On September 17th, 1947, Mr. Henryk Mikolajczyk, director of Bank Polski in Warsaw, was on a top secret mission in Bucharest, Romania’s capital. The polish banker was to sign several important documents, but beforehand, he had to make an inventory and verify the seals of 51 crates and wooden boxes. It had been a tiring and laborious operation, but there was no time to waste. The crates were stored in the safe vault in the basement of the Palace of Marmorosch-Blank Bank in the downtown of the Romanian capital, where they had been kept for safe keeping since 1939. The imposing building, with its thick walls, was adequate for such operations. The palace had been erected between 1915 and 1923 based on a design by architect Petre Antonescu, to serve as the headquarters of the Marmorosch-Blank Bank, the premiere commercial bank in Romania in the period between 1920 and 1930. In its heyday, the bank had 25 branches within the Kingdom of Romania, and four branches abroad – in Paris, Vienna, Istanbul and New York, being well connected to the great western banks. Unfortunately, the bank was unable to survive the Great Depression of 1929-1933, its renowned Palace ending up the property of the National Bank of Romania, which had taken extraordinary measures trying to save the Marmorosch-Blank.
The neo-Romanian style of the building and the Art Nouveau interior decorations, the work of artist Cecilia Cutescu-Stork, were impressive to any visitor, particularly since during the war many European cities had been raised to the ground and in treasures had been lost forever.
Yet, for Mr. Mikolajczyk’s the purpose of visit was not a historical or artistic tour of the Marmorosch-Blank Palace.
In fact, Henryk Mikolajczyk was returning to Bucharest, the same place he had visited many years earlier. Certainly, the director of Polski Bank was weighed doing by strong memories of his first visit to the treasury room of the Marmorosch-Blank Palace. However, emotions were contained, as he had a historic mission for his country to complete. He had now returned to take back what he had deposited there eight years before, three tonnes (metric tons) of gold, as well as other valuables, part of the Polish national treasure.
Precisely eight years before, on September 17th, 1939, mister Mikolajczyk, director of Bank Polski, was crossing the Polish-Romanian border at the Kuty crossing point, in an automobile opening the way for a column of Polish vehicles formed of 41 busses and 20 covered trucks. The convoy was transporting part of the Polish national treasure, which was being evacuated by the Polish authorities following the German attack on September 1st of the same year and of the Soviet one on September 17th, 1939. The freight consisted of three tonnes of gold and priceless objects of the historical and cultural patrimony of Poland. After many days, the transport reached the centre of Bucharest, arriving at the Marmorosch-Blank Palace a branch of National Bank of Romania,.
Here, the precious cargo was unloaded and stored in the special vaults in the basement. Everything was accounted for an agreement was written that specified the terms on which the deposition was made. The National Bank of Romania, had the obligation to return everything being deposited, in the shape it was, when the circumstances would allow. Mr Mikolajczyk signed the document, which exists to this day. There was no way he could foresee that 8 years later, on September 17th, date he left Polish territory, he would be back in Bucharest in the same location not signing for, the deposition the withdrawal of the treasure. The operation took place without any incidents and two planes took the gold back to Poland.
In September 1939, two other transports rntered Romania’s territory. Poland’s gold reserve, 80 gold tonnes, was moved by train from Cernauti to Constanta, reaching the Black Sea port on September 15th. Here, it was loaded on to the British oil ship Eocene and evacuated to Istanbul. A second transport of precious objects had also been evacuated by sea, also from Constanta, on the Romanian ship Ardealul, which reached Marseille in January 1940.
The transportation of Polish treasure through Romanian territory attracted the furious reaction of Hitler’s regime. The German ambassador in Bucharest, Wilhelm Fabricius, protested vehemently on the morning of September 16th against the decision of the authorities in Bucharest to approve the transportation of the Polish gold and to allow the ship to depart from Contanta’s port. Grigore Gafencu, the Romanian foreign minister, responded by saying that the Romanian authorities never hid their intention of allowing the gold to be transported through the country. Following the German pressure was Soviet pressure, Moscow declaring itself very unhappy with the authorities in Bucharest, which had “allowed the armed Polish hoards” to enter Romanian territory.
For the Romanian government, the situation was not at all easy. Following the German invasion of Poland, the Romanian state had declared itself neutral. Welcoming the Polish army, refugees and valued possessions was a mission that Romania, had agreed to, having considered all the risks involved. It was all that could be done at that point for allied Poland.
The alliance of the hearts
Immediately following the end of World War One, Poland and Romania had realised they had common security interests. Both countries had problems with their eastern neighbour, the USSR, which they rightly feared. Talks between the two countries, which started in 1919, advanced rapidly and on March 3rd, 1921, the “Convention for the Defensive Alliance between the Republic of Poland and the Kingdom of Romania” and the “Military Convention” was signed in Bucharest.
The goal of the alliance was set in article 1: “Poland and Romania commit to help each other in the event that one of them should be attacked, without provocation, at their current oriental borders”.
The “Military Convention” was signed by general Constantin Christescu and Tadeusz Rozwadowski, the two Chiefs of Staff. The document outlined the measures that the two states were to take in the event of an attack at their Eastern border.
The alliance was reconfirmed in 1926 in Bucharest, and extended in 1931. Marshal Josef Pildsuski, while on a visit to Romania in 1922, expressed his vision of the “Intermarium” alliance, from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, talking about the Polish-Romanian alliance as an alliance of the hearts, a single people with two flags.
At the same time, Romania tried to protect its borders against revisionist measures through a system of alliances with Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, an alliance that has gone down in history as the Little Entente. The three states tried to configure Central and South-East Europe based on political, military and economic cooperation. Some researchers claim that the alliance also had some federalist aspects to it.
Unfortunately, the territorial disputes between Poland and Czechoslovakia prevented Poland from joining the Little Entente.
Subsequently, political developments in Europe, the rise to power of fascism and Nazism and the appeasement policy of the great powers towards Germany’s claims ended the alliances of Central and Eastern Europe. The territorial disputes between the states of this region, Poland and Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania, caused the atmosphere in the region to deteriorate, shattering the dream of peace and cooperation.
The Munich accord and the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact meant the end. The Little Entente ceased to exist after the Munich Accord. After the German attack, the Polish-Romanian Alliance no longer to function. The new Polish government did not request the reactivation of the military alliance after the Soviet attack of September 17, considering it pointless. The Romanian government analysed from a juridical point of view the provisions of the Alliance, given Romania’s declaration of neutrality following the German attack. Eventually, it became clear that it was out of the question that Romania would attack the USSR after September 17th and that the only thing Romania could do was to receive the Polish refugees and to allow the Polish treasure to transit its territory.
A majority of the Polish soldiers departing from Romania reached France and then the United Kingdom, wherefrom the Polish troops were able to continue to fight. The treasure sent abroad was saved.
The three gold tonnes that stayed in Romania were returned, as explained, in 1947. Poland and Romania, as well as the other Central and Eastern European countries, were now on the other side of the Iron Curtain, undergoing the process of communisation process.
History was harsh on the countries of Eastern and Central Europe. Alliances proved to be illusory when confronted with the ascent of extremist nationalism and the aggression of totalitarian states. Poland and Czechoslovakia once again disappeared from the map. After the War, our countries belonged to the communist camp.
The ideal we sought all after of these years was a Free and United Europe. We all wished for it and the dream came true. We are all, Polish, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians, Bulgarians, in the EU and NATO.
Yet History is not over. Today, 70 years after the end of the War, we are faced again with an existential threat.
What will be the future of Europe? What will be the future of Central and Eastern Europe? How will the historical experience of our countries influence the decisions we’ll make?
Do we have a project that will unify us, all the countries in the region, or will we focus solely on our own interests?
These are the legitimate questions of the moment, in which national interests start being perceived as more important than common interests.
Nevertheless, let us look a little closer.
Against the backdrop of new problems arising on the eastern EU and NATO frontier, after the violence in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, the idea of the Intermarium project has come back to life. Poland and Romania have a strong strategic partnership that has positive effects for regional security. These countries claimed similar objectives at NATO’s Warsaw Summit, and the results were good for both the security of the two states and for the Eastern Flank.
Nine states of the region – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania – decided in November 2015, in Bucharest, to work together towards the strenghtening of the trans-Atlantic alliance and the increasing of NATO presence in Central and Eastern Europe. The “Bucharest Format” will continue.
But security without prosperity does not exist.
Increasing security is important, but also important is helping the region develop. A true project to bring together the countries of Eastern and Central Europe cannot function without a strong economic component.
How connected are our countries? Although geographically close, we are far apart time-wise due to bad infrastructure. During communism the Poles, Czech and Slovaks used to drive in large numbers on the littoral of the Black Sea in Romania and Bulgaria. The roads infrastructure has remained the same ever since. How many express routes connect today the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea or the Aegean Sea? Not even one. There are no motorways and no high-speed trains. A distance that takes a few hours by car or by train in Western Europe takes a few days in Eastern Europe. The same applies to the energy transport grids and natural gas networks.
Our countries looked only towards the West. Therefore, nothing was done to develop the North to South axis.
The project exists and was discussed in Dubrovnik, Croatia, in August of this year. Twelve European states participated, the nine of the “Bucharest” Format, which were joined by Austria, Slovenia and Croatia. In the “Declaration of the Three Seas” adopted in Dubrovnik, the twelve countries themselves commit to supporting concrete projects of economic collaboration in the region. The American think-tank Atlantic Council also worked intensely to put on paper economic cooperation projects for the region, projects regarding road networks, railways, energy transportation grids, and other types of infrastructure that would connect the three seas, the Baltic, the Aegean, and the Black Seas.
The projects are feasible and can attract financing needed to start implementation. The situation, however, is difficult. Europe is in a state of shock after Brexit and the refugee crisis. The countries in the region have different views with regard to the future of the European Union and the measures that need to be taken in order to address the refugee crisis. Many turn towards national solutions and are tempted to give up on European community based solutions.
Collaboration projects within Central and Eastern Europe have existed throughout history, but have also failed with tragic consequences. The story of the Polish gold, saved as by a miracle from the hands of invading forces thanks to the railroads of the time and the political will of governments confronted with some of the most tragic events in History tells us a lot about what we can do or together, but cannot do by ourselves.
Gold can travel again through Central and Eastern Europe, from North to South and from South to North. Not as ingots, but as the gold of economic exchanges, of interconnected economies, and of investments in large infrastructure projects.
This time, more than ever, it is up to the states of Central and Eastern Europe to make the best decisions.