A few days ago while flipping through Metro News on your way to work you might have caught a glimpse of a photo depicting Polish Senate Speaker Bogdan Borusewicz.
The photo, which was taken at the Library of Parliament in Ottawa, depicts Mr. Borusewicz handing a reproduction of the Gutenberg Bible to Noel A. Kinsella, Speaker of the Senate of Canada and includes a caption which explains that the Bible “…is a token of thanks to Canada for helping safeguard a number of Poland’s national cultural treasures, including the Gutenber Bible, during World War II.”
Hmmm, very interesting – cultural treasures? Nazis? It all sounds a bit like an Indiana Jones movie. And it’s all a mystery to most of us. So, what is the story exactly?
Well, apparently two days after the Nazis invaded Poland a massive effort was undertaken by the Poles overseeing national treasures to get them out of the country. The most precious artifacts were held at the Wawel Castle in Krakow. Among them was the “Szczerbiec” or coronation sword that was used in crowning ceremonies of Polish Kings from 1320 to 1764. Included also were precious tapestries and the Gutenberg Bible (also know as the Pelplin Bible)
Between 1452 and 1455, Gutenberg printed an esstimated 180 copies of the Bible, of which 48 are still in existence. Each of the originals is estimated to be worth over $100 million.
Desperate to save their nation’s treasure, Wawel employees transported the precious cargo on barges, wagons, buses and trucks to Romania. From there, they tried to move it to Britain via France but while en route to the British town of Falmouth the ship came under fire from Germany’s Luftwaffe.
Certain that doom was near, the treasure keepers decided to remove the coronation sword from its chest and sandwich it between two wooden planks – so that in the event of a catastrophe and the ship was sunk, at least the sword would be salvaged. The plan worked. In fact, the treasures escaped the Luftwaffe not once but twice.
Later, at the height of the Battle of Britain when the German Air Force was relentlessly bombarding the country, the treasures were slipped out and shipped to the Polish Embassy in Canada aboard the Polish ocean liner MS Batory. The treasures rested there for more than 20 years. Today the Coronation Sword as well as the other national treasures rest at the Wawel Royal Castle in Krakow. The Pelplin Bible resides in the Diocese of Pelplin in Poland.
So, now you know.
It’s kind of a cool piece of Polish/Canadian history. If you want to know more about it you can pick up the book The Strange Odyssey of Poland’s National Treasures, 1939-1961 by Gordon Swoger. You can buy it for the price of a coffee, really! Indigo is selling it at a 92 percent discount for only two dollars. Think that’s a great deal? Well, how about reading it for free here.
The Strange Odyssey of Poland”s National Treasures, 1939-1961 tells the story of the Polish national treasures -their evacuation from their homeland under perilous conditions after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 and their subsequent removal to western Europe and then to Canada. At the end of the war two Polish governments, a Communist one in Warsaw and a non-Communist one in London, vied for control of the national treasures. Before long the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, the RCMP, and the Canadian and Quebec governments all became involved in the desperate hide-and-seek confrontation between the two Polish governments. Eventually, in February 1961, the release of the historic treasures was negotiated and they were returned to their native land, twenty-two years after their wartime departure. It was indeed a long voyage home!
And now that you know the context, we can return to Ottawa. The following is an excerpt from an official Senate transcript from Mr. Borusewicz’s May 5th visit:
…Let me also express our sincere and deep gratitude for the gift of the Gutenberg Bible replica that you have bestowed upon us. It is a fitting gift that recalls our commitment to freedom during the darkest days of the Second World War, when Canadians and Poles fought together against Nazi tyranny and Canada served as temporary repository, a safe haven, if you will, for many of Poland’s national treasures, including the Gutenberg Bible and other treasures from Wawel Castle…
Senator Bogdan Borusewicz, Speaker of the Senate of the Republic of Poland: (Senator Borusewicz spoke in Polish)
…I would like to extend a particular note of thanks to the Senate for safeguarding precious assets of Polish culture in Canada during the dark years of the Second World War and in the post-war period. While Poland was gripped by war, Ottawa provided a place of safekeeping for treasures from the Wawel Castle, including 136 tapestries, the Polish Crown Jewels, the coronation sword, the Gutenberg Bible, the Psalms of David, the Holy Cross Sermons and gold from the national treasury. We see many examples today where some countries keep cultural treasures; however, there are only a few examples of countries returning cultural treasures. After the war, Canada returned the entire collection to Poland. As a token of our appreciation, I presented the Speaker of the Senate, the Honourable Noël A. Kinsella, and the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Honourable Peter Milliken, with a reprint of the Gutenberg Bible from the Diocese of Pelplin…
In 2002-2003, a Polish publishing house produced 198 copies of the Pelplin Bible. The copies were produced to commemorate both John Paul II’s 25th year as pope and the 550th anniversary of Gutenberg’s printing of a “movable type” Bible. Source