Your sil­ver, baroness. I hid it in the gar­den

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.

The Jewish Chronicle - - Features - BY AN­SHEL PF­EF­FER

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 Waniek­might­beparto­fanat­tempt­ed­fraud,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,hewas­back­home­inUstrzyk­iDolne re­cov­er­ing from a bout of pneu­mo­nia when the­war­broke­outandtheRus­sianRedArm­yarrived, 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.

PHO­TOS: SARAH DEECH

Baroness Deech ac­cepts her fam­ily’s lost sil­ver cut­lery set pre­sented by 101-year-old Eu­ge­niusz Waniek. He had kept it hid­den for over 67 years

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