Nick Hodge reports
Prince Michal Sapieha; photo - Wawel Castle
The Royal Castle launched its main exhibition of the year this week, drawing back the curtain on treasures that once adorned the residences of the Sapieha family, one of the most powerful dynasties in the former Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania (1569-1795).
Prince Michal Ksawery Sapieha, who emigrated from Poland in 1945 as the Red Army spread its grip across the country, was there to take part in the launch.
In November 1952, officers from Poland's Stalinist secret police led a raid on the archbishop's palace in Krakow.
The former archbishop, Cardinal Adam Sapieha, had died the previous year, and in the eyes of the communist regime, the time had come to strike.
One of the biggest show trials of the Stalinist era ensued. Its aim was to reveal “the treasonous acts against the state and the Polish people that the cardinal and his supporters had engaged in.”
Besides charges of spying for the West, evidence of treachery was drummed up in the form of a hoard of artworks that had been stored in the cellars of the Curia. According to the new authorities, this was state property.
As it was, the lion's share of the treasures had been placed there for safe-keeping by Prince Leon Sapieha, nephew of the cardinal. He had died in 1944, and within three years, virtually every manor house and stately home in the country had been seized from its pre-war owners.
Prince Michal Ksawery Sapieha, who was 15 years-old when the war officially ended in 1945, vividly recalls leaving the country that year.
“The Americans had sent a special car to take my uncle, Cardinal Sapieha, out of the country,” he told Polish Radio on Monday.
“But he said that he would never leave Poland. Instead, he told my father: 'Take it and go, because you have no hope staying here in a communist country.'
“And so, my father, my sister and I left for Prague.”
From there, a French plane took the family to Paris. It would be several decades before Sapieha was given back his Polish passport.
The fanily moved first to Africa, before eventually settling in Belgium, where the 81-year-old prince lives until today.
Meanwhile, as of 1953, the artworks which had been stored in the archbishop's palace were divided up among various museums across Poland, including Wawel in Krakow.
Many of these treasures were revealed on Monday at the Royal Castle's exhibition, “The Princes Sapieha: Art Patrons and Collectors.”
Ancestral portraits, tapestries, crested silver seals, illuminated manuscripts and the oriental silk sashes favoured by the Polish nobility are among over 200 exhibits on show, including pieces lent from Lithuanian state collections.
“I spent a lot of time fighting to get back all the things that you see. And when I got them, I deposited them in Wawel. Because it was very important for me not to divide all these heirlooms,” says Sapieha.
Many of the treasures have been gradually purchased by the state museum at Wawel since the collapse of communism in 1989.
“I'm the only man left of my generation in the family,” Sapieha reflects.
“And now, I'm very happy that the maximum amount of art works remains in Wawel. It's all in one place, which from the point of view of history, is very important for Poland, and also for my family.”
“The Princes Sapieha: Art Patrons and Collectors,” will be on show until 31 December 2011. A plaque was unveiled on Monday at Wawel by energy firm Tauron Group, the principal sponsor of the exhibition. (pg)