Poland’s first Olympic gold medal winner who helped smuggle tonnes of gold out of country during WWII would be 120 today
Halina Konopacka, Poland’s first Olympic gold medal winner, was one of the most outstanding and spectacular characters of interwar Poland.
She was passionate skier, a poet, painter, philanthropist, motorist and a devoted patriot.
However, when war broke out in September 1939, Konopacka would go for gold again. This time though, it was not an Olympic medal that was at stake, but the security of the entire stock of Poland’s gold reserves, without which Poland would stand no chance of carrying on the fight against the Germans.
Despite spirited resistance to German attacks, in the first days of the war it became clear to Bank of Poland officials that the country’s reserves of gold deposited in various places around Poland would have to be moved to safety.
The bank had started to accumulate gold reserves in the interwar period to ensure strength and stability of the Polish currency.
By August 1939, it had at its disposal gold resources worth 463.6 million zlotys, or approximately 87 million dollars, weighing 79.5 tons. On the eve of the war, the bullion was stored in the Bank of Poland’s vault in Warsaw (193.0 million zlotys) its branches in Siedlce, Lublin, Zamość and Brześć (170.4 million zlotys), and abroad (100.2 million zlotys).
Due to the lack of trucks, all of which were being used by the army, the cargo was to be transported by ordinary Warsaw buses and cars.
Under cover of darkness, fearing attacks from the Luftwaffe, on September 7, 1939, the main convoy set out from Warsaw.
Halina Konopacka took the wheel of the last vehicle in the column. “We headed south towards Romania on a black-blue night. The moon was red from being so close to Mars, a planet which, as we know, predicts horror, war, destruction and death,” she would recall later.
Among the few personal items she had packed was her most precious sport souvenir – the Olympic gold medal won in 1928 in Amsterdam. The little gold disc would soon be lost, but the cargo in the vehicles would be saved unharmed.
While studying languages at Warsaw University she also took up skiing and athletics, but soon abandoned winter sports because the training facilities were too far from her home.
When she won Olympic gold in Amsterdam in 1928, she became a sensation. The public lost their hearts to the 28-year-old, whose fiery beauty she owed to her Tartar ancestors.
She took great care of her image and was interested in fashion. She inherited a weakness for headgear from her mother and wore a red handmade beret during competitions.
She was recognised and adored everywhere she went, and as Olympic champion she became the embodiment of success.
After winning Olympic gold, she received a congratulatory telegram from President Ignacy Moscicki, and on returning to Poland, she was received at the Belvedere by Marshal Józef Piłsudski.
She gave thousands of interviews and became the most popular person in Poland, winning the Przegląd Sportowy person of the year poll twice in a row.
In the discus throw she had no equal for years. She set Polish records 56 times, not only in discus, but also in the shot put and javelin. She won 26 national championships.
In 1928, she married Colonel Ignacy Matuszewski, a diplomat, military officer and treasury minister. It was this last role, that drew him and his new wife into the mission to rescue Poland’s gold.
The first part of the plan to reach Łuck had been successful. The next stage was to reach Romania, which was neutral at that time.
“During the day we sheltered in the forests, covered with branches so that it was difficult to see the yellow and red Warsaw buses from above.
“We slept where we could. In barns, in stables, on the bare ground.
“After a few days we finally reached the Rumanian border. For the first time we saw electric light, which illuminated us,” she recalled years later.
Though the Germans were hunting the Polish gold, the column managed to evade them. On September 13, in Sniatyn, now in Ukraine, about 75 tons of gold was reloaded on a train.
After reaching the port of Constanta in Romania, it was transferred to a British ship.
Konopacka and other women in the convoy loaded the heavy crates as fast as they could so that the ship could set sail as quickly as possible.
The ship zigzagged its way into the Black Sea as German submarines were operating in the waters.
In complete silence, Konopacka and the shipment of gold slipped into port in Istanbul. From there it was moved via Turkey to Beirut.
There, the crates of gold were reloaded onto several French warships. They safely reached the port of Toulon on the French Riviera on October 5.
Though the wartime journey of Poland’s gold was not over, Konopacka’s role in the story had come to an end.
The heroic mission to save Poland’s gold was a success and the government-in-exile had resources to continue fighting the war under its own flag in France and later in Britain and Europe.
With her job done, she settled in France with her husband, but after France surrendered to Germany in June 1940, the couple emigrated to the United States, arriving there through Spain, Portugal and Brazil in September 1941.
She stayed there for the remainder of her life.
Historians have called Konopacka’s role in the epic odyssey her second gold medal.
To read about the gold’s return, click here.