Radio was a ‘childhood companion’ of Polish Nobel Prize author Olga Tokarczuk

I learned something today by reading on the Internet the Nobel Prize in Literature Lecture delivered on December 7, 2019 at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm by Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk. As a young girl growing up in Poland in the 1960s and the 1970s, a country at that time still under communist rule until 1989, she was often listening to the radio. As she described it, radio was her “great childhood companion.” In her Nobel speech, Tokarczuk mentioned hearing programs from all kinds of different stations—Warsaw, London, Luxembourg and Paris.

Olga Tokarczuk – Nobel Lecture

Only literature is capable of letting us go deep into the life of another being, understand their reasons, share their emotions and experience their fate.

Literature Laureate Olga Tokarczuk
Photo: Clément Morin

The first photograph I ever experienced consciously is a picture of my mother from before she gave birth to me. Unfortunately, it’s a black-and-white photograph, which means that many of the details have been lost, turning into nothing but gray shapes. The light is soft, and rainy, likely a springtime light, and definitely the kind of light that seeps in through a window, holding the room in a barely perceptible glow. My mom is sitting beside our old radio, and it’s the kind with a green eye and two dials—one to regulate the volume, the other for finding a station.

Photo by Dušan Tatomirović

This radio later became my great childhood companion; from it I learned of the existence of the cosmos. Turning an ebony knob shifted the delicate feelers of the antennae, and into their purview fell all kinds of different stations—Warsaw, London, Luxembourg and Paris. Sometimes, however, the sound would falter, as though between Prague and New York, or Moscow and Madrid, the antennae’s feelers stumbled onto black holes. Whenever that happened, it sent shivers down my spine. I believed that through this radio different solar systems and galaxies were speaking to me, crackling and warbling and sending me important information, and yet I was unable to decipher it.

News and literature in the age of the Internet

By Ted Lipien

Only literature is capable of letting us go deep into the life of another being, understand their reasons, share their emotions and experience their fate.

I have never met Olga Tokarczuk and never had a chance to interview her, but in 1984, when I was working for the Voice of America (VOA) Polish Service broadcasting from Washington D.C., I interviewed for the radio the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature winner Czesław Miłosz, a Polish poet of the World War II generation who had spent a good portion of his life living in exile in the United States before his death in 2004. His and Tokarczuk’s political outlook based on liberal ideas guiding their creative writing is similar, but the books they wrote express their interest in people and human events by looking at them from different angles and using different literary forms. One common theme uniting them is that Miłosz like Tokarczuk wanted to be a witness to history and was committed to preserving historical truth.

Now that I know about Olga Tokarczuk’s early fascination with radio, if I had had a chance to interview her, I would have wanted to ask her whether in her teenage years she had listened to Polish programs of Radio Free Europe, the BBC and the Voice of America as they had a great impact on me when I was growing up in Poland in the 1960s. Born in 1962, she could have heard these broadcasts if her mother had listened to them, as millions of Poles did at that time, or she may have started listening to them a few years later on her own, but she did not mention these stations by name in her Nobel Lecture. I wonder what she thought about life in Poland before the fall of communism. Did it bother her to be lied to about history by Communist Party officials and regime journalists? Did she at any time want to leave Poland and live in the West? Could she have become a great Polish writer if she had emigrated? Czesław Miłosz went into exile in the early 1950s, but he was already at that time a well-known poet in Poland.

By joining the Voice of America staff in 1973 as a young trainee-broadcaster after emigrating to the United States from Poland three years earlier, I tried to repay my debt of gratitude to the Western radio stations for giving me an honest portrayal of history. Radio was then the most powerful medium for instant international communication with nations whose rulers did not want theirs populations to receive outside news. Communist regimes resorted to jamming radio signals of these stations but without much success. Radio was the only way for journalists in the West to reach large numbers of people living in Poland under communism and is was largely the only way for the Poles to get uncensored news and information although some of them lived through World War II and experienced post-war communist repressions or they could learn about history from their parents and some of the more school teachers who were willing to take risks and teach true history to students. I had two such teachers in my youth.

In her lecture, Tokarczuk made some interesting observations how the media world has changed since the arrival of the Internet.

The world is a fabric we weave daily on the great looms of information, discussions, films, books, gossip, little anecdotes. Today the purview of these looms is enormous—thanks to the internet, almost everyone can take place in the process, taking responsibility and not, lovingly and hatefully, for better and for worse. When this story changes, so does the world. In this sense, the world is made of words.

The flood of stupidity, cruelty, hate speech and images of violence are desperately counterbalanced by all sorts of “good news,” but it hasn’t the capacity to rein in the painful impression, which I find hard to verbalize, that there is something wrong with the world. Nowadays this feeling, once the sole preserve of neurotic poets, is like an epidemic of lack of definition, a form of anxiety oozing from all directions.

There are now millions of sources of what is described as “news.“ Practically everyone with access to the world wide web can be a provider of either true knowledge or fake news, sometimes to hundreds of thousands or millions of people at practically no cost. During World War II and the Cold War, usually only governments could afford the high price of high-power transnational shortwave radio transmissions of news programs. Now, almost anyone can play the role of a journalist or a commentator. For the money totalitarian and authoritarian regimes spent before on radio transmissions, they can now hire at much less expense an army of anonymous trolls to manipulate public opinion at home and abroad.

Journalism is only as good and as honest as the people who deliver the news. Had Tokarczuk been alive during World War II and listened to wartime Voice of America broadcasts, she would have heard pro-Soviet and pro-Stalin propaganda delivered from the United States in Polish by such journalists as Mira Złotowska and Stefan Arski who later went back to Poland to work for the communist state media, or she would have heard English news written by the Stalin Peace Prize future winner, American communist author Howard Fast. However, if she had listened to the Voice of America during her youth from the 1960s until the 1980s, she would have heard the programs of the famous World War II anti-Nazi Polish underground army fighter and anti-Communist VOA broadcaster Zofia Korbońska. Had she listened to Radio Free Europe in the 1960s and the 1970s, she would have heard not only political news, but also the RFE music program, “Rendez-vous at 6:10,” hosted by Janusz Hewel. I had tuned to his program regularly in my youth and later worked with him when he was hired by the Voice of America moved to Washington, DC. She mentioned listening to Radio Luxembourg. The station was famous among teenagers in Poland for its music programs.

When it came to political news and information, the message was then, as it is now, only as good as the messenger. Tokarczuk believes that in the current informational chaos filled with hate speech, feel-good stories and fake news, literature can help readers find a deeper understanding of the world by providing a broader context in which humans look at themselves and interact which each other. In remembrance of her mother, she titled her lecture “The Tender Narrator,” hoping perhaps that she may encourage more people to communicate with love rather than hatred. Her advice may be much more difficult to apply to short-form journalism and to social media posts on the web, but journalists should pay attention to her words. Tokarczuk has received anonymous death threats on social media from fringe anti-Semitic Polish extremists. I also saw respected Voice of America journalists in the United States publicly posting a video with the VOA logo condoning violence against an American politician. The Polish extremists are almost certainly not journalists, and some of them may be Vladimir Putin’s trolls, but both in the United States and in Poland, social media outlets have contributed to destroying among journalists and other Internet users many previously observed limits of personal and journalistic decency, not to mention journalistic accuracy and objectivity.

To my disappointment, I did not find last week on the Voice of America English news website any coverage of Olga Tokarczuk’s Nobel Lecture. When international news radio broadcasting was still popular, it may seem now that it was a much better medium for practicing good and comprehensive journalism, allowing for a more nuanced presentation of facts and opinions than the Internet has done so far. That may be true to some degree. VOA’s radio journalists were focused not only on delivering news censored behind the Iron Curtain but also on presenting and explaining ideas behind the news. The Internet, however, has far more information that can be instantly accessed in much less time than the radio was able to provide during the Cold War. The problem is not the amount of information but people’s ability to find accurate news and, more importantly, find an objective analysis. During the Cold War, radio listeners learned to trust some of the individual broadcasters and reject those they disagreed with, just as they do now, but now their sources of information are almost limitless, confusing, and often anonymous or operating under false flags.

For better or for worse, the era of international radio broadcasting is largely gone, as it has been replaced now in most countries by Internet-based platforms of trans-border communication. Such trans-border communication in itself is also becoming less relevant in most countries for many news consumers interested in domestic issues, unless it is managed by journalists living in diaspora who are in touch with their audience and have in-country news contacts on a daily basis. In general, people prefer the ease of using domestic media and domestic information sources for both domestic and foreign news over media outlets run by foreign governments or other foreign entities. This was also the case for practical rand technical reasons during the Cold War, but people behind the Iron Curtain knew then that not all news from domestic sources was accurate and that much of it was disinformation and propaganda. They had to rely on stations such as Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, the BBC or the Voice of America to be fully informed.

Thanks to the Internet, dissident journalists can now reach their audience in most countries and still remain independent from any inside or outside government support. They can be working in their own countries or abroad. There are still, however, states such as China, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, Vietnam, Iran and Russia, where many dissident journalists are in prison. Many journalists have been victims of assassinations. Hundreds of millions of poor people still have no Internet or mobile phones. If had a chance to interview Olga Tokarczuk, I would have asked her how she would propose to bring more decency to journalism and how she would want to communicate her message to help journalists in countries without a free media in their struggle for universal human rights. Would her message be different for countries such as the United States and Poland which have a free media and free speech? Olga Tokarczuk’s idea of relying on literature to expand understanding of other people’s emotions and actions is a correct one, but what would be her advice for journalists in the era of the Internet?

Olga Tokarczuk – Nobel Lecture

How we think about the world and—perhaps even more importantly—how we narrate it have a massive significance, therefore. A thing that happens and is not told ceases to exist and perishes. This is a fact well known to not only historians, but also (and perhaps above all) to every stripe of politician and tyrant. He who has and weaves the story is in charge.

Today our problem lies—it seems—in the fact that we do not yet have ready narratives not only for the future, but even for a concrete now, for the ultra-rapid transformations of today’s world. We lack the language, we lack the points of view, the metaphors, the myths and new fables. Yet we do see frequent attempts to harness rusty, anachronistic narratives that cannot fit the future to imaginaries of the future, no doubt on the assumption that an old something is better than a new nothing, or trying in this way to deal with the limitations of our own horizons. In a word, we lack new ways of telling the story of the world.

John Amos Comenius, the great seventeenth-century pedagogue, coined the term “pansophism,” by which he meant the idea of potential omniscience, universal knowledge that would contain within it all possible cognition. This was also, and above all, a dream of information available to everyone. Would not access to facts about the world transform an illiterate peasant into a reflective individual conscious of himself and the world? Will not knowledge within easy reach mean that people will become sensible, that they will direct the progress of their lives with equanimity and wisdom?

When the Internet first came about, it seemed that this notion would finally be realized in a total way. Wikipedia, which I admire and support, might have seemed to Comenius, like many like-minded philosophers, the fulfillment of the dream of humanity—now we can create and receive an enormous store of facts being ceaselessly supplemented and updated that is democratically accessible to just about every place on Earth.

A dream fulfilled is often disappointing. It has turned out that we are not capable of bearing this enormity of information, which instead of uniting, generalizing and freeing, has differentiated, divided, enclosed in individual little bubbles, creating a multitude of stories that are incompatible with one another or even openly hostile toward each other, mutually antagonizing.

Furthermore, the Internet, completely and unreflectively subject to market processes and dedicated to monopolists, controls gigantic quantities of data used not at all pansophically, for the broader access to information, but on the contrary, serving above all to program the behavior of users, as we learned after the Cambridge Analytica affair. Instead of hearing the harmony of the world, we have heard a cacophony of sounds, an unbearable static in which we try, in despair, to pick up on some quieter melody, even the weakest beat. The famous Shakespeare quote has never been a better fit than it is for this cacophonous new reality: more and more often, the Internet is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.

Research by political scientists unfortunately also contradicts John Amos Comenius’ intuitions, which were based on the conviction that the more universally available was information about the world, the more politicians would avail themselves of reason and make considered decisions. But it would appear that the matter is not at all so simple as that. Information can be overwhelming, and its complexity and ambiguity give rise to all sorts of defense mechanisms—from denial to repression, even to escape into the simple principles of simplifying, ideological, party-line thinking.

The category of fake news raises new questions about what fiction is. Readers who have been repeatedly deceived, misinformed or misled have begun to slowly acquire a specific neurotic idiosyncrasy. The reaction to such exhaustion with fiction could be the enormous success of non-fiction, which in this great informational chaos screams over our heads: “I will tell you the truth, nothing but the truth,” and “My story is based on facts!”

Fiction has lost the readers’ trust since lying has become a dangerous weapon of mass destruction, even if it is still a primitive tool. I am often asked this incredulous question: “Is this thing you wrote really true?” And every time I feel this question bodes the end of literature.

In this ardent division into truth and falsehood, the tales of our experience that literature creates have their own dimension.

I have never been particularly excited about any straight distinction between fiction and non-fiction, unless we understand such a distinction to be declarative and discretionary. In a sea of many definitions of fiction, the one I like the best is also the oldest, and it comes from Aristotle. Fiction is always a kind of truth.

I am also convinced by the distinction between true story and plot made by the writer and essayist E.M. Forster. He said that when we say, “The king died and then the queen died,” it’s a story. But when we say, “The king died, and then the queen died of grief,” that is a plot. Every fictionalization involves a transition from the question “What happened next?” to an attempt at understanding it based on our human experience: “Why did it happen that way?”

Literature begins with that “why,” even if we were to answer that question over and over with an ordinary “I don’t know.”

Thus literature poses questions that cannot be answered with the help of Wikipedia, since it goes beyond just information and events, referring directly to our experience.

But it is possible that the novel and literature in general are becoming before our very eyes something actually quite marginal in comparison with other forms of narration. That the weight of the image and of new forms of directly transmitting experience—film, photography, virtual reality—will constitute a viable alternative to traditional reading. Reading is quite a complicated psychological and perceptual process. To put it simply: first the most elusive content is conceptualized and verbalized, transforming into signs and symbols, and then it is “decoded” back from language into experience. That requires a certain intellectual competence. And above all it demands attention and focus, abilities ever rarer in today’s extremely distracting world.

Humanity has come a long way in its ways of communicating and sharing personal experience, from orality, relying on the living word and human memory, through the Gutenberg Revolution, when stories began to be widely mediated by writing and in this way fixed and codified as well as possible to reproduce without alteration. The major attainment of this change was that we came to identify thinking with language, with writing. Today we are facing a revolution on a similar scale, when experience can be transmitted directly, without recourse to the printed word.

There is no longer any need to keep a travel diary when you can simply take pictures and send those pictures via social networking sites straight into the world, at once and to all. There is no need to write letters, since it is easier to call. Why write fat novels, when you can just get into a television series instead? Instead of going out on the town with friends, it would be better to play a game. Reach for an autobiography? There’s no point, since I am following the lives of celebrities on Instagram and know everything about them.

It is not even the image that is the greatest opponent of text today, as we thought back in the twentieth century, worrying about the influence of television and film. It is instead a completely different dimension of the world—acting directly on our senses.

I don’t want to sketch an overall vision of crisis in telling stories about the world. But I’m often troubled by the feeling that there is something missing in the world―that by experiencing it through glass screens, and through apps, somehow it becomes unreal, distant, two-dimensional, and strangely non-descript, even though finding any particular piece of information is astoundingly easy. These days the worrying words “someone, “something,” “somewhere,” “some time” can seem riskier than very specific, definite ideas uttered with complete certainty―such as that “the earth is flat,” “vaccinations kill,” “climate change is nonsense,” or “democracy is not under threat anywhere in the world.” “Somewhere” some people are drowning as they try to cross the sea. “Somewhere,” for “some” time, “some sort of” a war has been going on. In the deluge of information individual messages lose their contours, dissipate in our memory, become unreal and vanish.

Literature is one of the few spheres that try to keep us close to the hard facts of the world, because by its very nature it is always psychological, because it focuses on the internal reasoning and motives of the characters, reveals their otherwise inaccessible experience to another person, or simply provokes the reader into a psychological interpretation of their conduct. Only literature is capable of letting us go deep into the life of another being, understand their reasons, share their emotions and experience their fate.

For full text of Olga Tokarczuk’s Nobel Lecture, see:

Olga Tokarczuk Nobel Lecture: The Tender Narrator


Polish Gulag woman-prisoner befriended by John Paul II

By Ted Lipien

In my book, Wojtyła’s Women: How They Shaped the life of Pope John Paul II and Changed the Catholic Church, I describe how future Pope John Paul II, whom I had interviewed in Washington D.C. for the Voice of America (VOA) in 1976 when he was Kraków’s Archbishop, became familiar with many stories of immense suffering of Polish women under both Nazi and Soviet occupation. 1

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  1. Lipien, Ted (Tadeusz Lipień). Wojtyła’s Women: How They Shaped the life of Pope John Paul II and Changed the Catholic Church, Winchester, UK: O Books, 2008. Lipien, Ted. Wojtyła a kobiety: Jan zmienia się Kościół. Warszawa: Świat Książki, 2010.

Polish women slave laborers in Soviet Russia

U.S. Government Propaganda Photo, 1943

By Ted Lipien

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A U.S. Government propaganda photo showing an unidentified Polish woman and other Polish women making their own clothing at a Red Cross refugee camp in Iran was taken by the Office of War Information (OWI) photographer in 1943. A few months earlier, the women were prisoners and slave laborers in the Soviet Union. By the time the photo was taken, the woman behind the sewing machine was safe, looked healthy and was no longer starving. With thousands of other Polish refugees she was in Iran being assisted by Polish, American and British authorities and private relief organizations, providing food and medical care. But before that, hundreds of thousands of Polish women, children and men had spent hellish two years in Soviet Russia as Stalin’s prisoners after being forcefully deported to Siberia and Soviet Central Asia.

We don’t know whether the healthy-looking Polish woman shown in the U.S. government propaganda photo was married, and, if she had a husband, whether he might have been executed or died in the Soviet Union. We don’t know if she had any children and whether any of them had lived. We also don’t know what she had to do in Russia to survive.

Very few Americans and other Westerners knew this story then, and very few know about it even today. To protect Stalin and the anti-Germany military alliance with Moscow, pro-Soviet propagandists in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration did not publish photos of Polish men, women and children who were starved, ill and near death when they were evacuated from Soviet Russia to Iran in 1942. They did not tell the real stories of these refugees. On the contrary, they did everything possible to prevent Americans and the rest of the world, including listeners to U.S. government Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts, from getting true and complete information about Polish refugees evacuated from Russia.

The evacuees were even told by the Polish government-in-exile not to discuss what had happened to them in the Soviet Union. Stalin was still holding hundreds of thousands of Polish citizens as hostages, and the Polish government-in-exile was still trying to reach an accommodation with Moscow and to get them released. The Poles were also under strong pressure from Washington and London to appease Stalin who, however, had completely different plans for Poland and the rest of East Central Europe. The efforts to bring the remaining Poles from Russia to Iran failed. In April 1943, the Soviet government broke diplomatic relations with the Polish government in exile and forced Polish citizens in the Soviet Union to accept Soviet citizenship. Polish mothers were told that if they refused Soviet passports, their children would be sent to orphanages and they would be arrested and sent to the Gulag .

Naive U.S. propagandists said nothing about what might have happened to Polish women in Soviet captivity. Many had lost their husbands, children and close family members in Russia. Whole families, both the youngest and oldest members, were deported under brutal conditions from their homes in eastern Poland which had been occupied in 1939 by the Red Army under the secret terms of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. After Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, poorly-informed U.S. propagandists started to promote Stalin as a radical democrat and a guarantor of peace and security. They were poorly-informed because they dismissed any criticism of the Soviet Union as the work of reactionaries and fascists. Some of them remained in that state of mind for many years. Their excuse later was that they had no idea that Stalin could be a mass murderer.

Ten-year-old girl, Polish evacuee from Russia, August 1942.

A photo of an emanciated ten-year-old girl, a Polish evacuee from Russia, was taken in Iran in August 1942 by Lieutenant Colonel Henry I. Szymanski, U.S. Army. Roosevelt administration officials classified it as secret. It was not published until 1952 after the bipartisan Select Committee of the Eighty-Second Congress to Conduct an Investigation of the Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre, also known as the Madden Committee after its chairman, Rep. Ray Madden (D-IN), managed to get it declassified. Unlike numerous photographs of Nazi concentration camp victims, a few existing photos of Gulag prisoners were never widely distributed by Western media, not even during the Cold War, and are still rarely seen by Internet users.

During World War II, OWI’s Voice of America radio broadcasts did not mention Soviet executions of Polish prisoners of war and mistreatment of Polish deportees, including women and children, in the Soviet Gulag camps and collective farms, to which they had been sent as slave laborers. VOA’s radio broadcasts for foreign audiences and a broadcast by OWI Director Elmer Davis targeting Americans also spread Soviet propaganda lies about the mass executions of Polish prisoners in Soviet Russia known collectively as the Katyń Forest massacre. Soviet and American propagandists falsely blamed the mass murder on the Germans. Americans and foreigners alike were misled by Roosevelt administration’s propaganda about the true nature of Stalin and the Soviet regime — a point highlighted in bipartisan criticism after the war.

Lieutenant Colonel Henry I. Szymanski was a U.S. Army Liaison Officer to the Polish Army created under the command of General Władysław Anders during the Second World War II which fought the Germans alongside American and British troops in North Africa and Italy. On November 22, 1942, Lt. he sent a report on Polish-Russian relations to the Military Intelligence Division, War Department General Staff (G-2), in Washington, DC. 

In August 1942, he saw and took photos of many starved and dying Polish refugees, including children, who had been evacuated with the Anders Army from Soviet Russia to Iran. In his lengthy report, which was classified as secret and not published until 1952, he made several observations about Polish women slave laborers who had managed to escape from the Soviet Union.

6. …it appears that the plan was very carefully worked out, and its purpose was the extermination of the so-called intelligentsia of Eastern Poland.

…Families were broken up and in many cases the husband shot.[efn_note] Eighty-Second Congress, Second Session On Investigation of The Murder of Thousands of Polish Officers in The Katyn Forest Near Smolensk, Russia; Part 3 (Chicago, Ill.), March 13 and 14, 1952, The Katyn Forest Massacre: Hearings Before The Select Committee to Conduct An Investigation on The Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1952), 455.[/efn_note]

8. The deportees were assigned work in coal and iron mines, on the laying of roads and railroads, on irrigation projects, in forests, on construction of building, on farms. No discrimination was shown between men and women. A woman had to cut and pile as much wood as a man, she had to carry 15 lbs. of bricks or mortar, she had to excavate 9 1/2 cubic meters twice-shifted despite the fact that the normal excavation was 6 cubic meters. … if anyone fell below the quota, he or she, was docked and consequently could not buy enough bread.[efn_note]Eighty-Second Congress,  The Katyn Forest Massacre: Hearings Before The Select Committee to Conduct An Investigation on The Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre, 455.[/efn_note]

11. Women not accustomed to hard manual labor and consequently not able to earn enough for their daily bread had a choice of starving to death or submitting to the Bolshevik or Mongol supervisor. In one sense their condition was bettered–they had something to eat. When asked by me whether they worked hard, a reluctant answer of, “I wanted to live,” would be given [to] me. The Polish military medical authorities are taking blood tests to determine the number of venereals among women. The tests were not completed prior to my departure, but the results will be handed [to] me.[efn_note]Eighty-Second Congress,  The Katyn Forest Massacre: Hearings Before The Select Committee to Conduct An Investigation on The Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre, 455.[/efn_note]

Photos by Lt. Col. Henry I. Szymanski, U.S. Army

  • Source: The Katyn Forest Massacre: Hearings Before The Select Committee to Conduct An Investigation on The Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre; Eighty-Second Congress, Second Session On Investigation of The Murder of Thousands of Polish Officers in The Katyn Forest Near Smolensk, Russia; Part 3 (Chicago, Ill.); March 13 and 14, 1952 (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1952), pp. 455.
  • Twelve-year-old boy, Polish evacuee from Russia, August 1942
  • Six-year-old boy, Polish evacuee from Russia, August 1942
  • Three sisters, ages 7, 8, and 9, Polish evacuees from Russia, August 1942
  • Photos by: Lieutenant Colonel Henry I. Szymanski, U.S. Army
  • Source: The Katyn Forest Massacre: Hearings Before The Select Committee to Conduct An Investigation on The Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre; Eighty-Second Congress, Second Session On Investigation of The Murder of Thousands of Polish Officers in The Katyn Forest Near Smolensk, Russia; Part 3 (Chicago, Ill.); March 13 and 14, 1952 (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1952), pp. 459-461.
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U.S. Government Propaganda Photo

US Government Propaganda Photo, Iran, 1943.
  • Title: Teheran, Iran. Women making their own clothing at a Polish evacuee camp operated by the Red Cross
  • Creator(s): Parrino, Nick, photographer, U.S. Office of War Information (OWI)
  • Date Created/Published: 1943.
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Voice of America Polish Service Broadcaster Irene Broni Resisted Nazis and Communists

By Ted Lipien

Voice of America Polish Service Program “All About America” (Ameryka w Przekroju), July 9, 1983

Irena Radwańska Broni: Returning to the U.S. citizenship oath ceremony at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson would certainly approve of using his home for this purpose. … Thomas Jefferson wrote: “Born in other countries, yet believing you could be happy in this, our laws acknowledge, as they should do, your right to join us in our society, ….” 1

Irene Broni (Irena Radwańska), who died two years ago on July 22, 2016, was one of the most versatile and talented former Voice of America (VOA) Polish Service radio broadcasters. She helped to transform the Voice of America from being a colluding voice for Stalin’s propaganda during World War II to a genuine and trusted voice for freedom during the Cold War. As a teenager, she fought and was wounded in the first days of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis, which the then Voice of America in the United States Office of War Information (OWI), dominated by pro-Soviet sympathizers, almost completely ignored to comply with Stalin’s wishes who wanted to see the uprising fail and the Polish anti-communist underground army destroyed. Czesław Straszewicz, a Polish journalist based in London during the war, wrote in the 1950s about the harsh negative impact of VOA’s pro-Kremlin wartime broadcasts on the audience in Nazi-occupied Poland and among the free Poles abroad.

“With genuine horror we listened to what the Polish language programs of the Voice of America (or whatever name they had then), in which in line with what [the Soviet news agency] TASS was communicating, the Warsaw Uprising was being completely ignored.” 2

After being sent to a forced labor camp in Nazi Germany following the collapse of the uprising, Irena later found her way to the Polish Army of General Władysław Anders which was fighting alongside American, British and other allied troops against the Germans in Italy. Since she was still a minor, the Polish Army sent her to a school in the British Palestine.

After the war, like many Poles in the West who saw their country betrayed by U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at wartime conferences with Stalin at Tehran and Yalta, Irena did not return to communist-ruled, Soviet-dominated Poland. She finished her education at a music conservatory in London and later worked as a pianist with Polish emigre artists. Later during the Cold War, she spent eight years as a host of various music and history programs at the American-funded Radio Free Europe (RFE) in Munich, West Germany.

After emigrating to the United States and working several years as a pianist, Irene Broni, whose radio name at VOA was Irena Radwańska, joined in 1977 the Voice of America Polish Service team which was working to establish VOA’s reputation in Poland as a pro-freedom American radio broadcaster. This was achieved thanks to such great journalists as Zofia Korbońska, another hero of the Warsaw Uprising, Irena Radwańska and many others who had joined the VOA Polish Service after the war and replaced its former pro-Soviet staff.

During World War II, the Voice of America was a major conduit for Soviet propaganda. Its first director, John Houseman, was forced to resign in 1943 after high-level officials in the State Department secretly accused him to the FDR White House of hiring Communists. But some of Houseman’s successors at VOA and some of the early Polish Service broadcasters continued to follow the Soviet line for the rest of the war by minimizing reporting on the Polish Government in Exile in London, its armed forces fighting the Germans, and the Warsaw Uprising. As hearings before a bipartisan committee of the House of Representatives revealed in 1952, some of these early VOA Polish Service broadcasters returned to Poland after the war to work as anti-American propagandists for the communist regime.

The anti-Nazi Polish armed revolt in August 1944 was launched by the underground resistance movement Armia Krajowa (Home Army), which Irena joined despite her young age. During that time, VOA largely ignored anti-Nazi Poles like her because they refused to support Soviet rule in Poland. But in later years, thanks to Irena and her older VOA colleagues, some of whom also had fought the Nazis, survived the Warsaw Uprising and worked earlier at Radio Free Europe, the Voice of America Polish Service was slowly transforming itself into an uncensored voice of freedom from Washington. This change took decades to complete and required VOA Polish Service to protest from time to time against the upper management’s attempts to censor the truth about the Katyn massacre of thousands of Polish officers by the Soviet NKVD secret police and to resist occasional management directives to downplay human rights reporting. The Voice of America eventually became during President Ronald Reagan’s administration nearly as popular in communist-ruled Poland as the Polish Service of Radio Free Europe, which remained the most listened to and the most influential Western radio station broadcasting in Polish.

In 1982, Irene Broni was one of the Polish Service’s recipients of the Superior Honor Award “For exceptional service, professionalism, and devotion to duty in the preparation of Voice of America broadcasts to the people of Poland” during the martial which was imposed on December 13, 1981 by General Wojciech Jaruzelski and his pro-Soviet communist regime against the Solidarity labor union movement lead by Lech Wałęsa, future Nobel Peace Prize winner and future President of independent Poland. The award ceremony coincided with the visit to the Voice of America by President Ronald Reagan on February 24, 1982 to mark the 40th anniversary of VOA’s founding in 1942. A Superior Honor Award was also given in 1982 to VOA English News Vienna correspondent David Lent for “covering the events in Poland in 1981, culminating in the imposition of martial law in December.”

Irene Broni later received two VOA Excellence in Programming Awards for her popular Saturday radio show about life in the United States, Ameryka w Przekroju, and her special report from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, on the Polish-American observances of the Warsaw Uprising’s 45th anniversary. During that time, VOA broadcasters like Irene Broni who reported on all aspects of life in America adhered strictly to the VOA Charter. They produced programs that were informative, in her case also highly entertaining, and presenting a variety of different opinions on controversial issues. Partisanship in reporting on American politics was meticulously avoided by most foreign language service VOA broadcasters.

With their rich life and professional experience, these Central European journalists also could not be fooled by Soviet propaganda. When faced with inaccuracies in some VOA English reports on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, they were not afraid to make their views known to VOA and United States Information Agency (USIA) officials. The majority of the upper agency management was strongly supportive of VOA’s Polish Service, especially during the Solidarity’s struggle for democracy. Many USIA and VOA managers during the time Irene Broni worked in the Polish Service had spent years abroad as diplomats or journalists, spoke foreign languages and were not permitted along with their immediate family members to do private business in countries ruled by oppressive regimes. Hiring personal acquittances was also not as easy as it has become in later years.

Irene Broni was able to use her outstanding broadcasting talents. History was one of her passions. In 1985 she interviewed several current and former VOA Polish Service journalists who, like her, had led incredibly eventful lives in one of the most difficult periods of the 20th century. Former VOA Polish Service deputy director Zdzisław Dziekoński participated in the Warsaw Uprising for which he was recognized by President Reagan in a White House ceremony. Irene Broni also interviewed anti-Nazi resistance hero Zofia Korbońska who risked her life daily to send coded radio messages from Nazi-occupied Poland to a Polish radio station in Britain. Irene interviewed another Polish Service broadcaster Ryszard Mossin, one of hundreds of thousands of Polish prisoners in Stalin’s Siberian camps who was later a radio reporter with General Anders’ Polish Army in Iraq and Italy, worked for the BBC and Radio Free Europe and ended up with VOA. She also recorded a radio interview with her former husband Feliks Broniecki who was a Polish soldier in the West during World War II, worked at the BBC and Radio Free Europe, and later joined the Voice of America, where he retired as Polish Service director in 1982. Another one of Irene’s interviewees was a pre-World War II Polish journalist Tadeusz Strzetelski. My outstanding deputy Marek Walicki, a Warsaw Uprising survivor and former Radio Free Europe correspondent, recognized and encouraged Irene Broni’s radio hosting and interviewing talents. She was a dynamic radio personality who easily connected with her audience and listeners of various ages. She corresponded by letter with many of them in Poland and even invited one to stay at her home on a visit to the United States. She was a friendly and generous person.

Marek Walicki’s photo (above) from KARTA website shows Irene Broni first on the left in a red and black dress. 1990, Waszyngton, USA. Nowy Rok w redakcji Sekcji Polskiej Głosu Ameryki. [1990, Washington, DC, Voice of America Polish Service New Year party.] Irena Radwańska, Helena Skotowska, Jerzy Rudzki, Marek Krzyżański-Parker, Tadeusz Walendowski, Marek Święcicki (trzeci z prawej) [third from the right], Wojciech Żórniak (z ręką w górze) [with his arm raised], Waldemar Chlebowski (drugi z prawej) [second from the right], Manuela Pinto Da Silva, originally from Portugal, who worked as a producer in the Polish Service. Fot. Marek Walicki, kolekcja Marka Walickiego, zbiory Ośrodka KARTA. Link. 

After her retirement from VOA in 1996, Irene Broni was active in various Polish-American organizations in the Washington, DC area, published a community newsletter, and helped to stage several plays by Polish writers in local theaters and a Polish opera at the Kennedy Center. In 2003, she helped to organize a campaign to send Christmas packages to soldiers from Poland serving in Iraq alongside American troops.

In commenting on the role of the Voice of America during the time when Irene Broni Radwańska was a Radio Free Europe and later Voice of America broadcaster, Lech Wałęsa said in 2002: “It is difficult to imagine what would have happened if it were not for the Voice of America and other sources with the help of which the true information squeezed through, which showed us a different point of view, which said that we are not alone, and that something is happening in our country — because our mass media did not do that.” – Lech Wałęsa, 2002

Link to Lech Wałęsa video interview: Part One and Part Two.

To this day some of the current and former Voice of America officials continue to ignore the most outstanding anti-communist VOA foreign language broadcasters while still praising pro-Soviet sympathizers such as John Houseman who had turned the early VOA into a propaganda mouthpiece for Stalin and tried to help Soviet Russia establish communist regimes in Eastern Europe.

Irene Broni Radwańska was a proud Pole, a proud American and a great Radio Free Europe and Voice of America broadcaster in the noble fight against totalitarian ideologies and their propaganda.

Some of the biographical information about Irene Broni (Irena Radwańska) came from the manuscript on the history of the Voice of America Polish Service written in Poland by Jarosław Jędrzejczak, a former longtime listener to VOA Polish broadcasts.

The photo of the VOA Polish Service staffers showing Marek Walicki, Roma Starczewska Murray, Krystyna Wojtasik, Mirek Kondracki and Jarosław Anders was originally published in the Voice of America promotional calendar for 1990. The image to the left shows a cover of the VOA Polish Service brochure from the early 1990s.

Ted Lipien is a former director of VOA Polish Service and former VOA acting associate director.







  1. Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Hugh White, Esq., May 2, 1801. Irene Broni misspoke saying that Jefferson wrote these words 55 years after the Declaration of Independence; it was 25 years.
  2. Czesław Straszewicz, “O Świcie,” Kultura, October, 1953, 61-62. I am indebted to Polish historian of the Voice of America’s Polish Service Jarosław Jędrzejczak for finding this reference to VOA’s wartime role.

LIPIEN: Remembering a Polish-American patriot

Zofia Korbońska and Tadeusz Lipień in the Voice of America (VOA) Polish Service in 1974.

On September  1, 2010, The Washington Times published my article about Zofia Korbońska, an anti-Nazi and anti-Communist resister and a Voice of America Polish Service journalist who had passed away on August 16, 2010.

LIPIEN: Remembering a Polish-American patriot Read more