The Second World War was a particularly difficult time for Polish art and culture, as the country was completely overrun, pillaged, purged and ruled by the Nazi German Third Reich for most of the six years of the war, and later also by the Soviet Red Army as it advanced westward towards Germany. Polish society quickly became subordinated to the rule and order of the invaders, and over time was completely fragmented and ultimately destroyed. As a result, Polish art and culture was not only endangered, but became increasingly difficult to create and partake in.
Both during and after the war, the Catholic Church – together with some affluent and resourceful Polish citizens, and with the cooperation of the Polish Underground State in London – was active in saving national treasures in the form of artwork, as well as living artists themselves from the pillaging and murdering campaigns of the invaders. About 25 major museums were destroyed during World War II in Poland, while libraries, theatres and universities were either closed or designated for use only by the Germans following the outbreak of the war. The invaders looted public and private buildings, and took countless pieces of artwork and treasures to Germany.
Under the circumstances, the challenge of saving significant artwork and other assets of national culture was a formidable task, let alone create new works of art. Yet despite the tremendous challenges to artistic expression and censorship in almost every aspect of their lives, Poles did not give up for one moment.
Secretly, a rudimentary education system was maintained, and even the theater was active in some places. At the same time that people were sentenced to death for owning radios and listening to Polish-language broadcasts, there were over 1,000 underground newspapers in print during the war, and clandestine theatres remained. Music also went underground. Amongst the most famous musicians of the time were: Eugenia Umińska, Kazimierz Wiłkomirski or Witold Lutosławski. Other underground artists included Stanisław Ostoja-Chrostowski, Eryk Lipiński and Konstanty Maria Sopoćko.
It is also worth mentioning that many artists did not survive the war, but nevertheless contributed to the Polish art scene of the period. Examples of such artists include Bruno Schulz, Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer or Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński.