World War II, Krakow and Beethoven (2)


(The opening Adagio of the 1st movement of Beethoven’s op. 74 string quartet, “the Harp,” in the composer’s hand.)

The story of Krakow’s Beethoven manuscripts begins before WW II in Berlin. At that time, the Prussian State Library in Berlin held the world’s greatest collection of original autograph music manuscripts, including those of the most important works by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and many other great composers. In 1941, after Allied bombs started to fall on Berlin, the library began divide up its collections and evacuate parts to various mines, monasteries, and castles in safer parts of Germany. Boxes of manuscripts by Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Mendelssohn and others were sent to Lower Silesia, and ultimately hidden at a Benedictine abbey in Grüssau. As the war progressed, the abbey escaped bombing by the Allied powers and destruction by the Soviet forces that invaded Silesia towards the end of the war.

In July 1945, after the end of fighting in Europe, a group of Polish librarians and museum officers were engaged in a search for looted Polish cultural treasures in areas abandoned by the Germans. At Grüssau, the few remaining monks at the abbey informed them about the musical treasure hidden there. The monks were aware that Soviet soldiers stationed nearby were pilfering anything of value, and they thought the manuscripts would be safer in Polish hands.

In the summer of 1945, U.S. President Harry S. Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin met in Potsdam, Germany, to negotiate terms for the settlement of the war in Europe. At the Potsdam Conference, Poland’s western boundary was redrawn to the west of its pre-war location. As a result, Lower Silesia became part of Poland. (One repercussion of this change was that German towns in the area acquired new Polish names, to the great confusion of anyone trying to understand local history and geography. Thus, Grüssau, Germany became Krzeszów, Poland.)

In 1946, the manuscripts were quietly transferred from the abbey at Krzeszów to Krakow. They were held in secret and eventually deposited in the Jagiellonian University Library . My recent visit to Poland was to study Beethoven’s op. 74 string quartet, known as “the Harp.” The autograph score of the Harp was one of the manuscripts brought to Krakow. Other Beethoven manuscripts in the group included portions or complete scores of the 7th, 8th and 9th Symphonies, several of the late string quartets, and sketchbooks.

Even after the Jagiellonian Library acquired the manuscripts, few inside Poland (and no one outside) knew of their existence and whereabouts. The custodians kept them in secret for decades because of mistrust of the Soviet Union, which essentially controlled Poland’s government until 1989, and Poland’s inability to obtain cultural reparations and appropriate compensation from the Soviet Union and East Germany for wartime cultural losses.

News of the manuscripts’ existence reached the outside world through a Polish musicologist in the late 1960s. Even so, the Polish government did not acknowledge possession of the manuscripts until 1977. In that year, Poland signed a treaty of friendship with East Germany and returned seven scores to Berlin (including Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and Mozart’s The Magic Flute). Although the transfer was characterized as a goodwill gesture, it may have actually been war reparations forced on Poland by East Germany.

Since then, there have been a series of negotiations between Poland and East Germany, and later unified Germany, about the return of the rest of the music manuscripts to Berlin. However, Poland has refused to act without further repatriation of Polish cultural objects and adequate reparations for Polish cultural losses during the war. The last negotiations took place in 2000. The manuscripts remain in Krakow, and the old wartime disputes persist.


Włodzimierz Kalicki, “Manuscripts found in the Jagiellonian.” Gazeta Wyborcza (Warsaw, Poland), March 30, 2010 (translation by Gazeta Wyborcza).

Marek Sroka, “The Music Collection of the Former Prussian State Library at the Jagiellonian Library in Kraków, Poland: Past, Present, and Future Developments,” Library Trends 55. no. 3 (Winter 2007) (“Libraries in Times of War, Revolutions, and Social Change,” edited by W. Boyd Rayward and Christine Jenkins), pp 651-664.


World War II, Krakow and Beethoven (1)


(Scenes from Krakow’s town square)

I recently spent ten days in Krakow, Poland, a beautiful city where the ghosts and disputes of WW II still linger. This is the first of two blogs about Krakow’s noteworthy history.

Krakow is in southern Poland east of the border between the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Settled in the 7th Century, the city has a long and remarkable history as a center of trade, culture, architecture, and academics. Like much of Poland, it was invaded many times from the east, and the Polish language, with its spiky clusters of unpronounceable consonants, owes much more to Slavic languages than to Latin.

From the 11th to the 16th centuries Krakow was the capital of the Kingdom of Poland. Its Jagiellonian University, the 2nd oldest university in Central Europe, was founded in 1364, and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (who posited that the earth orbits the sun) studied there in the 1490s. One of the early Polish kings was hospitable to Jews, and the city developed a significant Jewish population.

Krakow’s beautiful architecture survived WW II due in part to the quick action of its mayor. Shortly after Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, he declared Krakow an open city, and the following day, September 6th, the Germans took over. While Germany annexed portions of Poland outright, Krakow was in territory administered as a colony and source of forced labor by the Nazi’s General Government, a division of the Third Reich. Hitler’s lawyer, Dr. Hans Frank, was appointed head of the General Government, and he ruled from Krakow’s Wawel Castle, once home to Polish kings.

Under Frank’s brutal regime, Krakow’s Jews were moved from the city into a walled ghetto, and subsequently deported to extermination camps. Oskar Schindler (depicted in the movie “Schindler’s List”), a Czech industrialist and Nazi, operated an enamelware factory in Krakow. Nazi connections and bribes enabled him to save the lives of some 1,000 Jews by employing them in his factory. Another Krakow resident, a very young Roman Polanski (the film director), escaped the ghetto and survived.

When Soviet forces took Krakow on 18 January 1945, the city once again avoided much physical damage. As the war ended, the Soviet Union assumed control of Polish elections and government. Eventually, the Polish People’s Republic was formed, a Soviet-dominated government that suppressed intellectual and academic life and continued until 1989.

And how does Ludwig van Beethoven fit into this picture? Beethoven himself never set foot in Krakow. However, his music—specifically, a priceless collection of autograph manuscripts of his work—resides in the city. How that collection came to Krakow and why it remains there today is a fascinating WW II story of stealth, secrecy, shifting national boundaries, and war-related grievances that continue to this day. This remarkable tale will appear in part 2 of this blog.

While John McCrea was never in Poland or Europe before or during the war, the events that took place there were certainly part of “his world.” Before the German invasion of Poland, John was the executive officer (second in command) of the battleship USS Pennsylvania, the flagship of the U.S. Fleet, based in the Pacific. John followed world events closely. He was aware of Japanese aggression and conquest in Asia and the increasing tensions in Europe. He believed the U.S. might be drawn into war and spent considerable effort on war training and trying to focus the men of Pennsylvania on planning for war. Few, including senior officers, thought the U.S. would go to war. Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 and the breakout of hostilities in Europe only strengthened John’s belief that U.S. involvement in war was a distinct possibility. He proved to be prescient.


“Jagiellonian University,” Wikipedia,;

“Nicolaus Copernicus,” Wikipedia,;

“Kraków,” Wikipedia,;

“Hans Frank,” Wikipedia,;

“History of Poland,” Wikipedia,;  

“Invasion of Poland,” Wikipedia,;

“Open City,” Wikipedia,;

“General Government,” Wikipedia,;

“The Potsdam Conference, 1945,” Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State,;

“Oskar Schindler,” Wikipedia,;

all last accessed 2.13.2017.