Zofia Korbonska’s Funeral

A funeral Mass for Zofia Korbonska, a heroine of the Polish underground resistance against Nazi occupation, participant in the Warsaw Rising of 1944, political activist against Communist rule after World War II, and former Voice of America (VOA) Polish Service broadcaster, was held at the Our Lady Queen of Poland Catholic Church in Silver Spring, MD on Friday, September 10, 2010. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Polish-American statesman who served as United States National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, spoke in Polish about Zofia Korbonska’s deep patriotism, extreme sacrifice, and political wisdom in her long struggle alongside her husband Stefan Korbonski to restore freedom and independence to their beloved Poland. View the text of Dr. Brzezinski’s speech in Polish here.

Zofia Korbonska died at her home in Washington, DC on August 16 at the age of 95.

The interment took place at the Cemetery at the Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, on Saturday Sept. 11. Zofia Korbonska was burried next to her husband, Stefan Korbonski, who was the Polish Government-in-Exile’s delegate and director of the Directorate of Civil Resistance, which coordinated non-military resistance efforts by the Polish populace against the German occupying forces. Zofia and Stefan gathered information from the extensive network of the Polish Underground Resistance, and Zofia was the cipher clerk who encoded the messages for transmission to Great Britain. Among the news first reaching the West by this route were: information about medical experiments on women prisoners in the Nazi German concentration camp at Auschwitz; the location of Hitler’s command bunker in East Prussia; the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943; daily reports on the fighting during the three weeks of that Uprising; the final deportation of ghetto residents and destruction of the ghetto; tests of V-1 and V-2 weapons on Polish territory; daily reports on the fighting during the 63 days of the Warsaw Rising which began on August 1, 1944; the “liberation” by the Soviets which marked the beginning of the next occupation of Poland.

After Zofia Korbonska and her husband escaped from Poland in 1947 to avoid arrest by the communist regime, former U.S. ambassador to Warsaw Arthur Bliss Lane urged Zofia to apply for a job at VOA’s Polish Service. A friend of the Korbonskis, Ambassador Bliss Lane was aware that during World War II the person in charge of U.S. radio broadcasts to Poland was a Polish communist who after the war returned to Poland and became one of the Polish Communist Party’s chief anti-American propagandists.

Ambassador Bliss Lane, who had resigned from the State Department in 1947 in protest against the Yalta Agreements and the lack of sufficient U.S. response to communist repression in Poland, was hoping that Zofia Korbonska would help to change the pro-Moscow tone of U.S. radio programs to Poland. She and other Polish journalists hired after the war helped to restore accuracy and balance in VOA Polish broadcasts. In his book I Saw Poland Betrayed, Ambassador Bliss Lane described the Soviet domination of Poland and the crushing of the democratic opposition to the Soviet-imposed communist government. He was also critical of U.S. radio broadcasts to Poland during the Roosevelt and Truman Administrations prior to the hiring of Zofia Korbonska and other pro-democratic Polish journalists and writers.

Zofia Korbonska described her work at the Voice of America as “the continuation of the struggle in which she had engaged as a member of the Polish Underground, this time waged from the West against the Soviet Union, the new occupying power in Poland.” She viewed VOA’s mission at that time as corresponding to what she and her husband wanted work for: “the restoration of freedom and independence to the nations in Central and Eastern Europe under the Soviet domination.”

Zofia Korbonska received hundreds of letters and even presents from listeners in Poland. The letters were sent surreptitiously from Poland at some danger to those who sent them. The gifts included an effigy of the Soviet Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky who on Stalin’s orders was put in charge of the Polish communist armed forces. In attacking Zofia Korbonska’s work at the Voice of America, a communist media commentator in Poland called her “a nightingale in a golden birdcage of American warmongers,” but she and other VOA Polish Service broadcasters had millions of faithful listeners.

At the Voice of America, she originated such regular programs as “Life in Warsaw Under Communist Rule,” “Democratic Institutions in the United States;” “Young Club of Independent Thought;” and “Women in America.” She said, however, that she was most proud of her news reports during critical historical moments: the Polish workers unrest in 1956, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and her live reporting after the assassination of President Kennedy, which she described as one of the most dramatic moments of her radio career.

When I worked with her at VOA in the 1970s and the early 1980s, I remember most vividly Mrs. Korbonski’s constant frustration as a news editor with various attempts by American academics, journalists and some U.S. government officials to whitewash history by promoting such ideas as convergence between Soviet communism and Western democracy or the Sonnenfeldt Doctrine, which urged the Soviets and the Eastern Europeans to seek a more “organic” relationship. She would say that a few days in a Soviet prison might cure them of such silly and dangerous notions.

Zofia Korbonska rejoiced when Ronald Reagan was elected president. With her sharp sense of humor, she made fun of several USIA officials, still employed at the time at VOA in executive positions, who were horrified by some of President Reagan’s blunt statements about the Soviet Union. In a 2001 interview, she described her work at the Voice of America as “a beautiful period in [her professional life]” and as “a contribution to the victory over the Evil Empire.”

After the death of her husband in 1989, Zofia Korbonska founded the Stefan Korbonski Foundation in Washington, with a chapter in Warsaw; its “goals and aims are to clarify and preserve the memory of the true facts of the recent history of Poland, and most specifically of the Polish Underground State in the years 1939-45, of the contribution of Poland to the Allied victory in World War II and of the role in that fight of the Directorate for Civil Resistance, headed by Stefan Korboński.”

In failing health, she became house-bound for the last several years of her life. Her significance to the recent history of Poland was recognized by Polish President Lech Kaczynski, who bestowed on her the high decoration of Grand Cross of Polonia Restituta. During his visit to the United States in February 2006, since she was unable to leave her house, the President came to her humble apartment in Washington to personally present this high honor.

Parts of her biography were provided by Ted Mirecki.