A story out of the X-Files in Kraków. Jagiellonian University’s founding documents disappeared.

Could the parchments have been devoured by springtails? Maybe they have rotted? Or they were successfully hidden from the Nazis and then from the communists. Who knows? Urban legends and facts are told by historian Artur Wójcik from the Jagiellonian University (UJ) Museum. As he says, anything can happen in Kraków: – Karol Estreicher created a monument, “the medieval motto of UJ”: Plus ratio quam vis (Reason means more than might) which was placed on the portal leading to the Copernicus Hall of the Collegium Maius.

TVP WEEKLY: On May 12, we are celebrating the fact that 659 years ago Casimir the Great founded a university in Kraków, later to be known as “Jagiellonian”. A non-round anniversary, but those attending the event would like to see a founding document or any other charter signed by the king. Is that possible?

ARTUR WÓJCIK: Yes, provided that the visitors to the UJ Museum or those attending the ceremony – here in Kraków we love anniversaries because apart from the Catholic Church it is perhaps the oldest company in Poland – as we say today – with an unchanged brand – are content to view a post-war copy. It was made from photographs of the original document taken in 1900, when the 500th anniversary of the second foundation, by Władysław Jagiełło, was celebrated. On the other hand, the originals of both of the aforementioned foundations of my Alma Mater, do not exist, as they disappeared during WWII. This story is long, full of dramatic twists and mysterious, and the main role is played by figures as significant for the history of Poland and our museology as Karol Estreicher. This leads to the emergence of urban legends and even conspiracy theories in Kraków. So it has to be told from the beginning. Especially since I have recently managed to track down a report in the National Archives in Kraków that dispels a lot of doubts about what happened to these medieval parchments.

During the war, many priceless items disappeared in our country, as it can be seen, also from Kraków, which was not destroyed by bombing or flamethrowers. Disappeared or was stolen. The book that the Minister of Culture and National Heritage, prof. Piotr Gliński recently presented to the German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier is rather on the thick side.

However, in this case, we can rule out robbery by the Germans. But one thing at a time: on May 12, 1364, Casimir the Great issued the charter of the Studium generale in Kraków. This is how a new institution appeared on Polish lands, and it was a royal institution, because the last king of Poland from the Piast dynasty established it by his decision and wanted to finance it from his treasury. This document was soon confirmed by a special papal bull, without which the institution could not exist as a university. It is worth mentioning here that in the Middle Ages, universities usually had four faculties where young people could study: liberal arts, medicine, law and theology. Interestingly, the theological faculty is not mentioned in the foundation document of Casimir the Great. It was established only in 1397. Historians still argue why it happened. The simplest explanation is that it was the most important university department and no one could teach there. It is not enough to establish a chair, you also need to have someone to take it. Bricks won’t give a lecture. Neither then, nor today.
What about the second act of foundation?

Casimir the Great'’s foundation probably did not survive his death – we don’t really know what happened to the University under the next ruler. It is believed that it existed in some residual form at the time. It was only the royal couple, Jadwiga and Władysław Jagiełło, who decided to renew this foundation and create a real university. Here, historians argue again whether this is a re-foundation or a renewal of this Studium, older by almost half a century. The fact remains that on July 26, 1400, Władysław Jagiełło issued another foundation document. Queen Jadwiga had died a year earlier, leaving her personal fortune for the organization of the University. The king was preparing to marry his new bride, Anna Cylejska, a German-speaking Piast on the distaff side, forcing her to learn Polish, as the chronicler Jan Długosz attests. It is presumed, however, that the language lessons were a diplomatic ploy to break off the betrothal, because, to put in a nutshell, Jagiełło simply did not like Anna.

Coming back to the old parchments: Until when do we know with all certainty that the original, signed founding documents of the Jagiellonian University existed?

These documents appeared in various archival inventories, while the tangible proof that they existed despite the passage of centuries are photographs taken in 1900 on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Jagiellonian University. Professor Stanisław Krzyżanowski contributed to that. It was also at this time that the decision was taken to “bind” the documents in oak boxes, where they would henceforth be kept. There are also sources confirming that after Poland regained independence, in the 1920s and 1930s, they were placed together with the most valuable staves (maces) and university jewels in the safes of Bank Gospodarstwa Krajowego and the Bank Związku Spółek Zarobkowych as a deposit of the Jagiellonian University. Today, it is difficult to settle, whether the documents were extracted from the depository.

We know that, for example, for the solemn inaugurations of the academic year, other elements of the Jagiellonian University treasures were taken out of the deposit, e.g. the two oldest rector’s staves known to us today – those of Queen Jadwiga and Cardinal Zbigniew Oleśnicki, which were later carried proudly by bedels before His Magnificence. Certainly, on this occasion, the rector’s chains were pulled out. There were the reasuries of the Jagiellonian University, containing about 30 items, all placed in that deposit. Depositary receipts for this collection have been preserved in the Archives of the Jagiellonian University.

And when did we learn that war was imminent, was there a plan to secure or evacuate all these amazing treasures and what was it? Such strategies of conduct were developed, for example, in relation to cathedral treasures, both in Strasbourg and in Lviv. It was clear that the war would be fought with modern means, that there would be bombings and fires.

Already WWI showed that the losses to culture can be significant, so in Kraków there was a famous case of dismantling the figures from the Altarpiece by Veit Stoss from St. Mary’s Basilica. In the last days of August 1939, it was possible to organize the evacuation of the elements of the altar – they were transported to Sandomierz by galar across the Vistula. This was the implementation of a plan by Karol Estreicher Jr., who carried it in person. Of course, the Germans found and confiscated the statues in Sandomierz, and to put it bluntly – they stole them. On the other hand, the Wawel tapestries survived in hiding, having been taken to Canada after perturbations, etc. All this was certainly worked on from the spring of 1939.

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Decisions on how and what to secure or evacuate were sometimes better, sometimes worse, sometimes none at all. First of all, there were no funds earmarked for this in advance. The funds were needed for the proper protection of these works or transport that would not damage them. The Jagiellonian University did not have such a special fund, nor was it endowed by the state. All the time people were deluded that there would be no war, and in their nightmares no one predicted how long or how terrible it would be. Some academic staff of the Jagiellonian University, especially from the Art History Department, then located in the Collegium Novum, decided that since there was no support from above, they had to organize everything themselves. They decided to prepare a hiding place, or in fact use a secret room, which was designed together with the construction of the Collegium Novum at the end of the 19th century, and hide there the most valuable collections of the Department (and the Jagiellonian University as a whole). It was a clever plan of the same Karol Estreicher the younger to make another hiding place in this hiding place.

But this is where the suppositions begin, for there is no plan or evidence that says what the second stash was, or even if it was where it is supposed to be today. We do not know whether it was carved in the wall, possibly in the vault or in the floor. We do not even know whether at that time the bottom of this room in the hiding place was concreted, brick or simply earthen, and if concreted, what and how deep was under the concrete. So was it bored or just a hole in the ground was dug (which would certainly be easier to disguise)? In principle, this clever stash was intended only for the so-called metal, i.e. gold and silver staves, chains and coins. However, it was decided – as indicated by sources, unfortunately few and later than the very moment of using the stash – perhaps in a moment of desperation, because “bombs were falling on our heads”, to hide the entire treasures there. Including wooden boxes with two founding documents of the Jagiellonian University: parchments with seals hanging on silk ribbons. The treasures were stored in the hiding place in the morning of September 1, 1939, during the first air raids of the German air force on Kraków.

Apart from Karol Estreicher, who was involved in it, at some stage?

Estreicher was an employee of the Department of Art History, which meant he collaborated mainly with associate professor Adam Bochnak, who was of course higher in the university hierarchy, and on a private level they were close friends. The head of the Department, Professor Tadeusz Szydłowski, had to be involved in the plan. Although he did not physically participate in it, as there are no sources confirming his presence on the spot, nothing would have been done without his knowledge. Karol Estreicher himself also could not physically participate in closing the stash, because that was when he was returning from Sandomierz, to which he had floated the figures from the Veit Stoss Altarpiece on the night of August 31 to September 1. He only came back in the evening. The then authorities of the Jagiellonian University, mainly in the person of the secretary Włodzimierz Ottman, decided not to wait for him and hand over the deposit to Bochnak, who filled the box, let’s call it “internal”, and walled up the access to it in the cellars of the Collegium Novum, where the works of art had previously been placed, for example, numerous university property and some elements of the Veit Stoss Altarpiece.
Covering with earth and masking the inner stash so that it does not look like a fresh excavation seems to be more effective than bricking it up. Unfortunately, only in relation to metals, not necessarily parchments. If the outer stash is discovered – as it was – the inner one is still safe. But let’s go further.

What do we know for sure? On the morning of September 1, Adam Bochnak receives a deposit from the above-mentioned secretary Ottman, and then, accompanied by his younger assistant Jerzy Żarnecki and with the help of the widely respected Michał Orkisz, a retired and trusted janitor (apart from cleaning duties, for over 40 years he had been entrusted, for example, with cataloguing the Department’s collections), places it in a stash and disguises it. The gentlemen certainly committed themselves to keep the strictest secrecy, because in April 1945, Adam Bochnak’s official report for the university authorities about his personal fate during the occupation, lacks any details allowing to locate the “internal” stash. It also lacks any technical data, and even a list of these valuables.

What happened next can be deduced mainly from the four surviving protocols from the opening of the box in July 1945, to which I will turn in a moment. Associate Professor Bochnak spent the occupation period in Ciężkowice. Jerzy Żarnecki escaped from the occupied country and made his way to France, where he fought in the French campaign, in which he was taken prisoner by the Germans. In 1943, he managed to escape and ended up in London, where Karol Estreicher (who worked closely with General Władysław Sikorski) employed him in the Revindication Office operating under the Polish government in exile. The office dealt with counting war losses, especially cultural losses, tracking where the Germans had taken looted works of art, and planning future revindication. Thanks to this, Estreicher noted in his diary that the treasures were safely deposited. Anyway, none of its elements surfaced during the war, and the Germans would be proud of such achievements.

Jerzy Żarnecki did not return to the Polish People’s Republic after the war, he became a respected English art historian and to this day there are no known (and I do not know if they were sought) any of his accounts related to the hiding of the UJ treasures. Karol Estreicher, however, returned to Poland in 1945 in an atmosphere of considerable scandal among London’s Polish community due to the fact that he had established contacts with the communist government, and for this reason has been judged very differently to this day, with many calling his decision a betrayal. There is no doubt, however, that he recovered for Poland the Veit Stoss Altarpiee, the “Lady with an Ermine” by Leonardo da Vinci, and contributed to the recovery of many other works of art. Would it have worked if he was still in London and some political instructor was handling the recovery here? When he came to his city, he saw Russian soldiers roaming the streets, arrests, rape and looting. That the permanent surveillance of society begins. Saved must be what may. Estreicher contributed to the establishment of the Jagiellonian University Museum, of which I am an employee today, and he was one of the most colorful figures in the history of the University and the city, that’s for sure.

Perhaps in some time you will tell about Estreicher himself, because you are examining his activities for the Jagiellonian University. And for now, I'll ask: what about the cache/stash/hiding place?!

Thus, the situation of this stash remains suspended until July 1945, and its existence is still covered with the strictest secret. Let me remind you that Prof. Bochnak did not disclose its location in his April testimony. However, there was concern about what was happening to it and whether it had survived at all. Since the Germans plundered everything on the way out (as evidenced by the shoe print of a Wehrmacht soldier on the “Lady with an Ermine”), so it was impossible to rule out that they had found it. The then authorities of the Jagiellonian University decided to finally open the stash and extract the treasures on July 28, 1945. The date, interestingly, coincides with the moment of Karol Estreicher’s first post-war visit to Poland, when he was completing the formalities related to the future revindication mission to Germany as a representative of the Polish People’s Republic.

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The cache was opened by a commission consisting of illustrious representatives of historical sciences and art history, including Adam Bochnak, who closed it in September '39. Among the gathered, he was the only person who could indicate the place, because Michał Orkisz died in 1940, and Żarnecki was in exile. The commission consisted of people of generally unblemished reputation, while coming from very different backgrounds: Henryk Barycz, a well-known Kraków historian, professor of the Jagiellonian University, Bogdan Treter, provincial conservator of monuments and architect who died a few months later, Feliks Kopera, director of the National Museum in Kraków, Stanisław Gąsiorowski, director of the Czartoryski Museum, and Stanisław Dziurzyński, vice-rector of the Jagiellonian University. It is hard to imagine a conspiracy of all these people to conceal the truth in Kraków. Although it must be admitted that the eyes of the gathered – according to a very laconic protocol, signed post factum at that – saw a sight as bizarre as it was tragic. Namely, everything was in place (although after two days, on Monday, they returned to the stash in search of the missing chain), but from the foundation documents only fragments of completely decayed boxes and seals were to be found.

The absence of Treter’s signature on the opening protocol, who died in mid-November of that year, suggests that the document was signed after that time, i.e. even half a year later. It’s completely unclear why. And so began urban legends and even conspiracy theories that, for example, Estreicher took out these acts and hid them somewhere. Although they did not come out then – as it would seem, people had more serious problems during the Stalinist period – but in 2014, with the participation of local media. And this is due to the 650th anniversary of the act of foundation with the seal of Casimir the Great. As I’ve mentioned, we in Kraków love to celebrate anniversaries. 650 years of tradition and everything is clear (laughs).

The fact that the chain was lost in the stash and it was necessary to return for it, and then it was found, may suggest that the cache was indeed a hole in the ground, and the items were thrown together in a sack. Because in a metal or wooden box, or finally in a brick or concrete hole, it would not get lost. Could you describe in detail the issue of the protocols from the opening of the cache, because they seem to be crucial here? And what was actually found when it was opened or unveiled?

Firstly, it is worth noting that the fact of discovering the cache and finding in it, e.g. rector’s staves, gold chains, etc. was not given any propaganda value in the press at that time. It’s very unusual. The items found were deposited in the treasury at Wawel, where they were supposed to be safe. In the Archives of the Jagiellonian University we find the protocols of opening the box the first and second time when the missing chain was found. The protocol lists what was found in the cache (28 items in total), but does not include information on where the cache was exactly located, no technical references whatsoever. However, there was information that a badly decayed piece of paper was found, on which it was written: “UJ Treasures hidden on September 1, 1939 at... o’clock[?] Adam Bochnak, Jerzy Żarnecki, Michał Orkisz”. Unfortunately, this piece of paper either fell apart in someone’s hands or was lost because it is no longer there. However, a certain detail escapes attention, namely the note was hidden in a tin box, maybe that’s why it survived, and the medieval parchments thrown loose did not? Moreover, as I mentioned, there is a certainty that there was at least negligence and the protocols were formulated on the spot, but later – perhaps even much later.

In the literature on the subject, we can find mentions that these founding documents were lost by the University during the war “in unfortunate circumstances”, and that they were to be completely degraded. However, the details of the case were not known. No one has delved deeper into it for over 50 years. As a result, all the witnesses had already died. It’s a pity, because Jerzy Żarnecki had lived in England until 2008. Only the jubilee of the Jagiellonian University in 2014 prompted historians to take up the subject. Searching and asking began. Here let me mention Marcin Baster from the Jagiellonian University Archives, who performed a powerful query. There have been various speculations as to what could have happened to parchment, which – as we know – is a material quite resistant to the vicissitudes of fate and environmental conditions. Certainly more than paper.
Parchment is mammalian skin, i.e. collagen – it is difficult to decompose, it requires a lot of warm water, which works for a long time, and proteolytic enzymes that can come from microorganisms. The woodworm will not attack the parchment, because it feeds on plant material, not animal material, and the moth is a creature that flies around the wardrobes, not in the basement...

And in 1946, an expert report by botany doctors Jan and Wanda Zabłocki appeared saying that mediaeval documents were devoured by springtails.

They are arthropods closely related to insects. Only that they also feed on plant cellulose, and in addition they live in water or moist soil – preferably humus. So it’s probably not them, although the expert opinion suggests an underground cache again.

May they be the strangest thing that comes out on this subject on the part of serious people! We are also dealing with something that we know for sure since 2014 that it was a kind of hoax, although its author would rather call it a symbolic representation. I am talking here about the “Estreicher’s jar” still in the storage of the Jagiellonian University Museum. This is an ordinary pre-war box of Polish production, with a wide spring, in which our grandmothers stored pickled cucumbers, full of sand, gravel, sawdust, soil ... actually until 2014 we did not know what exactly. Today, after analyzes carried out by specialists from the Jagiellonian University, it is clear that there had never been any parchment there, but there are... clippings of German newspapers from the period of WWII. For the life of me it cannot contain any material from this real cache.

Relatively soon after the war (in 1953), very good parchment copies of these medieval acts of foundation were created on the basis of preserved photos from 1900. They are presented at the UJ Museum and although it is written that they are copies, no one is surprised. The originals of such manuscripts are rarely presented. And basically it hasn’t been talked about for years. Not that there was any collusion, it just wasn’t an issue. Since Professor Estreicher shows professional copies of these parchments at the UJ Museum and also showed a jar with what was left of the cache – or rather symbolizing it – the case was considered closed.

The parchment documents rotted without a trace, disintegrated, “turned to gelatin and leaked”, mice ate them – opinions differed, because no record was found anywhere of what exactly it looked like when the stash was opened. We don’t know where it’s been to test it. Anyway, I don’t know if after so many years it would be possible to recreate the conditions during the war in the cellars of the Collegium Novum. Today, the area is drained, dehydrated, and then it didn’t have to be so.

No one was surprised that Karol Estreicher created the monument, because he was known for such things. E.g. for the :Medieval motto of the Jagiellonian University”: Plus ratio quam vis (Reason means more than strength), which was placed on the portal leading from the Aula to the Copernicus Hall in Collegium Maius. The portal rebuilt by Estreicher, where the Museum of the Jagiellonian University is located. He also invented this motto in the 1950s. He took it from the poet Maximianus from the 6th century, and claimed that it was an original from Kraków and dates back to the beginnings of the University! To this day, most students and staff believe so, even medals are awarded with this motto. I think that Karol Estreicher, with his brilliant pen and ideas, would find a great place today as the head of an advertising agency (laughs).

Evidently, his boundaries of historical reconstruction were shifted and there is no little controversy around him.

This is why the urban legend accuses him of breaching this hiding place and taking out those unsealed parchments, hiding them somewhere… He is blamed for having invented this cache at all, because the parchments could have been lying in the bank and nothing would have happened. The problem is that the Germans looted the founding documents of the University of Prague and they have not been found to this day. There was no good way out here. There is never a good solution in such situations. Some people seem to forget that.

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Shutting the mouths of gossipers and sensationalists, however, requires evidence. And this may come from the London private archive of Jerzy Żarnecki, if it exists at all. Or from detailed scientific research capable of determining what can happen in six years in the conditions of this cache, probably earthen, with a 600-year-old parchment. Or... Well, tell me what you found and where.

I deal with the matter as a hobby, because no matter what we think about it, it is intriguing. Somewhat by chance, I have recently managed to reach, in the National Archives in Kraków, a diary kept by hand by Bogdan Treter, the provincial conservator of monuments, already mentioned on the occasion of opening the cache, who died six months after the event. Every day he wrote down, really with daily dates and in quite detail, everything he did as part of his official duties, field trips, what conservation procedures had to be carried out, what the condition of the objects was, etc. Oh, how useful such “detailers” and pedants would be to us historians! What’s more, it is a well-stitched, thick A4 notebook, with pages numbered, so there is a good deal of certainty that nothing has been torn out or inserted.

I found a half-page entry under the date of July 28, 1945, regarding the “insignia of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków”, which can be summarized as the fact that the author participated as a member of the Jagiellonian University commission in opening the cache. “In the indicated place [unfortunately, it is not precisely described – note AW], it was found that the hiding place was intact”, and after opening “all the items hidden there were found in sawdust and sand”, i.e. “4 staves, several rings, a dozen or so gold ducats, 5 chains of the rector and deans, a box covered with leather, impossible to open, probably containing the chain of Queen Jadwiga [here the text is crossed out, because it was about the chain of Anna Jagiellonka – note AW.], and finally two incomplete seals of founding decrees. Unfortunately, the parchment documents have not been found at all, and from the small black shreds near the seals it should be assumed that the parchment was completely decomposed by moisture. Present were…”. And here are the following professors: Dziurzyński, Kopera, Gąsiorowski, Barycz, Bochnak. And further: “Since the opinion was unanimously expressed that the entire stock of sand and sawdust, which is in the closet, should be checked carefully whether there is anything else in it. Associate Profesor Bochnak does not have a list of items that were hidden, nor does he remember, it was decided to perform this activity on Monday, July 30. In order to secure the entrance, it was secured with the conservator’s seal. It is incomprehensible why the most valuable documents of the Jagiellonian University were not completely protected against moisture, or why they were not stored in another quiet place.” And under it his signature: “BT” [i.e. Bogdan Treter – trans. note].

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE At this stage of research, this basically closes the matter of conspiracy theories and urban legends from “The Russians have them” through “Estreicher took them and hid them” to “The Americans have them”, because it was impossible to sell them then, and probably neither today. Of course, the question of such a complete decomposition of the material, which is parchment, raises doubts, and here the most detailed expertise of archaeologists, specialists in medieval parchments would be highly recommended. If these acts lay in very moist soil in low oxygen conditions…

I have recently found another interesting piece of evidence on this subject. This source is mentioned in the publication of professor Stanisław Waltoś about the robbery of the Veit Stoss Altarpiece. The author quotes an account by Erich Meyer-Hasig, curator of the Art Collection in Wrocław, who was brought as a specialist to Kraków to join a German robbery team. After the war, he made a statement that he had witnessed the discovery of this “external” cache in the Collegium Novum. According to him, “emptying” the storage in fact saved these items from destruction, because in the winter of 1939, due to severe frost, the heating system in this building was supposed to burst, which caused the floors and the basement room to be completely flooded with water. If true, it would explain the dramatic and unpredictable level of moisture in these hidden valuables. It is now necessary to somehow verify whether this “internal” cache simply did not stand in the water for years. Although no witnesses of those days are alive.

So, a story out of the X-Files happened in Kraków. For now, there will be a scientific article about it, maybe a book or a reportage one day? Although the original founding acts of the Jagiellonian University no longer exist. The Second World War was responsible for the irretrievable loss of these documents? Perhaps, but they weren’t just stolen.

– Interviewed by Magdalena Kawalec-Segond
– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Artur Wójcik, MA – historian, employee of the Jagiellonian University Museum, popularizer of history, creator of podcasts and the Sigillum Authenticum website, author of the book “Fantazmat Wielkiej Lechii. Jak pseudonauka zawładnęła umysłami Polaków”. He is interested in forgotten and unobvious threads in our history.
Main photo: Founding document of Władysław Jagiełło from July 26, 1400. Photograph taken for the publication by Stanisław Krzyżanowski “Poselstwo Kazimierza Wielkiego do Awinionu i pierwsze uniwersyteckie przywileje w 1900 r.” Photo: National Library of Poland (, Public Domain
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