geography and French.
“Prof Waniek had the silver on the same tablecloth my aunt had wrapped it in. He insisted he give me it in person in a proper ceremony.”
Baroness Deech visited Ustrzyki Dolne in the 1990s, after the fall of Communism, and saw the home her family had lived in. Her determination to find out more about their history, and seek compensation for the properties confiscated during the war, has grown over many years.
She said being brought up on her father’s bedtime stories about life in the shtetl, and regularly sensing the effect of her mother’s grief and loss, had had a profound effect.
Almost all of the family’s history was lost after the war. Her father, Josef Frankel, a journalist and historian, had moved from Poland to Vienna to study as a young man. In 1938, when Hitler annexed Austria, Josef was at a conference in Prague.
He never returned home, either to Poland or Austria, instead making his way across Europe to London, arriving on September 3, 1939, the day war was declared on Germany.
For Mr Marko, the return of the cutlery drew emotions of a different kind.
He believes Prof Waniek felt he could die in peace after finally meeting the Frankels’ descendants last year.
He said: “It’s a miracle that he found the family. He waited for so long. After he met Baroness Deech last year he turned to me and said: ‘That’s it. I can go now.’”
Baroness Deech still faces a potentially lengthy battle for compensation for her family’s estate, including a block of flats in Krakow which belonged to her maternal grandmother, who was killed in a concentration camp, and a now-derelict oil refinery once owned by Moshe Frankel.
The total value of property lost in Poland during the war is estimated at around £15.4 billion (€18bn), but it is thought 80 per cent of claims would come not from Jews, but Poles who lost land.
A number of restitution bills have been considered by the Polish parliament, but ultimately failed due to lack of support or changes in administration.
Prime Minister Donald Tusk previously promised to resolve the issue by the end of 2008, but no agreement was reached.