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Art historians consider Poland's priceless Wawel tapestries an unparalleled collection of woven artwork - from biblical scenes to nature settings - but few Canadians know that Ottawa played a crucial role in safeguarding these treasures during the Second World War.

During a brief visit to Poland, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will visit Krakow's Wawel castle today where about 140 of these tapestries hang - shining a spotlight on the quirky story of how Canadians kept these artworks from the Nazis.

A collection of Polish royal treasure including the Flemish-made tapestries was spirited out of Poland when the war broke out and moved across Europe along with the fighting. Anxious to keep these riches from Hitler's troops, Poland's government-in-exile asked Ottawa in 1940 to provide a haven for them.

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The Canadian government's director of national archives decided the best place to keep the collection was at Ottawa's Central Experimental Farm, a research facility in the central part of the capital.

But not all the goods stayed there. Sympathizers of the Polish government-in-exile, which had the only set of keys to the trove, spirited away various riches in subsequent years to other guardians across Canada, who stored them in such places as a Bank of Montreal vault.

Some treasures were returned to Poland in 1959.

The tapestries somehow ended up in the Hotel Dieu de Québec hospital, where they were discovered in 1948 and impounded by premier Maurice Duplessis. Mr. Duplessis, an ardent anti-communist, said he wouldn't send the woven artwork home as long as Communists ran Poland. Instead, he locked them in a provincial museum.

Liberal premier Jean Lesage returned them to Poland's Wawel castle in 1961, where the biggest threat they face today is not marauding invaders but rot.

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