Two weeks before Veterans Day, 88-year-old World War II vet Curtis Dagley of Gloucester, Massachusetts was decorated by the Republic of Poland. The great, late-Gothic sculptor Wit Stwosz (known in German as Veit Stoss) was smiling, from what I trust is his current station at the Throne of Grace. And therein lies a tale.
The colossal wooden altarpiece that Wit Stwosz carved in Kraków for the Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady, the Mariacki, is one of the great feats of decorative art in Christian history. More than forty feet high and some thirty-six feet wide, the altarpiece is a gigantic triptych, the centerpiece of which is the Dormition of the Virgin in the presence of the apostles. The two flanking panels depict numerous scenes from the Bible, including the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Because the biblical figures (some of which are twelve feet tall) were modeled on the burghers, tradesmen, waitresses, and housewives that Stwosz met during his mid-fifteenth-century labors in Kraków, the altarpiece is a marvelous evocation of what the Creed means by the “communion of saints.”
Just before the German invasion of September 1939, the altarpiece was disassembled and the main wooden figures taken to the cathedral in Sandomierz for safekeeping. But Nazi looters were determined to take Stwosz’s composition to Nuremberg, his native city, and got their way in 1941 when the altarpiece was removed to Nuremberg Castle and hidden in its basement. Discovered by the U.S. Army detachments known to moviegoers as the “Monuments Men,” the Wit Stwosz altarpiece was returned to Kraków on a thirty-car train in April-May 1946, escorted by American G.I.’s.
Enter Curtis Dagley.
The eighteen-year old Gloucesterman was a buck private at the time, assigned to guard duty on the train bringing recovered art treasures back to Poland. But tensions were high in Kraków, where the newly-installed Polish communist regime was not, to put it gently, popular. The regime planned a large May Day “workers’ celebration” on May 1; it was quickly followed by an anti-communist demonstration on May 3 in which eight hundred protesting students were arrested and thirty wounded. (The role played in that demonstration by a then-obscure seminarian named Karol Wojtyła—later to be known as Pope St. John Paul II—likely had something to do with Cardinal Adam Stefan Sapieha’s decision to send Wojtyła to Rome for graduate studies immediately after his ordination in November 1946.)
So congenitally nasty regime officials and their secret police goons were in an even more petulant frame of mind than usual on May 5, when the altarpiece was officially and ceremonially returned. Perhaps to underscore their unhappiness, they claimed that an American soldier had shot two Polish militiamen. Private Dagley was charged with this “crime,” handcuffed, and held in custody, even after another GI admitted to randomly firing his pistol and accidentally wounding one Pole the previous night. The falsely-charged Private Dagley’s commanding officer made the imprudent decision to leave him behind under Polish arrest, thinking that everything would sort out in due course. Thus Curtis Dagley spent unnecessary (and certainly unwanted) time as a guest of the ill-named Polish People’s Republic before being returned to American control and mustered out of the Army.
I first learned about all this from my friend Agata Wolska, the archivist of the Mariacki, who was a great help when I was preparing City of Saints: A Pilgrimage to John Paul II’s Kraków. Dr. Wolska, a charming and tenacious scholar, spent a year tracking down the American who helped restore the Wit Stwosz altarpiece to Kraków and was unjustly imprisoned as a result. Her persistence was rewarded when she met Mr. Dagley in Gloucester in 2012. Last month’s ceremony, at which Curtis Dagley was presented with the Bene Merito medal of the Polish foreign ministry, completed a work of thanksgiving in fidelity to historical truth.
There’s more than a whiff of isolationism in the American air these days. The remarkable, wonderful story of Curtis Dagley and the Poles who remembered him with gratitude seventy years later is a poignant reminder that some still look to the United States as a pillar of stability and decency in a very nasty world.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.
This article was originally published on George Weigel’s weekly column The Catholic Difference