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Jan Nowak-Jeziorański: A ‘Great Beacon of Hope’ in the ‘Darkest Hours of Communism’

Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, the legendary fighter for the Polish resistance, continued to fight for his country’s freedom by helping to found Radio Free Europe’s (RFE) Polish Service.

As Poland fell into the hands of Soviet-sponsored Communists after World War II, Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, the legendary fighter for the Polish resistance, continued to fight for his country’s freedom by helping to found Radio Free Europe’s (RFE) Polish Service. In his memoirs, Nowak-Jeziorański wrote, “Rebuilding a sense of community was the first and foremost aim of our radio station. Maintaining hope was its second purpose.”

The service’s first broadcast aired from Munich on May 3, 1952, with Nowak giving the inaugural address. On the importance of the service, in his memoirs Nowak-Jeziorański has written, “In the darkest years of Stalinism, the Security Office’s omnipotence, repressions, distortion of history and secrecy, Radio Free Europe gave Poles a sense that someone, somewhere, knows the truth and speaks the truth; that the crimes of the regime will be named and the perpetrators―punished.” His audience included Pope John Paul II, who once told Nowak-Jeziorański that he used to listen to him as he shaved every morning. Nowak-Jeziorański headed the Polish service until 1975.

Born Zdzislaw Jezioranski in 1913 (Jan Nowak was his nom de guerre), Nowak-Jeziorański first attained prominence by serving in the Polish underground during World War II, when he acted as an emissary and travelled between London, Stockholm, and Warsaw to lobby allied leaders for support and to organize the resistance. During the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, he oversaw English-language broadcasting from Warsaw.

In 1982, he wrote a book about his wartime experiences titled Courier From Warsaw. In a preface to the book, former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski said Nowak-Jeziorański faced countless dangers and was "usually only a step ahead of the Gestapo." Nowak-Jeziorański said he risked his life "many, many times" and said he believed it was a miracle that he survived his clandestine trips from Warsaw to London. He once described to RFE/RL his close calls with the Gestapo; once, he was nearly cut in half by a plane's propeller when he jumped from a bomb bay door before the engine had stopped.

After Nowak-Jeziorański’s retirement from Radio Free Europe, he moved with his wife to the United States, where he served as national director of the Polish American Congress and later as a consultant to the National Security Council during the Carter Administration, helping throughout the 1990s to press for Poland's integration with NATO.

In 1996, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from U.S. President Bill Clinton, who said during the ceremony, “For 25 years he was a dominant voice at Radio Free Europe, that great beacon of hope that brought so many through the darkest hours of communism."

“Nowak's commitment to democracy is an inspiration to all Americans, and this commitment is still being felt in his native Poland,” said Clinton.

After moving to the United States, Nowak-Jeziorański assumed he would never see his beloved Poland again. However, in 1989 the Solidarity movement toppled the Communist regime, and in August that year he made his triumphant return, receiving a hero's welcome. He moved back to Warsaw permanently in 2002. In January 2005, he passed away at the age of 91.

Recalling Nowak-Jeziorański, former RFE/RL President Thomas A. Dine said he was “a great leader. He was a great Polish patriot. He made the Polish section of RFE the jewel in the crown."

Nowak-Jeziorański’s experiences as a fighter for the Polish resistance have been memorialized in the Polish film Kurier, which premiered in March 2019 at the Grand Theater of the National Opera in Warsaw.

Based on reporting by Frank Csongos and Voice of America.