Who really saved the "Battle of Grunwald"

Although many writers have written about the rescue and hiding of the "Battle of Grunwald" painting from the Germans, the whole story of what actually happened 80 years ago remains unknown to this day. The role played by Stanisław Kalinowski and Roman Ślaski has never been described properly, whether in the media or in literature. "The propagandists of the [communist] organs of the PKWN are laughing in their graves having done such a great job concealing it, " says historian Dr. Gapski.

The last days of August 1939 at the Zachęta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw were hot, and not just because of the summer heat, described in pre-war newspapers as "tropical". Three days before the outbreak of World War II, shortly after mobilization was announced, Stanisław Mikulicz-Radecki, the administrative director of Zachęta, returned to the Polish capital, where, faced with the approaching catastrophe, he ordered the gallery’s collection to be packed for removal.

The gallery staff must have been quite nervous. Among the works of art they had to prepare for evacuation was the famous painting by Jan Matejko [a leading 19th-century Polish painter, renowned for depicting significant events from Polish history], entitled "Bitwa pod Grunwaldem" ["The Battle of Grunwald"]. At the time, the painting was on show at Zachęta, the national gallery just having bought it from the heirs of the Warsaw banker Dawid Rosenblum, who had purchased it direct from the artist as an investment. The banker sent "Bitwa” [the "Battle"] on numerous trips abroad, earning money from the sale of tickets to admirers eager to view the painting.

How to remove a work of over 40 square meters of painted canvas, weighing some 1.5 tons, from the wall was a daunting challenge. An added complication was the fact that the gallery was short-staffed since many of its employees had been drafted into the army and were no longer available. To help with the arduous task, volunteers had to be found among the passers-by. The team eventually assembled in this manner had no experience in maneuvering large-scale canvases. Indeed, while the painting was being taken down, a near-tragedy occurred when the team let the huge canvas fall to the ground, almost crushing the Zachęta’s deputy director, the painter Stanisław Ejsmond.

Finally, the team did manage to remove the canvas from its frame. Then, along with another Matejko’s painting entitled "Kazanie Skargi" ["Skarga's Sermon" -- Piotr Skarga was the 17th-century Polish Jesuit and preacher] which had also been deposited at Zachęta, they rolled it up on a large (one-meter-diameter) wooden roller. Subsequently, the rolled-up canvases were sewn into an oilcloth and placed in an asbestos-lined wooden box. A copy of the evacuation protocol (one of three made by the gallery management) was also placed in the box and the lid closed.

By horse-drawn cart to Lublin

The readied package, nearly five-meters-long, now awaited transport. However, even though the war had already broken out, the early days of September were slipping by and nothing was happening. Warsaw’s municipal council was throwing its hands up, telling the Zachęta management that neither a suitable vehicle nor gasoline was available to evacuate the paintings to the east. Resignation was settling in among the gallery’s management ranks. In the absence of transport, they were planning to hide the rolled-up canvases in the gallery building’s packing room.
Stanislaw Radecki-Mikulicz, director of the office of the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts in Warsaw. 1930s. Photograph from the roof of the Palace of the Press in Cracow. Photo: NAC/IKC
However, in an account that was found years later in family papers and published in 1966 in the Polish weekly "Stolica", Mikulicz-Radecki recalled how during the night of September 6, over the radio, he heard the Mayor of Warsaw issue a call for truck drivers to report to the City Cleaning Plant. “If chauffeurs are needed, it means there are cars and there is petrol,” he thought, as he dressed hurriedly and rushed to the plant. There, the director, Colonel Meyer [Kazimierz], ”categorically stated that he had no car for some paintings, because there were a hundred times more important things to save".

  Mikulicz-Radecki proceeded to show Colonel Meyer a written order from the city’s mayor that stated he was to be allowed to choose a car for the evacuation of the paintings. The problem was that none of the vehicles were suitable for the task of transporting the "Battle". They weighed even less than the chest containing Matejko's works and the longest item they were capable of carrying was a mere two meters, certainly not a box nearly five-meters-long.

Mikulicz-Radecki refused to give up. "In the yard I noticed huge four-meter-long, horse-drawn carts on great springs and with balloon tires. Without further ado, Colonel Meyer gave me one such cart, a pair of huge horses, a supply of oats and hay sufficient for a few days, and a coachman. The latter, however, would only agree to go on condition that he would be allowed to take his wife and two children with us."

So it was that on Spetember 7, while the German army was taking over central Poland and reaching the outskirts of Warsaw, at 5.30am the cart driver with his family, Mikulicz-Radecki with his wife and Stanisław Ejsmond set off for Lublin to hide the "Battle of Grunwald" there.

Is There Still Room for Artists in the Church?

If Rafael, Bernini or Bach were looking for work, which diocese would hire them?

see more
Ironically, it was not the first time that an Ejsmond participated in the evacuation of the "Battle". After the outbreak of World War I, another Ejsmond, Stanisław's father Franciszek, played a part in a similar operation when the Matejko painting was transported to Moscow. There, the rolled-up "Battle" waited out the turmoil of war and was not to return to Poland until 1922.

However, this time the work was heading east under Luftwaffe fire. Mikulicz-Radecki’s account of the trek to Lublin is spare: "The road to Lublin, very arduous due to the road congestion by refugees and constant air raids by German bombers, took two days," he wrote. However, Tomasz Sudoł, the historian of the Historical Research Office of the Institute of National Remembrance, characterized the trip east with the chest-full of paintings as representing a daring action by dedicated people.

"The Warsaw-Lublin road was one of the most intensively shelled targets for the German Luftwaffe, because it was the main evacuation route for both the Polish authorities and military units as well as civilians. According to the German soldiers who traveled along it around September 13-15, 1939, the spectacle was macabre, something they had not seen even during the First World War. The road was full of corpses laying around, destroyed columns of cars, dead horses. It was completely blocked so the Germans were unable to move along it, either by truck or tracked vehicles. The fact that the painting managed to reach Lublin under such German shelling was a miracle," the historian concluded.

The long cart carrying the "Battle" reached Lublin on September 9 at 5am. En route, the evacuation team was joined by the artist Bolesław Surałło-Gajduczeni, who was heading in the same direction on a bicycle.
Prewar Lublin looked quite good in photos. Photo: NAC/IKC
The box containing the "Battle" was removed from the cart in the courtyard of the Lublin Museum, then located at 4 Narutowicz Street. Mikulicz-Radecki along with his wife and Ejsmond and Surałło-Gajduczenia parted ways, having agreed to sort out formalities in various offices before meeting for breakfast an hour later. However, the bombing of Lublin thwarted their plans tragically. Mikulicz-Radecki and his wife hid in the church at Krakowskie Przedmieście Street. Ejsmond and Surałło-Gajduczen were in the magistrate's office hit by German shells. Both were killed.

Despite the fact that one of the bombs hit the museum, the paintings survived. Later, the roll with Matejko's works was hidden in a built-to-purpose wooden counter in the museum’s reading room.

– "The Germans were sure that the ‘Battle’ had reached Lublin. The German intelligence service was very efficient and providing a lot of information," according to Dr. Marcin Gapski, a historian from the National Museum in Lublin. "We must remember about the German fifth column that was operating in Poland at that time. Thousands of Germans lived in pre-war Poland and not just in Silesia. In the east of the country, there were also dozens of German villages whose inhabitants were descendants of the the 19th-century settlement process. Several of them were in the Lublin region alone. I am not accusing their inhabitants of betrayal. Most were loyal citizens of the Republic of Poland. However, I want to point out that the Germans had good conditions to create an efficient intelligence network in our country.” –

Did Goebbels offer 2 million marks for the "Battle"?

The art of the open society, or Soros' realism

Art is a powerful weapon, especially when it comes to winning over fussy intellectual elites.

see more
It is not difficult to guess that Matejko's painting depicting the defeat of the Teutonic Order by the Polish-Lithuanian army did not evoke warm feelings among the Germans. When exhibited in 1879 at Berlin’s Gebäude Academy, it did not arouse great enthusiasm among public albeit the art critics liked it. "However, for German nationalists, the defeat of the Teutonic Order troops at Grunwald even five centuries later was still an unhealed wound," Monika Kuhnke and Włodzimierz Kalicki state in their book "Stolen art: abduction of the Madonna" ["Sztuka zagrabiona: uprowadzenie Madonny", Agora, 2014]. They recall the violent protests by the government of the Third Reich, when the Polish Post Office in 1938 marked the 100th anniversary of Jan Matejko's birth by issuing post stamps depicting the Grunwald victory.

In dozens of publications, written both by scientists as well as journalists, we read how the Germans made it a point of honor to find the "Battle of Grunwald". They conducted a wide-ranging search and interrogated museum staff. They purportedly offered a reward of 2 million German marks for any information regarding the whereabouts of the "Battle" (even Germany’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels was allegedly involved in the search). Later, due to the lack of people willing to cooperate, they raised the offer to 10 million. Stories to this effect have been repeated in many publications, but it is difficult to pinpoint the source, such as a document that would actually confirm even those 2 million marks.
Tomasz Sudoł from the Historical Research Office of the Institute of National Remembrance is skeptical of the veracity. "Matejko's ‘Battle of Grunwald’ conveys the message that joint action, the unification of all social strata, led to the defeat of the Teutonic Knights. Naturally, the Germans could not like it, but I have doubts as to how much truth there is in the reports about how much energy the Germans put into finding the ‘Battle of Grunwald’", he says.

He points out that the reward itself seems unlikely. "The German police apparatus was focused on tracking down the Polish underground, revealing hidden weapons and ammunition and liquidating underground explosive factories. Despite these targets being important for the Germans, people revealing such places could only count on a symbolic gratification, some food, industrial products or a small amount of money. Two million marks for a painting, the then equivalent of 10 million dollars, is an exorbitant amount that borders on the unbelievable. It is also surprising that the reward was to be paid in marks. Who was it intended for? In the territory of the General Government [a German zone of occupation established after the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany], the currency used was zloty, also called ‘młynarka’ [named after the president of the German-controlled Bank of Issue, Feliks Młynarski]," the historian says. Moreover, he adds, while reviewing the occupation press from the General Government territory, both so called "gadzinówki" [newspapers published by Germans in the Polish language for Poles] as well as publications addressed to Germans, he has never come across any announcements saying the Germans were looking for the "Battle of Grunwald" and promising a reward of 2 million marks for such information.
In the territory of the General Government, the currency in force was the zloty, the so-called miller. A 500 zloty bill from 1940 was referred to as a "highlander." Photo: Wikimedia
He underlines that the archival materials of individual offices of the German police apparatus at the district level, i.e. Radom, Lublin, Kraków, Lviv and Warsaw, preserved in the Institute of National Remembrance, do not indicate the Germans were particularly involved in the search for Matejko's painting either.

"If the painting had been especially sought after, the information about it should have been included in official circulars distributed to other offices in the districts. Such documents simply do not exist. This shows that this story requires a detailed historical verification. A wide-ranging search should be carried out in both Polish and German archives. Perhaps somewhere in private collections there are still memories of some witnesses that could shed new light on the case. However, I do not rule out that the action of hiding the painting has simply become a legend and has been heavily romanticised. Completely unnecessarily, because even in the reality it was an unprecedented operation, the only such action in all of Europe," Sudoł declares. –

However, mention is made of the reward in some of the testimonies of historical witnesses. While describing the transfer of the painting to the PKWN authorities [The Polish Committee of National Liberation established by the Soviet-backed communists in Poland in 1944] Roman Pieczyrak, head of the economic department of the city of Lublin, one of those involved in hiding Matejko's works, mentions that "the occupiers announced high rewards for these paintings". The administrator of the Lublin Museum also mentions in his letters that the SS and SD [German police and intelligence agency] kept on visiting him in the museum. High-circulation publications from the 1960s dealing with the hiding of Matejko's paintings also talk about rewards worth millions. At that time, historical witnesses who could verify this story were still alive. Had their claims not been true, isn’t it likely that someone would have corrected them? There are still more questions than answers here. We will come back to doubts about the facts and the protagonists of this story again, further on in this text since, indeed, there are many problems arising from it, and not only regarding the question of the millions of marks.

Under the washtub and in the sched

Meantime, let's go back to the operation of hiding Matejko's "Battle of Grunwald" and " Skarga’s Sermon". The story did not end with hiding the rolled-up canvases inside the wooden counter. After the Germans started occupying the building of the Lublin Museum the paintings had to be evacuated yet again, an operation that was thought out down to the smallest detail.
Renovation works were staged in the museum. The counter where the valuable canvases were hidden was dismantled and moved to a shed in the courtyard. The roller was loaded on a ladder cart and covered with all sorts of junk to make it look like a move. In this way, the paintings were transported through the city to the Lublin Public Transport building located in Elektryczna Street.

Franciszek Galera, the Lublin Public Transport manager, knew about the transfer. In a statement he put together in 1949, Galera wrote: "At dusk, a ladder cart was sent to the Lublin Museum where [miscellaneous] ‘things’ were loaded on it. […] When the cart arrived back to courtyard without encountering any obstacles, I saw it was loaded with various items of household furniture and that there was a washtub in its back. Only during the removal of all of these items did I notice a long roll of about one-meter-thirty-centimeters diameter, as long as the cart, and weighing some 1,600 kilograms. Also only during the removal, I was told what ‘things’ I was entrusted with hiding and watching over their safety."
It was decided that Matejko's works should be buried in a shed, but first it had to be prepared. Everything was carried out conspiratorially starting with the pit that was dug in secret. According to Galera, the roll containing „The Battle of Grunwald” and „Skarga’s Sermon” was placed in the pit on Good Friday. The hole had been lined with wooden boards. „The roll itself was wrapped in asbestos, then in oilcloth, and then in tarpaper. The hole was additionally insulated with straw”, he recalled.

Once the paintings were buried, concrete was poured on the shed floor to protect the art works from fire, while the gutter was drained to limit moisture. The paintings remained in the ground until 1944, and would have been there even longer, had not Michał Grzesiak, the cart driver, informed PKWN [The Polish Committee of National Liberation established by the Soviet-backed communists in Poland in 1944] officials in Lublin that something valuable had been buried in the shed in Elektryczna Street. As a result, those who knew about the "Battle" opted to hand the paintings over to the PKWN authorities.

Erased from history

The extraction of the paintings was a major event and was filmed by a newsreel crew.

The communist authorities awarded medals to those involved in safe-guarding the "Battle", including Roman Pieczyrak, head of the Lublin city economic department, plus staff members Henryk Krzesieński, Franciszek Podleśny and Józef Serafinski, as well as the Lublin Museum administrator Władysław Woyda, his son Lechosław, and Michał Grzesiak, a coachman employed by the Lublin Public Transport. As recently as 2016, Franciszek Galera, the PublicTransport manager, was awarded a medal posthumously for the role he had played.
Dr. Marcin Gapski of the National Museum in Lublin, who researched the hiding of Matejko’s paintings, points out that, despite the many writers who have written about how the "Battle of Grunwald" painting was successfully rescued and hidden from the Germans, much of the story of what actually happened 80 years ago remains unknown to this day.

The list of those cited in publications and decorated by the People's Republic of Poland for helping hide the painting is incomplete. For example, neither Stanisław Kalinowski, a Lublin lawyer and a member of the board of the Lublin Society, which managed the Lublin Museum during the war, nor Roman Ślaski, the president of Lublin who was the city’s Polish administrator throughout the German occupation, are mentioned.

"The propagandists of the organs of the PKWN are laughing in their graves having done such a great job concealing it”, Dr. Gapski contends. In his view, the communist authorities omitted Kalinowski and Ślaski from those involved in hiding the painting to underscore that it had been the peasant-workers who saved the "Battle of Grunwald", while the intelligentsia or landowners did nothing. "[In the official communist version] they just panicked, fled the city and abandoned the painting," Dr. Gapski states.
Franciszek Galera’s granddaughter Barbara Długasiewicz maintains that her grandfather was omitted because of his connections with the Home Army. "Even after he died, when his employee Podleśny was decorated in the 1950s in Warsaw, he wasn’t mentioned. I remember how some men from Warsaw removed my grandmother's photographs which had been taken at the time the painting was extracted. She sat in the kitchen and cried." In an interview she gave the authors of the book "Stolen art: abduction of the Madonna" in 2009, Długasiewicz remembers the removal of the photographs clearly and tells them: „My grandfather's name isn't even on the plaque next to the painting in the National Museum. It was probably a punishment for my grandfather's brother's involvement in Home Army activities. It was the Home Army that ordered my grandfather to guard the paintings."

Dr. Gapski points out while to this day many publications claim that Władysław Woyda, the Lublin Museum administrator, was the mastermind behind the operation to conceal the "Battle of Grunwald", in fact he was merely responsible for implementing the plan.

– After the “Battle of Grunwald” was successfully transported to the Lublin Museum and the death of Stanisław Ejsmond in the bombardment of the city, Mikulicz-Radecki handed the painting over not to Władysław Woyda, but to Stanisław Kalinowski, who at that time was representing the museum. Most likely, Mikulicz-Radecki wrote down the protocol transferring the art works to Kalinowski, but the document has not survived. The latter’s role in all of this is to be found in a statement by Roman Pieczyrak, head of the city’s economic department, which Dr. Gapski quotes as follows: "I certify that citizen Stanisław Kalinowski, lawyer in Lublin, is a member of the board of the Society of the Lublin Museum. In 1939, he took for safekeeping Matejko's paintings ‘Battle of Grunwald’ and ‘Skarga’s Sermon.’ With his knowledge and consent, these paintings were hidden. First, after the Germans entered Lublin on the property of the museum at 4 Narutowicz Street, then in the reading room of the same building, and finally, after the Germans started occupying the building, they were taken away for safety, in which I personally participated. After the liberation of Lublin, attorney Kalinowski and I handed over the above-mentioned paintings for which the occupiers announced high rewards. He [Kalinowski] signed the relevant act to the PKWN authorities.”

Virtual Reality of the Barouche Era. The Forgotten Art of Panoramic Paintings

The trick invented by the Chinese in the 12th century, was patented in Europe in 1787.

see more
Roman Ślaski, the second person overlooked in the history of hiding the "Battle", was a distinguished denizen of Lublin. He graduated from economic studies in Switzerland, returned to Lublin during World War I and became the head of the city's financial department.

– Thanks to him, a so-called "ulenowska loan" was obtained which was used for city renovation including construction of the sewage and water supply systems. Ślaski’s was a positivivist approach. Aware as he was of global financial trends, he managed large enterprises and was responsible for building the municipal power plant, which was to play such a vital role in this unfolding story. While the "Battle" was hidden in the Lublin Public Transport’s area, the building at Elektryczna Street belonged in fact to the city’s power plant. Ślaski knew the plant’s layout well. He instructed the power plant employees whom he had hired and whom he fully trusted to cover up the painting. All who participated in hiding Matejko's paintings and who were subsequently decorated by the communist authorities, were municipal employees answerable to Ślaski, according to the historian.

The plan to bury the "Battle of Grunwald" was conceived once the painting reached Lublin. Among those attaending the meeting where this was decided were Stanisław Kalinowski, Roman Ślaski and Lublin vice-voivode, Stanisław Bryła.
The inconvenient and forgotten: Roman Slaski, president of Lublin, and lawyer Stanislaw Kalinowski. Photo: biblioteka.teatrnn.pl
"The meeting took place on September 9, 1939. The burying of the paintings in the power plant area represented the precise implementation of decisions taken during this meeting. Włodzimierz Wójcikowski writes about it in the book ‘The WW2 fate of Matejko's works’ [‘Wojenne losy dzieł Matejki’, Wydawnictwo Lubelskie, 1974]," Dr. Gapski says. However, he does point out that the Wójcikowski book is inconsistent insofar as its author downplays the 1939 meeting as routine, rather than acknowledging that the decision to bury the "Battle" in the shed at Elektryczna Street was the outcome and effective implementation of arrangements discussed at that gathering.

– "According to the then propaganda, Wójcikowski ignored the role played by Kalinowski and Ślaski. Kalinowski, an extremely noble and righteous man, was a committed Catholic who, after 1944, worked hard at the reconstruction of the Lublin cathedral bombed during the war. The communist authorities could not like it. Ślaski, on the other hand, is the only man we know to have been imprisoned multiple times in Lublin Castle – first as a teenager during the 1905 revolution, then during the German occupation, and in 1944-46 -- twice by the communist authorities. He cooperated with the Home Army. Although his family property did not qualify for the land reform, the day of the public announcement that the "Battle of Grunwald" had been found and was in the hands of the Polish state, Ślaski's property was confiscated. It was a malicious and deliberate act by the communist authorities. The person who was so strongly involved in hiding the painting was being shown his place in the line," Dr. Gapski contends. –

The time has come to do justice to Kalinowski and Ślaski, Dr. Gapski believes. "I am far from denying the heroism of other participants in the action of hiding the painting. People who took a huge risk to save the ‘Battle’ were heroes. I have no doubts about that," he says.

How a janitor became a professor

That Kalinowski and Ślaski played leading roles in the action somehow never became public konwledge, either through the media or in the ensuing literature. Anniversary publications in newspapers and online always name Władysław Woyda as a key figure. The main reason for this, Gapski asserts, stems from the fact that the most popular publications on the subject -- i.e. Wójcikowski’s book and Monika Warneńska’s "The Battle for Grunwald" ["Bitwa o Grunwald", Państwowe Zakłady Wydawnictw Szkolnych, 1961] -- never questioned the propaganda message about peasant-workers saving the painting and these were published in printruns of tens of thousands.

Tamara de Lempicka: the journey of the bird of paradise

The artist was too defiantly bourgeois to attract the attention of cultural decision-makers in Poland’s People's Republic.

see more
– These books are widely available on the antiquarian market. They are in almost every library. They are among the most frequently used sources for journalists working on the subject. I suppose Joanna Jodelka, the author of the historical novel "Two million for Grunwald" ["Dwa miliony za Grunwald", WAB, 2018] also relied on them. She even made Władysław Woyda, a man who before the war was a janitor in our museum and had no more than a basic education, a professor! Literary fiction got out of hand. It is because of her, we are stuck in a deep lie as to who was in charge of the action of hiding the painting. This lie is very effective because it has been based on the truth -- 90 per cent of names mentioned by the authors of books and media articles are correct as to those who hid the ‘Battle’. The main facts about the operation are also real.

It is quite likely that the "Battle of Grunwald" was buried in the shed a year earlier than is usually assumed. While most publications indicate the year 1941, Dr. Gapski claims it was in fact 1940. If correct, then the painting spent four and a half and not three and a half years in the hole.

Memoirs written by historical witnesses point to the transfer of the painting having taken place when the Germans took over the Lublin Museum. Again, Dr. Gapski: "I date this event to 1940. Witnesses say the transfer of the painting took place just before Easter, on Holy Wednesday, which in 1940 fell on March 20. This would mean that the operation was carried out very quickly. The ‘Battle’ arrived in Lublin in September 1939. In March 1940, shortly after Stanisław Kalinowski was released from prison where the Germans had detained him, it was transported to Elektryczna Street.”
This was a time when the occupiers were establishing a German district in Lublin and throwing many people out of their homes, Dr. Gapski continues. „The huge wave of moving was an opportune moment for the cart with the paintings to pass through the city unnoticed. It is also worth noting that it was in 1940 that the London radio broadcast the false news that the ‘Battle’ had reached London. I suppose it could have been Ślaski’s idea. He maintained contacts with the Home Army and could have asked for such a broadcast so that the Germans would finally stop snooping around Lublin.”

Back to greatness

It’s worth noting that in order for us to admire Matejko’s large-format painting, the conservators also had to fight their own battle. After extracting the painting from the hole in the shed of the Lublin Public Transport, it turned out that despite the wrapping in asbestos, oilcloth and tarpaper, the painting was in a terrible condition. Restored under the direction of Professor Bohdan Marconi, the „Battle” was eventually exhibited for the first time in 1949, 10 years after being successfully evacuated from Zachęta.

Sixty years on and another thorough renovation proved necessary. The task took 25 months. "Due to the size of the painting, the conservation works were carried out in a gallery room that was adapted for this purpose. A special wooden platform, covered with polivinyl lining, was built to facilitate the works. Two metal mobile platforms enabled the restorers to work without stepping onto the surface of the painting. They worked in a forced semi-recumbent position.” The above acount comes from the paper presented by Dorota Ignatowicz-Woźniakowska, the chief conservator of the National Museum in Warsaw, at the conference entitled "Historical vision in the service of the nation: 140 years of Jan Matejko’s painting ‘Battle of Grunwald’", which was organized in 2018 by the Jan Matejko Memorial Museum in Nowy Wiśnicz.
Rolling up a painting before a trip to Vilnius in April 1999. Photo: PAP/Radek Pietruszka
Ignatowicz-Woźniakowska pointed out how the painting had been damaged during its last trip to Vilnius in 1999, while the ad hoc interventions by conservators turned out to be ineffective. "Due to the rigidity of the individual layers of the painting, the process of rolling it up on a roller and turning it exposed it to fresh damage," she explained. That is why this was to be the last trip of the "Battle of Grunwald". The painting will never again leave the National Museum in Warsaw.

And consider what might have happened had Mikulicz-Radecki and Ejsmond not insisted on rolling up Matejko's works and putting them in a box during those tumultuous times all those years ago? Just think if they had accepted the Warsaw magistrate’s explanation at the time, how it would have been impossible to get to Lublin by horse-drawn cart?

A widespread opinion in the literature holds that the Germans were looking for the Matejko’s canvas in order to destroy it immediately. "Hypothetically, the Germans could have used the ‘Battle’ for propaganda and organized an exhibition that would have ridiculed the Polish, anti-German sentiment; showed that Poland as a state had represented a threat to Germany for centuries, and justified the 1939 invasion. ‘Bitwa’ might also have been rolled up and stored in bad conditions in Warsaw, and ended up simply being destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising. If the painting hadn't been evacuated and then hidden in Lublin, most likely we wouldn't have had the original at the National Museum today. We would have had just a copy," exclaims Tomasz Sudoł.

–Agnieszka Niewinska

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

–translated by Agnieszka Rakoczy
Main photo: "The Battle of Grunwald" by Jan Matejko. Photo: PAP/Jacek Turczyk
See more
History wydanie 22.12.2023 – 29.12.2023
Pomeranian Crime: Whoever is Polish must disappear
Between September and December, 1939, 30,000 people in 400 towns of Pomerania were murdered.
History wydanie 22.12.2023 – 29.12.2023
Escape from Stalag – Christmas Eve Story 1944
Prisoners sought shelter in a German church... It was a mistake.
History wydanie 15.12.2023 – 22.12.2023
New Moscow in Somalia
The Russian press called him "the new Columbus".
History wydanie 15.12.2023 – 22.12.2023
Anonymous account by Witold Pilecki
The friend with whom they had escaped from KL Auschwitz was killed on August 5. He died with the words: “for Poland”.
History wydanie 8.12.2023 – 15.12.2023
Journalist purge to restore media monopoly
Only “trusted people” were allowed to work; over 100 employees were interned.