Date: 10 June 2017    Author: Mariusz Klarecki, PHD

Wartime Losses of Private Art Collections of Warsaw Residents

In addition to the physical destruction of the inhabitants of Warsaw and the city itself, pre-war private art collections of the city’s residents were almost entirely lost. While some museums and libraries managed to recover after the war, largely uncatalogued private collections were gone.

Surviving documents and numerous witness reports clearly indicate that not everything was destroyed, and that a considerable part was plundered by the German occupiers.

Before the war, Warsaw had a population of nearly 1.3 million.[1] In many homes, each subsequent generation had collected works of art, antiques and historical memorabilia, expanding the family’s collection of cultural heritage over time. Works of art were acquired with difficulty both in Poland and abroad, and with substantial cost and effort. Alongside the rich interiors and furnishings of houses, there were outstanding items, including European and Polish masterpieces. After the war, the historic architecture of the most precious Warsaw apartment houses and palaces was rebuilt, but the richness of the old interiors could not be recreated.


September 1939

The aerial bombardment of the capital began on September 1, 1939. After a week, the first Wehrmacht units arrived at the gates of the city, launching a regular siege and artillery barrage from all directions. Amidst the fires and exploding projectiles, the historic center of the city suffered the most. As a result of the bombings in September, the Leopold Kronenberg Palace at Małachowski Square 4, which contained splendid collections of both paintings and artisanal crafts, were burned down completely.[2] During the first raids on the capital, the large collection of industrialist Edward Natanson, on Królewska Street, was entirely lost to fire. The collector lost 60 paintings of outstanding artistic value by, among others, J. Matejko, A. Gierymski, J. Chełmoński, Juliusz and Wojciech Kossak, J. Fałata, S. Wyspiański, J. Brandt, W. Podkowiński, J. Malczewski., J. Lampi, M. Bacciarelli and excellent Western European painters: JB Greuze, F. Boucher, G. Reni, Dutch masters and others. On top of this, eighteenth-century furniture and artistic objects were also destroyed.[3]

September 25, 1939, held particular significance in the accounts of Warsaw’s inhabitants. Given the resilient defense of the Polish capital, the German command decided to take more drastic measures. As Władysław Bartoszewski wrote: “After the shelling of the city that lasted all night, from 7am until dusk, an aerial bombardment of an unprecedented intensity is taking place. Several hundred planes, arriving systematically in waves, drop loads of demolition and incendiary charges on the central districts of Warsaw.”[4] That day the Luftwaffe made more than 1,176 flights over the city. Throughout the day, the city was bombarded by more than 400 planes, dropping 560 tons of demolition bombs and 72 tons of incendiary bombs on Warsaw.[5] The bombings on that day destroyed the Preździecki Library and Museum, including a valuable collection of 60,000 volumes and 500 manuscripts. There were 800 historical documents in the family archive and a cartographic collection including 350 maps and atlases. Among the most valuable was a collection of 10,000 engravings and drawings, mainly by the most outstanding Polish artists. The gallery of Polish and foreign art consisted of 200 paintings. Separate collections included sets of tapestries, furniture, porcelain, glass, bronze and militaria. Significant losses were suffered by the Zamojski Library and Museum, where 50,000 works were lost, or about 30 percent of the collection.[6]

In the face of high human and material losses, on September 28, the Polish side decided to capitulate and surrender the city. According to calculations, from September 8—28, about 6,000 soldiers and 25,000 civilians perished.[7]  Bombardment of the capital destroyed approximately ten to 20 percent of the buildings.[8] Unfortunately, the collections housed inside them shared the same fate as the buildings.


Under German occupation

Starting with the first days of the occupation, German soldiers and officials forced their way into Warsaw homes to plunder them. The pillaging was often done by surprise, terrorizing the victimized family. Sometimes the intruders knew exactly what to look for and where. The history of the looting of the most outstanding collections, described by Kazimierz Moszkowski, is an example of how well the Germans prepared themselves for the looting of Polish cultural goods, even before the assault on Poland. The passionate collector, living on Śniadeckich Street, owned several rare musical instruments of exceptional artistic and historical value. Before the war, he had tried to obtain certifications and sought experts to authenticate the items. For this purpose he likely traveled with the instruments to Germany and Austria, and perhaps also presented his collection in exhibitions. Before the war, there were cases where Polish collectors had consulted experts from Vienna and Berlin to obtain certificates of authenticity for their valuable antiques. As noted by K. Moszkowski: “… all four instruments were taken by three young German aviators who came to my apartment on the 4th or 5th day after they entered Warsaw, in October 1939. They showed up at my apartment with a list of my instruments and demanded that I turn them over under threat of arrest or use of firearms. These aviators were not professionals, although they had a sense of the value of the items and were sent by professionals from Berlin.” Kazimierz Moszkowski’s collection included an original Antoni Stradivarius violin from 1705. This instrument belonged for many years to the Polish composer and internationally famous violinist — Henryk Wieniawski. The collection also contained the violin by J. Guarneri del Gesu from 1741, the cello of A.H. Amati from 1604, the viola of J.B. Guadagnini from 1710 and other vintage instruments. A collection of 20 high-value eighteenth-century rugs were taken by the Germans from Moszkowski’s estate in Winnica near Warsaw.[9]

Private homes were initially broken into under the pretext of conducting searches for weapons or radios. Entire homes were ransacked and valuables, money, paintings, carpets, furniture, clothing and food were taken. The process of robbing private homes was not only conducted by ordinary soldiers or officers, but also by German civilian officials at every opportunity. Employees of the district office and the office of the German city governor were allotted apartments in Warsaw, fully-fitted with furnishings, carpets and works of art. During Gestapo arrests of Poles, the property belonging to the detainee was confiscated and their immediate family residing in the apartment was sent to concentration camps. During his wartime stay in Warsaw, Ludwig Fischer, the district governor, decorated the interior of his headquarters — Brühl’s Palace, with artwork stolen from museums and homes. On October 1, 1939, Helmut Otto was appointed as the Commissioner of the Reich for Warsaw. A few weeks later, this position was taken over by Oskar Dengel, who was exceptionally negatively disposed towards the residents of Warsaw. Both German officials left Warsaw, taking with them a large amount of stolen goods.[10]

The family of pre-war Warsaw collector, Jan Rykaczewski, have in their possession an original document pertaining to the plundering of works of art, written on the letterhead of the shipping company Schenker & Co. G.m.b.H., and signed by the overseer of the art theft — Dr. Josef Mühlmann. It is a certificate authorizing the company to confiscate the painting “Sea-view with ships” by the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Willem van der Welde the Elder, from 1660. The painting was taken from the apartment on February 22, 1940, and has not yet been found. The seascape was included in the special catalog “Sichergestellte Kunstwerke im Generalgouvernement” personally presented by Kajetan Mühlmann to Hitler. A full description of 172 objects or groups of items found its way into the catalog, largely originating from Warsaw museum collections. The total destruction of Rykaczewski’s collection was completed in the burned out and demolished house at Miodowa Street during the Warsaw Uprising, on August 22, 1944. Thirty paintings by well-known Polish and European artists were lost. Among the rarities were 16 decorative sash belts (worn by Polish nobility), “including ten of pure gold“. Among other valuable items was a table “Venetian-made — a souvenir left after the parents of Chopin” (the table was decorated with a mother-of-pearl inlay with “12 butterflies and 12 chrysalises of these butterflies”), a collection of artistic porcelain, “old-fashioned silver”, militaria and bronzes.[11]

During the occupation, the greatest losses in the sphere of material culture occurred among Warsaw’s Jews. In the ghettos and concentration camps almost all residents of Jewish origin were murdered. Along with most of Jewish society, people associated with art and culture were also killed, as well as passionate antiquarians and collectors. Ludwik Hirszfeld, forced to leave his home in Saska Kępa and to go to the ghetto, learned that the next day the Germans had already taken furniture, paintings, carpets and “everything they liked” from his villa.[12] The wife of architect Jerzy Gelbard, Izabella Gelbard — pseudonym “Stefania Czajka”, miraculously survived the Holocaust. As she wrote after the war: “In 1940 they came to the house [at Sienna Street] with flatbed trucks and took all the furniture, including authentic furniture from the Duchy of Warsaw era. In 1942 they took 250 oil paintings, watercolors, sepias and drawings — I won’t mention everything, but note the most valuable: a Picasso from the so-called ‘blue era’; H. Matisse, ‘Half-undressed woman lying on the couch’ (I posed for it myself); M. Kisling, ‘portrait of my sister Madame Dumus’; M. Kisling, ‘Field Flowers on a Blue Background’; Raoul Dufy, ‘Horse Racing in Austerlitz’, watercolor; Chaim Soutine, ‘my portrait in a pink blouse’ (his only painting in Poland). The most conservative estimate of the value of these six paintings in today’s money [1946] is 10–15 million złotys.” The Gelbard collection has not been found to the present day.


Warsaw Uprising 1944

Just before the outbreak of the Uprising, Warsaw’s population numbered about 950,000 inhabitants.[13] It is estimated that up to the day of the outbreak of the insurgent battles, the exterminated Jewish population, counting the forced removal to concentration camps, consisted of approximately 370-400,000 in Warsaw. According to Władysław Bartoszewski’s calculations, about 30,000 Poles were murdered as a result of the occupation of the capital, up to August 1944 and nearly 100,000 people were sentenced to forced labor in the Reich.[14] Taking into account the demise of the Jewish population, which before the war accounted for more than a quarter of the population of the capital, as well as shootings, arrests and the sending of non-Jewish residents of the city to concentration camps, the loss of artistic property during the occupation can be estimated at around 20 to 30 percent of the pre-war state.

In July 1944, the battlefront was approaching Warsaw. Many people living in the suburbs, having learned from the experience of World War I, where the main battles took place on the outskirts and not inside the city, transported their more valuable possessions to Warsaw. This way, a large number of artworks from villas, manor houses and palaces near Warsaw, were brought to family or friends living in the central districts. On August 1, 1944, the Warsaw Uprising broke out, lasting 63 days. The Germans decided to deal with the insurgents, and also civilians, in an extremely bloody and ruthless manner. Detailed instructions on how to deal with the uprising in Warsaw were issued by Heinrich Himmler: “1. Insurgents should be killed, no matter whether they are fighting in accordance with the Hague Convention or violating it; 2. The noncombatant part of the population, women and children, are also to be killed; 3. The whole city is to be leveled with the earth, that is houses, streets, equipment in this city and everything that is in it.”[15] One of the soldiers from the RONA SS division reported: “We received the order that Warsaw be wiped off the face of the earth, and that those who were even hiding in the ruins, should be slaughtered without mercy.”[16] During the pacification of the first districts, Wola and Ochota, operations were undertaken according to a fixed pattern. The SS men first came to the houses and beat the people they found, then they searched them frantically and searched the residents as well. After the inhabitants were thrown into the yard, executions were carried out on the men, and the women were raped and then killed along with the children. At this time, a more thorough search was carried out, accompanied by the demolition of almost everything: smashing furniture, breaking mirrors and glass, destroying paintings, ripping curtains, mattresses and bed linen. Upon completion of the pacification of the home or apartment block, soldiers set fire to both the buildings and the executed victims, hurrying to the next house. Survivors were taken to a transit camp. Intrusions into those houses next in line were accompanied by wild screams. The looters, impatient with the overly slow removal of a watch or a ring, beat their victims. Earrings were ripped from the ears of women, and rings were removed from the fingers of the dead by cutting them off. Soldiers primarily sought money and jewelry that could easily be taken with them. During robberies, various random objects were grabbed, such as clocks, which were either smashed or taken away. When a different or more valuable item was found in another apartment, the one they were holding was thrown away. Starting August 7, the SS stopped the arsons, coming to the conclusion that too much precious property was being consumed in the fires. From that point on, all of the furnishings of the homes were loaded onto rail and road transports to be sent to the Reich.

During the fight with insurgents in the northern city center, German soldiers took the most valuable spoils from nearby houses. Military trucks arrived regularly to pick up the looted goods. In the early days of the Uprising, only officers took up the plunder, but in time, regular soldiers began to follow their example. Items stuffed into suitcases were taken most often from apartments on the Krakowskie Przedmieście and the Powiśle district. According to Wacław Borowy, “every one of them sent 6 to 10 suitcases every few days.”[17] The robbers put “a whole series of bracelet watches” on their hands and their fingers were covered with rings from top to bottom.[18] As Maria Grajkowska-Bryjowa remembers, she lived at Pieracki Street (now Foksal Street), immediately after entering the house that had been abandoned by insurgents, “the Germans were somewhat anxious, running from house to house. Somewhere nearby were drunken, screaming Germans singing in the pitch of lively gramophone music. Every now and then an SS man came in, rummaging through the closets, claiming that they did not steal, they just want to send their wives ‘Andenken aus Warschau’ (‘Souvenirs from Warsaw’).”[19] An interesting account was recorded by Jan Damski, who was hired to work with his fiancée to arrange an improvised hospital in the outbuildings of Brühl’s Palace. He met an SS man “with a basket of beautiful crystal that he had obviously stolen”. The German confided in the author that: “Every day at four o’clock we will send to Jabłonna our shipments for Germany.” What the SS men managed to steal, was taken out of town and there loaded on a “big truck” from where the transport probably went to the families of the soldiers.[20]

The palace belonging to Benedict Tyszkiewicz was located on Matejko Street. The interiors of the building held unrivaled amounts of magnificent antique objects, covering all art forms from the oldest historical epochs. On the first day of August 1944, German soldiers appeared at the door of the palace, threatening to burn down the building in 20 minutes. In order to save as many of the antiques from fire as possible, Benedict Tyszkiewicz and the butler, as quickly as they were able to, threw what they could out of the windows into the garden. These included: “paintings by Baciarelli, paintings by Italian, French and Dutch masters, excellent engravings and drawings … a lot of beautiful furniture, clocks, silver and carpets.” The palace and all the buildings on this street were burned down.[21]

After two months of heavy fighting and the lack of help from the Red Army, which was standing on the other side of the Vistula River, Warsaw, exhausted to the limit, was forced to surrender. The remaining civilians were expelled to the transit camp in Pruszków near the city and then to extermination camps and labor camps in Germany. On Hitler’s orders, the complete destruction, preceded by the looting of every house of the fighting capital, commenced. The suppression of the Warsaw Uprising and the elimination of the owners of the homes, allowed for the fully-organized mass-plunder without witnesses. During the pillaging, there was an acute awareness of how coins and jewelry were hidden, as hiding places and cellars were torn apart.

One of the witnesses, Karol Pędrowski, vividly remembered the day after the definitive end of the uprising in Mokotów and the eviction of the population from the whole district. “To the district, completely abandoned by the inhabitants, groups and individual soldiers from different German units began to move in from all sides. The small streets all around were filled with both ordinary soldiers and officers, going in one direction — into the depths of Mokotów. Among the crowd of people, it was easy to recognize senior officers in freshly-ironed uniforms. We did not understand at first why they were going there, what the aim of the roaming soldiers was. Soon we saw the first one returning. He carried a giant bundle on his back, he was bending under the weight, he was walking against the current, so he paused, rested a moment, and walked on. Something was said to him, but he did not pay attention to it. He was the first to carry out the stolen property of fighting Mokotów. Then a second returning soldier appeared, heaving two suitcases and he also had something hanging around his neck. And after this there were two waves of soldiers and officers flowing in both directions. Those who were returning were loaded with things. An officer was carrying paintings in their frames under each arm. He could not hold them because they were too big, they slipped out, he adjusted them, put them on the ground, wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. […] Lamps, standing clocks and hanging clocks, rolled carpets in rolls, porcelain baskets and crystals, sometimes even furniture, wandered along upon shoulders. There were intellectuals among the thieves, carrying baskets and pushing carts filled with books — big books bound in leather, gilded on the spines, manuscripts, books on world art. The representatives of the Herrenvolk [master race] were very much in a hurry, they carried their suitcases stuffed with other people’s goods, they were pushing bicycles strapped with packages.” He noted that among the soldiers plundering the houses, there were instances of solidarity. During the robberies, they pointed out the more richly stocked houses and streets to one another. The thieves were in such a hurry to carry out the greatest amount of goods in the shortest possible time. Sometimes it was even a race to reach the choicest apartments, and to find rooms that had been passed over or had not yet been discovered. According to the diarist, taking part in the mass plundering were “not hundreds, but thousands of soldiers, maybe even tens of thousands.”[22]

Over 150,000 non-combatants died or were murdered in the Warsaw Uprising. The fallen and missing insurgents amounted to about 18,000 soldiers.[23] We should add to this number a large proportion of both soldiers and civilians who died as a result of injuries and war experiences in the months after capitulation. The greatest damage to Warsaw’s buildings was caused by air raids. German aircraft conducted 1,408 combat flights over the city, dropping 1,580 tons of bombs. Artillery and even anti-aircraft artillery was used to destroy buildings.[24] As a result of the two-month-long bombing and artillery barrage, 25 percent of residential homes in the city were destroyed. An additional 30 percent of the buildings were burned down and blown up after the Warsaw Uprising.[25]



Contrary to popular belief, the destruction of art collections in the heat of battle did not take place on the same scale as the plunder of surviving homes. In my view, the balance of losses associated with the confiscation and removal of private property from Warsaw to the Reich, during the occupation and destruction of the city by both German officials and the military, as well as the private German looting, should be estimated at 70 percent. Another ten percent included the destruction of works of art and antiques that took place in September 1939 and about 20 percent as a result of two months of warfare in the Warsaw Uprising.


[1] Warszawa w liczbach 1939 r., (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Wydziału Statystycznego Zarządu Miejskiego w Warszawie, 1947) 11-16. At the beginning of 1939, the number of residents of Warsaw totaled 1,289,500 people.

[2] Archiwum Państwowe Warszawy, Zarząd Miasta Wydział Strat Wojennych (APW ZM WSW), sygn. 119, nr kwestionariusza 22297, s. 233, załącznik do kwestionariusza s. 234; Karol Estreicher, Cultural losses of Poland, Index of Polish cultural losses during the German occupation, 1939-1944, London 1944, s. 393; Anna Tyczyńska, Krystyna Znojewska, Straty Wojenne. Malarstwo polskie, Poznań 2007, t. 1, poz. 71.

[3] APW, ZM WSW, sygn. 91, nr kw. 15268, s. 74; E. Chwalewik, Zbiory polskie. Archiwa, biblioteki, gabinety, galerie, muzea i inne zbiory pamiątek przeszłości w ojczyźnie i na obczyźnie w porządku alfabetycznym według miejscowości ułożone, Warszawa 1927, t. 2, s. 407; K. Estreicher, op. cit., s. 395; A. Tyczyńska, K. Znojewska, Straty Wojenne, op. cit., t. 1, poz. 39, 89, 134, 236.

[4] Władysław Bartoszewski, Warszawa w kampanii wrześniowej, kronika ważniejszych wydarzeń, [w:] „Cywilna Obrona…”, op. cit., s. XXIV.

[5] Mieczysław Cieplewicz, Eugeniusz Kozłowski, Obrona Warszawy: 1939 we wspomnieniach, Warszawa 1984, s. 114; Henryk Stańczyk, Bombardować i szturmować [w:] „Warszawa we wrześniu 1939 roku. Obrona i życie codzienne”, red. C. Grzelak, Warszawa 2004, s. 167-168; Marian Porwitt, Komentarze do historii polskich działań obronnych 1939 roku, Warszawa 1983, t. III, s. 355; L. Głowacki, Obrona Warszawy i Modlina 1939, Warszawa 1985, s. 256, Okaleczone miasto – Warszawa ‘39. Wojenne zniszczenia obiektów stolicy w fotografiach Antoniego Snawadzkiego, opr. M. Majewski, Warszawa 2009, s. 60.

[6] APW, ZM WSW, sygn. 271, nr kw. 8, s. 46.

[7] T. Szarota, Naloty na Warszawę podczas II wojny światowej [w:] Wojciech Fałkowski, „Straty Warszawy 1939-1945. Raport”, Miasto Stołeczne Warszawa, Warszawa 2005.op. cit., s. 263. The author found these materials in the archival collection: Delegatury Rządu RP na Kraj, Archiwum Akt Nowych, VI oddział, sygn. 202/I-43, t. I, k. 6-10.

[8] Jerzy Majewski, Śródmieście i jego mieszkańcy w latach niemieckiej okupacji: październik 1939 –1 sierpnia 1944. Dzień powszedni [w:] W. Fałkowski, op. cit., s. 66.

[9] APW, ZM WSW, sygn. 32, nr kw. 470, brak paginacji stron, zał. do kwest.

[10] Marek Getter, Władze niemieckie okupowanej Warszawy, [w:] W. Fałkowski, op. cit., s. 213-214, 218.

[11] APW, ZM WSW, sygn. 54, nr kw. 5795, s. 207; Maria Romanowska-Zadrożna, Tadeusz Zadrożny, Straty Wojenne. Malarstwo obce, Poznań 2000, t. 1, poz. 225, s. 332.

[12] Ludwik Hirszfeld, Historia jednego życia, Warszawa 1946, s. 192.

[13] Janusz Marszalec, Ochrona porządku i bezpieczeństwa publicznego w Powstaniu Warszawskim, Warszawa 1999, s. 48.

[14] J. Marszalec, op. cit., s. 48; Barbara Krajewska, Ludność Warszawy w latach 1939-1945, [w:] „Warszawa lat wojny i okupacji, 1939-1944”, Instytut Historii PAN, Studia Warszawskie, t. 7, z. 1, s. 198-200; W. Bartoszewski, Warszawski pierścień śmierci, op. cit., s. 39-59, 439, 445, 592; K. Komorowski, Bitwa o Warszawę `44. Militarne aspekty powstania warszawskiego, Warszawa 2004, przypis 9, s. 95.

[15] J.K. Wroniszewski, Ochota 1944, Warszawa 1970, s. 128-129. Testimony given by General Von dem Bach to the Polish prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials.

[16] Tomasz Sawicki, Rozkaz: zdławić powstanie. Siły zbrojne III Rzeszy w walce z Powstaniem Warszawskim 1944, Warszawa 2001, s. 243-244.

[17] Wacław Borowy, Okres Powstania 1944. W Bibliotece Uniwersyteckiej w Warszawie, [w:] S. Lorentz, „Walka o dobra kultury Warszawa 1939-1945”, Warszawa 1970, t. 1, s. 355.

[18] Ibid, 356.

[19] Maria Grajkowska-Bryjowa, Relacja o działalności środowiska aktywu ruchu ludowego, [w:] Ludność cywilna w powstaniu warszawskim, Warszawa 1974, t. 1, cz. 2, s. 236.

[20] “Handlarz”, relacja Johna Damskiego, [w:] N. Davies, Powstanie`44, Kraków 2006, s. 397-398.

[21] Jan Zachwatowicz, Wspomnienia z lat okupacji, [w:] S. Lorentz, op. cit., t. 1, s. 119-120.

[22] BN, Karol Pędrowski, Pamiętnik, sygn. akc. 12254, s. 120.

[23] W. Bartoszewski, Przedmowa, [w:] Andrzej K. Kunert, „Rzeczpospolita walcząca. Powstanie warszawskie 1944”, Warszawa 1994, s. VIII-IX. German casualties during the Warsaw Uprising, according to the estimates of Von dem Bach, included approximately 26,000 people, including at least 17,000 killed and 9,000 wounded.

[24] K. Komorowski, Bitwa o Warszawę`44…, op. cit., s. 83.

[25] Bartoszewski, Ibid.

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