Jan Nowak-Jezioranski

Resistance fighter and 'voice of free Poland'

Thursday 27 January 2005 01:00 GMT

Zdzislaw Jezioranski (Jan Nowak), resistance fighter, writer and broadcaster: born Warsaw 13 May 1913; Director, RFE Polish Service 1951-76; National Director, Polish-American Congress 1978-98; married 1944 Jadwiga Wolska (died 1999); died Warsaw 20 January 2005.

As a resistance fighter during Nazi Germany's wartime occupation of Poland and as a broadcaster to his country from the West during the Cold War, Jan Nowak-Jezioranski spent a lifetime fighting for an independent and democratic Poland. He was no mere foot-soldier.

Even as a young man during the Second World War, when he was a courier for the Polish Home Army - the underground resistance - Nowak-Jezioranski travelled across Nazi-occupied Europe to London to brief personally Winston Churchill and his Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden about conditions in Poland, and bring news of the extermination of the Jews. After the war, working for a quarter of a century as the founding director of the Polish Service of Radio Free Europe (RFE), the US-funded station broadcasting from Germany, Nowak-Jezioranski became known as "the voice of free Poland".

Nowak-Jezioranski built up a legendary reputation. His was perhaps the best-known voice in Poland during the Cold War. When the collapse of Communism made it possible for him to return home in 1989, his arrival at Warsaw Airport was greeted by the entire senior leadership of Solidarity, the newly triumphant pro-democracy movement, and by a crowd of several thousand well-wishers.

Born Zdzislaw Jezioranski in Warsaw in 1913, he adopted the nom de guerre Jan Nowak - by which he was to be known for much of the rest of his life - when he joined the wartime resistance. Before then he had studied and then lectured in economics at Poznan university, and had fought as a junior officer in Poland's defiant army against the German invasion in September 1939.

In the underground Home Army, Nowak was assigned to the psychological warfare unit, known as Action N. But his key role was as a courier who overcame incredible odds to visit on three occasions the Polish government-in-exile in London, and bring much-needed information about the situation under German occupation. He also confirmed reports about the scale of the Nazis' extermination of Jews in the death camps they had built in Poland.

Nowak was back in Poland in time to fight in the Warsaw Uprising - the abortive attempt by the Home Army, launched in August 1944, to liberate the city before the Soviet army could take it from the Germans. At the height of the uprising, and with little chance of survival, he married Jadwiga Wolska (codename "Greta"), his fellow resistance fighter - to the accompaniment of German machine-gun fire outside the church. Their "honeymoon" was to be a dangerous trek across Europe, after the newly married couple had been entrusted with smuggling to Britain a large quantity of microfilm documenting the events of the uprising.

After the war Nowak had no intention of returning to a Poland under Communist rule. His new career in broadcasting began with a three-year stint at the BBC's Polish Section. In 1951 he moved to Munich to set up RFE's Polish Service which was a very different operation. Unlike other foreign-based radio stations which were broadcasting in Polish a few hours a day, RFE was on air virtually round the clock with the explicit purpose to act as an alternative broadcaster to the Communist-controlled media back home.

RFE's Polish Service turned into a big success in the propaganda battle of the Cold War. It was often the quickest way for Poles to find out what was happening in their country when the domestic media were ordered to ignore events, such as the initial strikes that gave birth to the unofficial Solidarity trade union in 1980.

On his retirement from RFE in 1976, Nowak moved to Washington, where he became a hard-working lobbyist for Polish interests as the National Director of the Polish-American Congress. He also worked as a consultant to the National Security Council under a succession of presidents; and as a prolific freelance journalist and author. Among his books, perhaps his best-known were his memoirs of the war years, Kurier z Warszawy (1978, published in English as Courier from Warsaw, 1982).

Although after 1989 Nowak returned frequently to Poland, Washington remained his base for all but the last two years of his life. Among his key objectives was to secure Poland's Nato membership which he felt would rule out, once and for all, any ambitions on Russia's part to assert itself against Poland or question their existing border at some future date. He was delighted when Poland was among the first wave of former Communist countries to join Nato in 1999. Nowak also devoted much time to promoting Polish-Jewish reconciliation to deal with the legacy of an often difficult history.

Above all, Nowak remained a tireless advocate of Polish interests in the United States - and an enthusiastic champion of American values and policies in Poland. He personified the widespread Polish admiration for the United States; in an article published in 2002 and pointedly entitled "Thank you, America", he paid fulsome and uncritical tribute to the US for eight decades of support - starting with its key role in the restoration of Poland's independence after the First World War to guaranteeing its security through Nato at the end of the 20th century.

It was an admiration that Washington fully returned. A recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest US civilian decoration, Nowak was described by President George W. Bush as "a great Polish freedom fighter and American patriot". In a rare tribute of its kind, the US embassy in Warsaw flew the Stars and Stripes at half-mast for three days after Nowak-Jezioranski's death.

Gabriel Partos

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