By all accounts, Hanna “Kali” Weynerowska led a colorful life – the sort of colorful life she might depict in one of her many paintings.
As an up-and-coming painter in her native Poland, she was building something of a name for herself before World War II broke out. Then she was captured by Nazis, escaped from a concentration camp, became a freedom fighter, and eventually made her way to San Francisco, where she continued to paint.
“Her paintings were very well done, with oil and gold trimmings,” friend Angeline Friedman said. “She was a perfectionist in a sense.”
Before Kali died in 1998, at the age of 100, she left instructions that 86 of her paintings should be sent to the Polish Museum in Rapperswil, Switzerland.
“To my knowledge that was always her desire,” Friedman said of the paintings. “It was always supposed to go to Poland.”
But the paintings instead ended up with family members who never sent them to their intended destination.
“For a period of time it was unsure exactly where they were,” said FBI Agent David Johnson. “People were looking for them, without answers.”
Eventually the Polish government enlisted the FBI to try and track down the paintings. Agents visited a family member in Santa Rosa, who led them to dozens of paintings tucked away inside a storage facility.
“After a conversation with us, it was agreed we would take them in and get them back to Switzerland where they belong,” Johnson said.
The paintings arrived in Switzerland on Thursday to the delight of the Polish government.
“I think, for Poles, it’s such an emotional thing,” said Caria Tomczykowska, President of the Polish Arts and Culture Foundation in San Francisco, “because Poland lost so much during the war.”
Tomczykowska said she knew Kali and her husband during the woman’s time in San Francisco, and she treasured her visits to her eclectic “bohemian” home on San Francisco’s Mount Davidson.
“It’s just a remarkable collection,” Tomczykowska said, “and a testament of her creativity and of her excellence as a painter.”
Tomczykowska said 80,000 pieces of art stolen by Nazis and the Russians from Poland during WWII remain missing.
The FBI has a special unit specifically tasked with tracking down stolen art listed in a large database. But Kali’s paintings weren’t included in the database, since their disappearance was more likely related to a domestic squabble than international espionage.
Though Tomczykowska was happy to see the paintings finally going to a Polish cultural institution, she still held out hope they would eventually end up in Poland. That was what Kali wanted.