The Current

Poland's LGBT community gets unexpected allies because of a painting looted by Nazis

Poland's LGBT community just gained a pair of unexpected allies in their fight for equality: a gay Californian couple who learned a painting in their kitchen was looted from the eastern European country by Nazis.

U.S. Homeland Security informed California couple painting in their kitchen was Nazi plunder

David Crocker, left, and Craig Gilmore stand in front of Portrait of a Lady, by the Flemish artist Melchior Geldorp, at the National Museum in Warsaw on April 5. (Czarek Sokolowski/The Associated Press)

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Poland's LGBT community recently gained some unexpected allies: a California couple who discovered the painting in their kitchen was looted from the country by Nazis during the Second World War.

"It felt like the Nazis had come into our house and slapped us across the face," said Craig Gilmore.

He and his fiancé, David Crocker, had paid $5,000 US at an auction for the painting, with no inkling of its dark past.

"To have something that they had their hands on — and that they looted directly from Poland's National Museum — really was disturbing," Gilmore told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

The 17th-century Flemish painting — Melchior Geldorp's Portrait of a Lady — had been hanging in the couple's Los Angeles home for almost a decade when U.S. Homeland Security agents knocked on their door in 2016.

The agents explained the painting was one of tens of thousands of cultural items plundered from Poland during the war, and that a government initiative in Warsaw was asking for it to be returned.

"That first day that Homeland came, we were able to spit out: 'Well if this is true, we would like to participate in getting her back to her homeland,'" said Gilmore.

The painting, centre, hung in the couple's kitchen for almost a decade before U.S. Department of Homeland Security agents knocked on their door. (Submitted by Craig Gilmore)

But during the two years it took to cut through the "red tape" of repatriation, the couple became concerned at what they saw happening to LGBT people in Poland.

"We started researching, and it became very evident, very quickly that the rights for our community in Poland were just horrible," said Gilmore.

Unsure how they would be received as a same-sex couple, Gilmore and Crocker attended the repatriation ceremony in Warsaw last September. The U.S. Ambassador Georgette Mosbacher and Poland's Deputy Prime Minister Piotr Gliński were in attendance, as well as a large media presence.

After posing for photographs, the speeches began.

"The first thank you, or I guess I should say lack of thank you, came from the deputy prime minister who gave his speech, and during the speech he thanked me," said Gilmore.

"David, who was sitting next to me … was left out of the thank you.

"And that shocked us."

Gilmore and Crocker with Poland's Deputy Prime Minister Piotr Gliński, centre, at the repatriation ceremony last year. (Submitted by Craig Gilmore)

LGBT community facing 'increased hatred' in Poland

There has been a resurgence of rhetoric against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex [LGBTI] people ahead of this week's European Union parliamentary elections, said Evelyne Paradis, executive director of ILGA-Europe.

Paradis's organization advocates for equality and human rights. She told Tremonti that this rhetoric is being used by populist parties, that are "driving these very divisive agendas and fuelling, I would say, hatred in many parts of the continent."

"LGBTI communities are amongst the most vulnerable, and in this context of increased hatred, the most vulnerable communities often are the first victims."

Poland's governing Law and Justice (PiS) party recently condemned a new sex education program about sexual orientation, based on World Health Organization guidelines.

The party's leader Jarosław Kaczyński tweeted a campaign ad that showed an umbrella with the party logo shielding a family from a gay pride rainbow. The tweet pledged to "defend the Polish family."

'We wanted to be a positive role model'

Gilmore and Crocker said that while they were in Poland, they saw political pamphlets that suggested LGBT people were a threat to children.

"We were so horrified that a government would release that about their own citizenry that we decided that we needed to really be in solidarity with our community there," said Gilmore.

The couple spread awareness by distributing T-shirts and stickers with the slogan, "Share the Pride," to encourage people to support LGBT rights, and join them in how they felt about returning the painting.

Crocker and Gilmore holding some of the T-shirts, stickers and posters they printed to send to LGBT rights campaigners in Poland. (Submitted by Craig Gilmore)

They also worked to raise funds for local organizations, and in April returned to the National Museum in Warsaw to host an event marking the latest round of donations.

Attending the event were representatives of local LGBT, Jewish and Polish cultural organizations.

"We wanted to be a positive role model," Gilmore said.

"[We were] returning something voluntarily for not just the LGBTQ community, but for the Jews of Poland, and for the Poles of Poland, for all the citizenry of Poland."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation. 

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Ines Colabrese and Julianne Hazlewood.