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Bartosz Biernat: Duce and Sonderaction Krakau

duce, mussolini, Sonderaktion Krakau

„Everybody who will resist during carrying out my order will be executed by a firing squad”
6th November 1939, Cracow

Ended September Campaign, fortunately and unfortunately spared Cracow. Fortunately, because of lack of the defense of Polish Army, general List together with Wermacht forces was able to enter the city without encountering much resistance. This situation paradoxically caused saving many historic monuments, works of art, and above all, it introduced the initial aura of „soft occupation”. Unfortunately, because it tempted representatives of Third Reich to establish Cracow as a centre of General Government which was created in order to administratively manage the areas identified by the Nazis as Polish. Once again Cracow became a capital, this time capital of quasistate created by the Third Reich.

In this atmosphere, which was indeed real calm before the storm of terror, most of the professors from Jagiellonian University, Mining Academy and Trade Academy, were still in Cracow or came back there after September Campaign. Owing to this initial aura of „soft occupation”, about which I wrote before, these professors took this for granted, that in the autumn of 1939 they were able to start the academic year. On 31st October, Rector of the Jagiellonian Univeristy together with other proffesors decided to begin preparations for the calsses, which beginning they planned on 13th November. They did not expect that national socialists will have something against it. The German authorities in Cracow not only knew about it, but they officially called for restore „normal” life in the occupied territories. Rector of Jagiellonian Univeristy even became member of City Council led by Comissar Zorner, who even asked about the salary he should pay to the professors from Cracow’s universities.

However, official rulers of Cracow had no such power as Heinrich Himmler or Hans Frank, who visited this royal city. As it seems, they could have inspired rulers of Cracow to make concrete decisions which will prevent the begining of the academic year. Just after meeting with them, faithful executioner of the orders from Berlin, Obersturmbannfuhrer Major Bruno Muller ordered Rector of the Jagiellonian University to organise a meeting with university academics on 6th November. This meeting did not look like a trap, and Polish professors were very interested in it. Professors very quickly learned about it, and only a few of them (what lately turned out as a kind of salvation for them) did not appear at 24 Golebia Street in Collegium Novuum, in a lecture hall number of the name of Nicolaus Copernicus (today it is room number 56 and it has a name of Jozef Szujski). Precisely at 12 o’clock, in the tightly filled room, there was a commander of the SS and III Reich Police and Security Service, Major Muller, who instead of strating the lecture and discussion about new rules of the coming academic year, said:

This university started an academic year without prior permissions of the German authorities. Clearly, this is a bad will. In addition, this is well known that this academics were always openly hostile toward German Science. For this reason, everyone here, expect for these three women, will be transported to the concentration camp. Discussion or even single commentary is out of the question. Anyone who will resist my orders, will be shot

Immediately after he finished his speech, he clapped in his hands. At this pre-arranged sign, the policemen appeared at the doors. 184 peoples were quickly and brutally dragged into cars, which were lately hidden behing the building. Among the arrested people there were 125 professors of Cracow University, 36 didactic workers, 2 Jagiellonian students, and dozen of the random people who were then at Collegium Novuum. Interesingly, after all, police of General Government did not seek for absenteeism and they treated random, arrested people like professors. This shows that despite of the appearance of good organization, they did not create „list of professors” which they planned to imprisoned. Nevertheless, Major Bruno Muller achieved his goal.


„These modern-day conquistadors can only destroy and commit shameful acts”
8th January 1940, Palazzo Venezia, Rome.

Benito Mussolini, who received the Order of the Withe Eagle fifteen years earlier, is sitting at huge table with Luciana Frassati-Gavronska. This is their third meeting. Both sides treat each other very politely but in fact very instrumentally too.

⦁ And what the Nazis would leave behind in Poland? To Romans built, civilized, taught- Leader of Italy speaks produly and with bewildered face to one-man auditorium- These modern-day conquistadors can only destroy and commit shameful acts. Like detention of these professors in the Oranienburg. One of the is 80 years old! It’s a scandal!

Luciana Frassati just waited from such words of Duce from the beginning of this conversation. She replied:

⦁ You should help them somehow.

⦁ I have already informed Berlin that I will not tolerate similar moves. I think that Berlin will understand it and they will draw proper conclusion as soon at it will be possible- Mussolini said.

Long before German’s agression on Poland on 1st September 1939, Duce competed with Hitler for the infulence of his vision and ideology in Europe. He recognized then Poland as his potential ally. However, he made a mistake in assessing Polish (and not only Polish) leaders. As it seemed to be, he understood it after many years, when Hitler’s superiority over him, was growing at an alarming rate. After years too, German’s primacy reduce Mussolini to the role of German’s mascot. Before that, the Third Reich declared war on Second Polish Republic, and Mussolini who was bound by allied commitments, had only humanitarian aid for Poles emotionally connected with their country. People like Mario Di Stefano or Cesare Vernarecci di Fossombrone gave great favours to Poles, risking much more than just a diplomat’ s career. It is worth to remind that at the same times, English and French authorities were focused on provoking our grandfathers to spoil blood on not their buisness.
Mussolini did not lie in the case of Sonderaction Cracow. He ordered his minister of Foreign Affairs, Count Galeazzo Ciano to make the fastest diplomatic efforst to release Cracovian professors. At his first telegraph on Konstanty Michalski’s issue to the Royal Emabssy of Italy in Berlin, which was then represented by Bernardo Attolico, Ciano wanted to obtain special German’s entitlement to intervene in Polish Affairs. He justified it, telling that Italians make the same things for allies in the British of French governments. It is worth to recall, that fascist government made this for Poland, country which formally did not even exist for their greatest ally.

However, the Germans kindly and politely refused to give Italy such entitlements. But, thanks to this situation, Germany have already noticed how positively Sonderaction Cracow influenced on unity between Poles and negatively on the global opinion and what is more important on the opinion of their most important ally, towards the Third Reich.


„Treatment due to defeated, not to slaves”
8th February 1940, Oranienburg.

The German machine worked very fast. In addition to the efforts of Italian diplomats, Mussolini personally intervened in the case of the employees of the Jagiellonian University, the Mining Academy and Academy of Commerce, directly at Adolf Hitler. He sent to him very important and interesting message in the begining of February:

Nation which was betrayed in unworthy way, both by it’s politcial elite and by it’s military commanders. Despite it, this Nation fought very bravely, what you yourself admit in your speech in Gdansk. So it deserves treatment due to defeated, not to slaves

Cracow professors were released a week later. They have been in captivity from over three months. From two month, they have been in Sachsenhausen camp in Oranienburg near Berlin. The cold weather, as well as extremly difficult conditions for many of the academics, from most of whom were in precarious age, were too tough. When they came to Berlin, majority of them were exhausted, and this was not even the end of their problems. After all, older shaved bald professors, with out-of-camp numbers, tried to organize scientific life inside the camp. Their younger colleagues had to help them in their day-to-day life, so that survival in this hard period of imprisonment was a priority. Eleven people from detainees died, and 12th, Antoni Hoborski, professor of mathematics, died in 9th Februrary because of frostbite.

Media coverage of the Germans, but above all the persistent campaign of Italian diplomacy, and personal intervention of Duce led to the dismissal of 102 Cracow professors from the German camp. Germans released professors by age, so at the first time they released professors who were born before 1900. They released few days later, ten more prisoners. So that 43 people were stayed in camp. What is very important, they were moved to Kl Dachau, where the SS commander Paul Neumann treated them in relatively good way, he diverted them from hard physical work to scientific work at his science agency. In the next year, practically everyone who was arrested in Collegium Novuum, were released. Unfortunately, ten of them did not survive and many of them did not survive to the end of war.

The Germans did not want to show their weakness to their ally, so at first they did not inform Fascist Italy about the dismissal of professors. So they received further diplomatic notes from Italians. They even sent to Germans a list of three professors, who got an agreement to enter Italy. It was unprecedented and wonderful act of friendship. Of course it was not selfless, because Duce still believed that he would be able to cooperate with Nations of Europe and maintain his independence towards Hitler. The harder Hitler pushed him, the more Mussolini tried to resist him. It was profitable for Cracovian professors. We can risk saying that it was good, that Sonderaction Cracow happened at the beginning of war, because later, the help of fascists would be much more limited.

For sure, Sonderaction Cracow was not a success of Third Reich. Instead of breaking Polish resistance, they only strengthened their hatred and power. The subsequent months of Nazi terror in Poland proved that there were no diffrences between Nazis and Bolsheviks. Mussolini suggested definitely other model of occupation to Hitler. It is very difficult to predict how war would have end if German Fuhrer had been mentally and ideologically closer to his Italian ally than to his Russians enemies.

„103 professors of the University of Cracow, which was saved from Teutonic martyrdom, thanks to your intercession, Duce, they expresses their greatest devotion and thankfulness for reintroducing values and reputation of Italian culture to the world”
18th January 1940, Rome

The two main characters of our story, Luciana Frassati i Benito Mussolini had already arranged meeting on 24th February. This will be their last meeting. When Duce declared war on England and France, he put Italy’s fate on one card, so advices of Pierre Frassati sister were not longer needed. So far, our heroine was visited by father Józef Maria Bochenski who was the founder of a special comitee for the release of their colleagues from University. He was not at Collegium Novuum in 6th November quite accidentally. From this time, despite of his limited abilities, he was doing whatever was in his power to help his friends from University. He did not know her, but he has been speaking all the time, expressing his gratitude for her help. He wanted to thank Mussolini too, but he did not have anything valuable. That is why, he asked Luciana for giving something special on his behalf. She chose beautifully published in 1925: „Stanislaw Wyspianski’s Paintings Works”. She added this dedication:

„103 professors of the University of Cracow, which was saved from Teutonic martyrdom, thanks to your intercession, Duce, they expresses their greatest devotion and thankfulness for reintroducing values and reputation of Italian culture to the world. 18th January 1940, Rome” (originally in Italian: „103 professori dell’Universita di Cracovia ritomati dal martirio teutonico grazie a Voi Duce, rivolgano il loro pensiero costante e grato d’aver ancora una volta dimostrato al. mondo il valore, la fama, la reazione della cultura italiana. A nome dei collghi I M Bochenski dell’Universita Jagellonica di Cracovia. 18 Febhrario 1940 A. XVIII”)

Father Bochenski signed this dedication, and she gave this book to Mussolini a week later. But this not end of it’s extraordinary history. 18th Lviv Battalion of the Shooters, which led the 5th Division hit at the end of 1944. It’s soldiers reached even Predappio, the home town of Benito Mussolini. Polish soldiers, honoured for fighting in battle for Monte Cassino, found this album in personal bookcase of Duce. This book was proably found by Jan Bielatowicz whose commander-in-chief, lieutenant Jan Lechowicz decided to send to General Anders. After 1970, this book was taken to the London Historical Institute and the General Sikorski Museum. It was in the hall of the name of General Wladyslaw Anders, until 2004 when it returned to the Jagiellonian University Library, where it is to this day. It is still exibited at the Memorial Day for University professors.


„I will never forget this you, my Lady, and I will be grateful to the Providence if I ever will be able to repay my debt of gratitude”

We cannot fully describe the history of Sonderaction Cracow without presenting history of Luciana Frassati- Gawronska in independent part of this article. This extraordinary woman was a daughter of La Stampa owner, and wife of Jan Gawronski who was Polish diplomat. She helped our country many times during the war risking not only her position but also her life. She deserves better description for sure than this one in my article. Luciana Frassati was a friend of Dolfuss and of the Von Papen family. She visited Mussolini many times and she wanted to distract his attention from Hitler side. She also intervened for Polish Affairs in the Vatican, talking with Pope Pius XII. She had great influence on beatification of her brother Pierre Giorgio Frassati too. Diplomatic-aristocratic circles did not prevent her from performing spy missions for Polish Government. She carried many times suitcases with money for Resistance. She also saved Wladyslaw Sikorski’s wife from Poland. Supreme Commander even thanked her for this in a special letter:


I would like to express my deepest gratitude for enabling my wife’s departure from Poland. I will never forget this you, my Lady, and I will be grateful to the Providence if I ever will be able to repay my debt of gratitude

What is very interesting too, Boleslaw Piasecki was also released from the hands of Gestapo thanks to her help and intercession. She even hid him in one of her apartments. She was friend with Piasecki, she considered him as smart patriot fully devoted to his cause. I cannot list all of her merits here. Her support in the case of Sonderaction Cracow seems to be invaluable. It was she who kept informing Mussolini about situation in occupied Poland and she was constantly asking for his diplomatic intervention on Cracow professors. She died at the age of 105 in 2007. 14 years earlier, she received the Commander Cross of the Order of Merit of Poland for her activism during the war.


Henryk Pierzchała „Pomocne dłonie Europejczyków (1939- 1944)”, Kraków 2005

Luciana Frassati „Przeznaczenie nie omija Warszawy”, Warszawa 2003

Władysław Konopczyński „Pod trupią główką”, Warszawa 1982

Wojciech Jerzy Borejsza „Rzym a wspólnota faszystowska. O penetracji faszyzmu włoskiego w Europie Środkowej, Południowej i Wschodniej”, Warszawa 1981

Franciszek Ziejka „Miasto poetów”, Kraków 2005

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