By Norman Davies

Notes from Poland is pleased to present the fourth of our exclusive extracts from the autobiography of Norman Davies (published in Polish by Znak), the leading international historian of Poland and senior consultant to the Notes from Poland Foundation. In the first extract, Davies recalled his first experiences in Poland as a student in the 1960s. In the second, he discussed cultural differences between the people of Britain and Poland. In the third, he gave an eyewitness account of the tragic events that unfolded in Smolensk in April 2010.

In this fourth instalment, Professor Davies tells the remarkable tale of how he helped to reunite Baroness Ruth Deech, a British academic whose family were forced to flee Poland in 1939, with the silver which their neighbour, now a centenarian Krakow artist, had kept safe since the war. 

Sometimes when we’re in London, my wife and I buy The Jewish Chronicle, a newspaper that we first came across when living in West Hampstead. On one occasion the front-page headline caught my attention: “The baroness planning to sue Poland over lost family assets”. As a family we were interested in the question of possessions lost during the war. And this story was about Baroness Deech, who was an important figure in Oxford, hiring New York lawyers to seek restitution of her family properties.

I did not know the baroness personally at the time, but I knew who she was. Born in 1943, Ruth Deech is an active life peer in the House of Lords who has chaired several important committees, as well as a retired law professor and former principal of St Anne’s College. I invited her for a coffee because I wanted to ask why she had approached New York lawyers. She accepted.

Our first conversation only heightened my curiosity. On the one hand, Ruth presented me with an outline of her family’s history. Her grandfather Moses Fraenkel had been the mayor of the small town of Ustrzyki Dolne in the southeast of present-day Poland, where he apparently owned an oil refinery before the war. Her father – one of four brothers – fled to England in summer 1939, where he married a Jewish woman who had herself emigrated from Kraków, thus beginning the English line of the Fraenkels.

On the other hand, it turned out that Ruth had no idea whatsoever of the circumstances in which the Second World War began. She thought that Ustrzyki was occupied by the Germans immediately after the outbreak of war, and that the Poles living in her family home – much to her indignation – must be the descendants of Nazi collaborators.

When I told her that in autumn 1939 the town had fallen under the occupation not of the Wehrmacht, but of the Red Army, she was very surprised. Her grandfather’s house lay just beyond the demarcation line set on 28 September 1939, which ran along the River San. To Ruth’s astonishment, she learned that if somebody confiscated her refinery, it must have been not the Nazis, but the Soviets.

Some time later, in an interview I gave for a Kraków newspaper, I mentioned “Baroness Deech, née Fraenkel” and “Ustrzyki on the San”. The very day the interview was published, the telephone rang. I was told that a certain elderly Cracovian painter had grown up in Ustrzyki Dolne, remembered the Fraenkels, who had been his neighbours before the war, and wanted to meet me.

My meeting with Eugeniusz Waniek, a former professor at the Academy of Fine Arts, was a veritable brush with living history. Professor Waniek, who was more than 100 years old by then and had a long, flowing beard, was born in Galicia under Austrian rule and lived next to the Fraenkels’ house. During Moses Fraenkel’s time as mayor of Ustrzyki Dolne, Eugeniusz was a student in Kraków.

The professor remembered the events of the Second World War very well. In the first phase, under Soviet rule, all his family members had been deported to Siberia, from which only one had returned – with amputated limbs. In the second phase, when the Nazis came, Waniek managed to visit Ustrzyki, where in 1942 or 1943 the entire Jewish community was rounded up and sent to the death camp at Bełżec.

Towards the end of the war, in 1944-45, the Red Army returned and annexed the town to the Soviet Union, and removed its remaining inhabitants after the forced resettlement programme known as Operation Vistula. In 1951 the borders were adjusted and the ghost town of Ustrzyki returned to Poland, before being repopulated with Polish refugees from the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic.

Professor Waniek also described the last act of the history of the Ustrzyki Fraenkels. When the soldiers of the Wehrmacht (he stressed that it was the Wehrmacht, not the SS) came to round up the Jews, the Fraenkel house was in fact empty. Only Ruth’s aunt was living there, since Moses Fraenkel had died of old age before the war, and the rest of his family had managed to escape.

The soldiers banged on the doors of all the Jewish households, telling the residents they had 15 minutes to pack and take their valuables. Ruth’s aunt hurriedly wrapped the family silver in a large tablecloth, managing to throw it over the fence to the Wanieks’ garden before it was confiscated. The next time he visited the town, Eugeniusz found the tablecloth and its contents and quickly buried it at the back of the garden, where it remained until he dug it up in the 1950s. “I always wanted to return these items to the family,” he told me, “but until now I never knew if any of the Fraenkels had survived.”

When I realised what I was hearing, I grabbed the telephone and called Ruth Deech. “I am in Kraków,” I told her, “and I’ve found your family silver. You can collect it any time.” The baroness arrived on the first available flight with her daughter and a cousin from Israel.

The remarkable silver-returning ceremony was organised by a group of young people – friends and neighbours – who were helping Professor Waniek day to day and recording his memoirs. Everything took place in the professor’s flat, and was filmed.

The white-haired centenarian sat in his armchair with a large red velvet cushion on his knees. On it lay 30 pieces of silver cutlery. “I’ve waited 60 years for this moment,” he said. The baroness approached him and kissed him on both cheeks. “Thank you, thank you!” she said, clearly moved. “For the first time in my life I am touching something from my ancestors’ home. Thank you, thank you!” Toasts were raised, everybody applauded, and many tears were shed.

Later, I took Professor Waniek to one side and asked him about the refinery. He told me that it probably wasn’t a refinery, just a small oil well. There were dozens of them in the area close to the Boryslav-Drohobych oil fields in what is now western Ukraine.

Baroness Deech remains a good friend of ours today. Once it was all over, she invited us for tea at the House of Lords. I heard recently that her New York lawyers are pursuing the claims on her mother’s assets in Kraków. In Ustrzyki Dolne, meanwhile, a plaque commemorating Moses Fraenkel has been unveiled.

Norman Davies is the founder of the Project for Polish Studies Abroad, which aims to assist the development of Poland-centred studies at university level in countries outside Poland through the Fundacja Normana Daviesa.

Translated by Ben Koschalka. Published with the kind permission of Wydawnictwo Znak.

Main image credit: Ustrzyki Dolne, Tadeusz Sumiński/Wikimedia Commons (under public domain)

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