Nazi-looted art returned to Poland

Artworks looted by the wife of a Nazi governor during World War II were returned to the Polish government by her son at a ceremony in Krakόw on Sunday (26 February).

A painting of Potocki Palace, an engraving of Renaissance-era Krakόw and a map of 17th century Poland were returned by Horst Wächter, the son of SS Gruppenführer Otto Wächter, the Nazi governor of Krakόw. The pieces were handpicked by Wächter’s mother, Charlotte, who plundered the departments of the National Museum in Krakόw to decorate the new headquarters established by her husband at Potocki Palace and the Wächter family’s wartime home in Austria.

For years Horst is said to have attempted to return the items stolen by his family but encountered resistance from Polish officials reluctant to negotiate with the son of a Nazi. It fell to Polish politician and historian, Magdalena Ogόrek, to initiate the return. During an interview with Ogόrek, who is writing a book about his father, Horst revealed to her how Charlotte had stolen the works.

Ogόrek described the difficulty she faced persuading Polish officials to accept the return of the pieces. “Polish officials are reluctant to have contact with the children of Nazis… I convinced them that our obligation was to do everything we could to return this painting to the city of Kraków”, she said.

The return of the works is a watershed moment for Poland, which has battled for years to recover an estimated half a million artworks and antiques looted by Nazi and Soviet occupiers during World War II. According to vice-president of the European parliament, Ryszard Czarnecki, it is “probably the first time that the member of a family of one of the most important Nazi occupiers is giving back art that was stolen from Poland during the war”.

Under SS General Wächter’s orders, approximately 68,000 Jews were expelled from Krakόw in 1940. The following year he created the Krakόw ghetto for the remaining 15,000 Jews and he continued to order killings after he was transferred by Hitler to the Ukraine in 1942 where he became governor of Galicia.

Horst is said to have returned the works to the Polish government to pay tribute to his late mother. “I am not especially proud of my deeds… I do not return the objects for me, but for the sake of my mother”, he stated.

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