When Carl informed me a couple of days ago that he had put me on the program for today’s event, I started to look through some of the materials relating to Jan Nowak’s life and work and realized-this is a mammoth and overwhelming task! The story of some parts of his life, are already, I believe, being made into an action movie. He has been an inspiration and an intellectual authority for at least three generations of Poles, and also the quintessential “courier,” the bearer and deliverer of messages, the force that conveyed crucial information that helped to shape history.
He was a part of the Polish resistance during World War II, and played a critical role in maintaining links with the Polish government in exile in London; he saw his home town Warsaw, reduced to rubble, but took on the dangerous mission of smuggling out microfilm showing the devastation to an unbelieving outside world. There can’t be many people left who remember Jan from those years, so we can only imagine what it must have been like to be forced into exile, to suffer the loss of many brave colleagues in the armed struggle, and to contemplate a future without a homeland.
During his twenty-five years as Director of the Polish Service at Radio Free Europe he showed himself to be one of those rare individuals who sets the standard for everyone else. The quality of materials broadcast by the Polish service, made it a reputable and trusted source of information for a traumatized post-war generation of Poles. This was not always such an easy and straightforward enterprise. I was interested to read that in 1956, when the wave of rebellion and revolution swept through Eastern Europe, and the idealistic hopes raised by the Hungarians ended in defeat and a sense of betrayal with many lives lost, the Polish service of Radio Free Europe stuck to a message of caution and restraint for the Polish people. It must have been hard to go against the grain, even though this approach was vindicated in the end.
Under Jan’s leadership, Radio Free Europe played a leading role in creating the intellectual foundations for the emergence of the Solidarity opposition in the 1970s. A whole generation of Solidarity’s leaders and activists had grown up tuning into the short wave station; Lech Walesa said that he listened to RFE avidly from the age of thirteen. During the time I spent in Poland, in the early 1980s, there were two people-towering figures-whose names were pronounced with an almost sacred reverence by people in the Polish opposition-Jan Nowak was one and the other, his colleague Jerzy Giedroyc, the long time editor of the Paris-based emigre journal Kultura, which also played an extremely important role in helping to develop and spread the ideas that would eventually emerge as the unique Polish response to communist dictatorship.
By that time, Jan was in Washington, again helping to convey the message to the U.S. administration about what was going on in Poland. During those years, he was Poland’s true ambassador in the United States. At a time when the Cold War was taken for granted as an immutable fixture of foreign policy and the “Captive Nations,” just a reminder of a distant past history, Jan took it upon himself to explain the qualitatively new form of resistance to the communist regime that had emerged in Poland in the aftermath of the martial law crackdown. In a letter to Carl Gershman dated January 1985, he stressed “…the independent structures of freedom forces not only have withstood all repressive measures, arrests, efforts at intimidation and infiltration, but have expanded their activities in such areas as the free flow of information and ideas, independent education, publications, creative cultural activities etc.”
And he added, prophetically: “Continuation and expansion of the help from the NED is therefore literally a matter of life and death for the future struggle for democracy not just in Poland but in other countries of the Soviet block, which sooner of later may become infected by the Polish example.”
And so, Jan threw his energy into lobbying support not only for the outlawed Solidarity trade union, but also for assistance to former political prisoners and their families and support for the underground Councils for Independent Education, Cultural Affairs, and Academic Studies, known by the acronym, OKNO. He explained the importance of support to Zeszyty Literacki, an underground journal published in Paris and reprinted in a miniature format in Poland, as well as the English language bulletin Uncensored Poland published in London. He visited the Independent Polish Agency based in the south of Sweden, which specialized in smuggling video and photographic materials into and out of Poland, and recommended them for our support, as well as the underground publishing house consortium put together by Irena Lasota and her colleagues in Poland.
These were the first set of programs supported by the NED to help underground activists in Poland lay the groundwork for the revolution of 1989. Later programs, which could be carried out in the environment of a free society took up problems such as restoring local democracy, building a system of civic education, and mobilizing support for the new democracy through the American Committee to Aid Poland. Our direct support for programs in Poland finally decreased as Poland’s democracy grew stronger until, by the late 1990s the NED was primarily assisting Polish organizations the Foundation for Education for Democracy, the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe and the Polish-Czech-Slovak Solidarity Association in their efforts to promote democracy farther east.
When the first trickle of Solidarity activists started to visit Washington in the late 1980s; people like Janusz Onyszkiewicz, Andrzej Celinski, Czeslaw Bielecki and others, their first mandatory meetings were always with Jan Nowak, to get them oriented in the political environment here, but also-you could tell from the way they talked about him-to pay homage to the legendary figure they knew so well from afar, from his years of tireless work for freedom and democracy in Poland.
Since then, he has seen Poland gain its freedom; the collapse of the Soviet Union; and the entrance of Poland into NATO. Yet he continues to work just as vigorously on other issues such as Chechnya, the need for the Baltic states to enter NATO, and most recently publishing a wonderful tribute to America in the Washington Post, to remind us all of the values this country was built on.
And how many of you know that Jan is also a prolific contributor to the press in Poland? We did an FBIS search and turned up his recent articles on politics, the economic situation, comments on unemployment, and all the important issues for Poland today.
With all of these accolades, and superlatives, anyone who didn’t know him might think that this is a formidable and serious personality, which he is, but at the same time he has a marvelous sense of humor and a real joy for life-I’ve never met anyone who had a boring conversation with Jan Nowak.
It’s hard to pay adequate tribute to a man whose actions have been so integral to the turbulent struggles of Poland and Eastern Europe in the past fifty years. Most of us are shaped by the environment around us, but there are the few rare individuals who shape the times in which we live, and Jan is just such a person.
Jan, thank you very much for your help, your support and friendship, and for being an inspiration to us all! Niech Pan Zyie jeszce sto lat! (May you celebrate another hundred years!)