1944 Stanisławów Ghetto – German occupied Poland
This is an account of the events immediately following the Polish Resistance Army’s ‘Operation Tempest’ – a battle which defeated the German SS occupying Stanisławów Ghetto. There were heavy casualties and many fatalities on both sides. The Stanisławów main street, and most of the buildings leading into the Ghetto, are ablaze and in ruins.
The Polish army Captain couldn’t hide his indifference with what the Italian Military Doctor was requesting. Everyone in the ghetto was after something; cigarettes, food, booze, guns, ammunition, medication, you name it. But the problem here was obvious to the Polish army captain, nobody would want to trade morphine for an envelope with Russian postage stamps on it. And seriously, did the Italian Military Doctor know how difficult it was to obtain morphine in Stanisławów Ghetto?
The Italian military doctor pressed on with his request; “Come on Captain. You gotta help me. Our man is badly wounded, part of his leg is missing, he’s in agony. It’s three hours to the red cross hospital from here. I beg you one soldier to another. Morphine?”
The Polish captain shrugged his shoulders and went to walk off towards the now obliterated Stanisławów Ghetto, but the Italian military doctor grabbed his arm. “Or hey, look, any kind of pain killer. You must know someone, you guys are local.” The Italian doctor held onto the army captain’s arm until the Polish soldier turned and they stared at each other. An amber glow danced across the Polish captain’s face, projecting absurd shadows behind him which danced rhythmically in time with the flames burning in the German stronghold in the street. “If you had guns Doctor, I could maybe help you, but stamps, and Russian, you know this is Poland, no?”
Despite the captain’s reticence the doctor felt he saw a change in the captain’s countenance. It was only a glimmer of hope that appeared in the captain’s eyes, and a change in the tension in the captain’s jawline. And the Italian Doctor consoled himself, ‘the captain hasn’t walked away even though I’ve let go of his arm.’ He pressed on; “I just thought there would be some Russian soldiers here, and this is all I’ve got to trade captain. Anyone you know I can talk to?” The captain said he recalled a Polish soldier who talked about collecting stamps, but he couldn’t guarantee anything. In all the chaos he wasn’t sure if the guy was still alive. He said he would make some enquiries. He instructed the Italian Doctor to sit tight, and he’d send someone back to inform him one way or another.
The Polish captain slipped away in the direction of a mound of smouldering rumble and vanished into a wall of drifting smoke. The doctor squatted down to wait, and took another look at the envelope. It had four stamps on the front, placed unusually down the bottom right side. Three were in a strip, and they were different to the single stamp, which sat to the lower left of them. He’d not noticed before but now he had time to reflect the single stamp didn’t have the semi-circular holes around the outer edge like the other three, and this one had a central blue and white coat of arms with brown patterns around it, the strip of three had a green and white coat of arms and a carmine patterned outer. He didn’t know much Russian but could see it was addressed to the ‘Austrian Embassy in St Petersburg’, and was dated ‘April 21 1858’. Another world away from this hell war, thought the Doctor. Back when the Czars ruled the Russian Empire, and aircrafts didn’t drop bombs on your soldiers. A simple time thought the Italian, but then he reminded himself that medical knowledge and medication had similarly taken flight. What he wanted right now was his payload of morphine, so he could leave this flaming pit of a town and take his patient to Switzerland. He didn’t want to make the journey south without something to ease the poor soldiers discomfort and agony. It was going to be a long night if he failed.
He heard someone approaching and stood up making sure his medical identification jacket was visible. A Polish soldier appeared holding a rifle to his front and crouching low as if avoiding some invisible low ceiling, when he saw the doctor he stood straight and nodded. He was tall, blue eyes, filthy – covered in mud and dust – and the doctor could see large blood stains on the soldier’s overcoat and irregular spots on his trousers. As the flames illuminated his face there were splatters of what looked like dark paint flung across his face on one-side. The doctor recognised the telltale sign left by a fallen soldier upon his comrade. The soldier standing before him was, thought the doctor, the lucky one.
“My captain says you got some stamps?” The Polish soldier’s accent was thick and his English stilted but the smile was welcoming. The doctor held out the envelope. “I was told these are rare stamps. Cost me a packet of smokes and a chunk of meat in Paris. I desperately need Morphine, my friend.”
The doctor watched as the Polish soldier held the envelope close to his face, handling the envelope as if it were fragile glass and might break into pieces. He tilted it this way and then that, catching the pulsing light from the burning tank on the side of the street. His eyebrows shifted inwards and the soldier rolled the envelope over in his hands several times, back front, front back. The doctor was praying under his breath; “Please Lord help me, please help me”. The doctor watched the soldier without blinking. “I recognise these stamps, Doctor. This one here is the very first issue of Russian Empire, and these three are the second issue. Not seen an envelope like this before.”
The Polish soldier handed the envelope back to the Doctor. For a moment the Italian doctor thought it wasn’t going to be his day, because the Polish soldier half turned his shoulders away from him, but then he dragged from his back a khaki bag with his right hand, and in one fluid motion opened the bag and delicately slipped his hand inside the top, and then seemingly unzipped an inner pocket. The soldier removed something wrapped in an off-white piece of linen, that he carefully unwrapped, lifting the fabric apart to reveal a medical vial. The doctor’s eyes widened and his heart rate jumped. “This is all the morphine I got. It cost me a submachine gun. I’ve been saving it just in case. You know?”
The doctor did know, and he had to suppress the overwhelming urge to hug the Polish soldier as he handed him the glass tube containing the clear liquid. “Listen. Thanks soldier. You’re from heaven. Here take it. I hope it blesses you.” The soldier took the envelope and with the same off-white piece of linen he began to carefully wrap the envelope up, folding the ends over, the top, then sides and lastly the bottom. When he was satisfied it was encased he slid the new package into a breast pocket inside his army coat.
The doctor put his hand out to the soldier to thank him, the soldier looked down at his extended hand and smiled. “No. Not yet my friend. I have something else for you.” He put his bag on the floor and bent down and removed two automatic guns and two ammunition clips, holding them in both his hands for the doctor to take. “What?” The doctor was confused. “This is a rare Russian cover Doctor. I can’t take this from you for that morphine. Plus you’re going to need something else to trade to get more medication, something to help avoid infection, this place is filthy. In the ghetto guns and ammo talk. Trust me, if you want to trade, these will get you something. They’re German and good quality. Don’t give them away, these guns killed my friends.”
The doctor took the guns and ammo, and not hiding his emotions this time he placed the hardware down between his legs and stood up and grabbed the Polish soldier with a bear hug, pressing his face into the side of his soiled left cheek. The soldier laughed and returned the gesture. They stood for a few moments perfectly still, the fumes and dust swirling around their embrace. Then the soldier pulled away and nodded his head and said; “Good luck my friend!” He turned and as he began to move away the doctor shouted “Wait! What’s your name, soldier?” The soldier paused and looked round with a smile and shouted back; “Mikulski. Lieutenant Zbigniew Mikulski. Pray for Poland my friend. I’ll pray for your soldier.” With that he turned, bent over again as if avoiding that low ceiling and nimbly slipped back into the fog of dust and smoke from where he’d materialised, before the doctor could finish his reply; “..I’ll tell him. Good luck soldier!” But the Polish Resistance fighter was gone.
2008 Geneva, Switzerland David Feldman SA International Auctioneers’ office
These are the events surrounding the Sunday October 5th 2008 Rarities of the World auction that included Russian material.
It was a packed auction room, all seats were taken, some attendees stood to the back and sides. There was an almost physical sense of anticipation hanging in the air. David Feldman looked up from his rostrum, took a deep breath and said; “Lot number 60068. The ultimate jewel in the crown of Imperial Russian Philately. Unique mixed franking of the first and second issue of Russian stamps, on cover with Nos. 1 and 4, the latter a vertical strip of three, cover dated April 21 1858, sent to the Austrian Embassy St Petersburg. Provenance: Zbigniew Mikulski. Start the bidding at US$75,000.” The bidding centred around two gentleman. One to the front and the other to the back. The bids climbed, and increased rapidly until the man at the front dropped his arm.
David Feldman nodded his acknowledgement that the man had reached his limit, and his eyes lifted to the figure at the back. “Sold! for US$1,680,000 to the man on the back row, with the panama hat.” The auctioneer pointed his polished oak hammer to a gentleman sitting at the far right of the very last line of chairs. The hushed room was immediately filled with the shuffle of moving bodies, everyone simultaneously turning round to catch a glimpse of the mysterious buyer, just in time to see him stand up. The successful bidder placed his hat back on his head, and turning down the peek, his face hidden, he walked to the outer aisle and down to the exit door, and left.
Later, someone in the back row said they were sure they heard the man say; “That’s for you Dr Luigi Diera! Hell of a shot!” Someone in the front row commented that the buyer was limping badly. A lady from France during the clamour to get out after the auction said she heard the man speak and was sure he had an Italian accent. But all these reports are unconfirmed. The buyer would later pay for his Russian cover via a transfer from a Swiss bank account. He was seen leaving the David Feldman offices and reportedly walked out onto the autumn Geneva street heading south, into what was the last of the afternoon sun. The security guard on shift that day remarked on the gentleman’s smile.
Zbigniew Mikulski was an eminent Polish philatelist and expert on Russian stamps, entered onto the Roll of Distinguished Philatelists in 2002, and winner of several Grand Prix and Gold Medals, including a Grand Prix for his Russia exhibition in 1988, which included the cover this story is based upon.
Zbigniew Mikulski served in the Polish Home Army (Polish Resistance) in Stanisławów Ghetto in 1944. And it is absolutely true that he exchanged two automatic guns, ammunition and morphine with an Italian Military Doctor for rare Russian stamps.
Operation Tempest actually happened. The German army was defeated after occupying Stanislawow (now modern day Ivano-Frankivsk in the Ukrainian) since 1941.
The provenance described by David Feldman in the 2008 Rarities of the World auction is correct, Mikulski did indeed own the cover, but so did Sir John Wilson (keeper of the Royal Collection 1938 to 1969) who also previously held the cover.
Dr Luigi Diera, mentioned at the end of the story, may well have been our Italian Military Doctor, who traded with Mikulski in 1944 in the Stanisławów Ghetto, and it was this that caused me, as a writer, to speculate that the mysterious buyer of the cover in 2008 was our injured Italian soldier who was taken to Switzerland following the battle for Stanisławów Ghetto outlined above. However, crucially the Polish Resistance Fighter – Lieutenant Zbigniew Mikulski – was indeed correct. It is ‘a rare Russian cover’.