How the Polish gold train got stuck in French Africa during WWII

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I just read about the Polish banker and economist Leon Barański (1895-1982), who worked as an expert and permanent representative of the World Bank in Ghana during 1962-1964. Then through his biography, I bumped into this epic story of how the Polish Bank tried to save its gold during World War Two, a process which Barański organized as the bank director. This was a truly geographical history: the plan was to evacuate the gold from France to the United States of America. In August 1939, the Polish Central Bank had gold resources with a value of 463.6 million zlotys, ca. 87 million USD, weighing 79.5 tonnes. Most of the bank’s treasury got transported to Romania, then from Constanza to Turkey to Syria to Lebanon (then French colony) to France. But the Romanians left 4 tonnes in the National Bank of Romania, where it survived the war. The Communists who ruled Poland had no knowledge of the gold in Romania, which was hid in the Tismana Monastery on Starmina Mountain, and this news only reached Warsaw in October 1945. A complicated lawsuit and negotiation commenced until the gold finally arrived in Warsaw on 18 September 1947.

But in France, as the Germans were occupying the country during 1940, the Polish gold was only sent out from the country on 17 June, and not to the USA or the French Antilles, but to Dakar in West Africa, and further to Fort Kayes (Mali) deep in the French Sahara. After the French surrendered on 22 June, the emigré Polish Bank’s demands to retrieve the gold from the French proved effortless, and de Gaulle’s Vichy Government, which promised to return the gold, failed to take possession of Dakar. Since the French later denied that the gold was still in West Africa, the Polish made the US government sue the Banque de France and seize its assets in New York. In the fall of 1942, after the invasion of North-West Africa by the Allied Forces under operation “Torch”, one of the directors of the Polish Bank, Major Stefan Michalski, was sent on a mission to Algiers on 13 February 1943 to find out if the Polish gold was still in West Africa. Eventually the French admitted it was in Kayes, and after Polish inspection the gold was transported back to Dakar in 1944, so it may head off to the USA. However, the French Committee of National Liberation debated the release of the gold by arguing that if the Polish government-in-exile were not able to return to Poland and a Russian-backed government were established there, then this government would undoubtedly ask for the return of the Polish Bank’s gold. Eventually the gold was taken over by a special committee of the Polish Bank led by director Michalski in February and March 1944.

polish_gold_sahara.jpg

The Sahara in Algeria. Photo: National Digital Archive

You can read more about this history here:

https://www.nbp.pl/…/Bankoteka_4_September_2014_internet.pdf
Rojek, W. (2000): Odyseja skarbu Rzeczypospolitej. Wyd. Literackie, Kraków.
https://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leon_Bara%C5%84ski_(bankier)

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