The ideal knight — courageous and honest, courteous and modest, loyal and pure of heart — isn’t easy to find in any age. Yet I once knew such a man and called him a friend: Jan Nowak-Jezioranski, who died in January at 91 in Warsaw, a city reborn from beneath the rubble of modernity’s two worst tyrannies.
Jan’s story was beyond a scriptwriter’s imagination. Born in Poland in 1913 and christened Zdislaw Jezioranski, he studied business and economics and anticipated a professional career until Germany invaded his country in September 1939 and laid it under draconian occupation. Jezioranski joined the Polish underground, became “Jan Nowak,” and put his linguistic skills, cool wits, and unshakeable courage at the service of his hard-pressed nation, crisscrossing Europe in disguise to bring news of Poland’s resistance to the Polish government-in-exile in London and to Poland’s British allies.
It was Jan who told the West about the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and Jan who came to London to brief Churchill on plans for the Polish Home Army’s August 1944 Warsaw Uprising; after a depressing interview with the great British prime minister, Jan knew that little help would be coming for the brave Poles. Undaunted, he returned to Warsaw to take part in the Uprising, barely escaping death on numerous occasions. When it became completely hopeless, Jan and his wife (a wartime bride he had married in a clandestine ceremony) escaped through the dying city’s foul sewers and got out to the West, where Jan began a new life working for the British Broadcasting Corporation.
In 1956, Jan Nowak took over Radio Free Europe’s Polish section, where his talents contributed to combating the lies of the other great 20th century totalitarian power, the Soviet Union. For twenty years, Jan Nowak was the “voice” of Radio Free Europe in Poland; Pope John Paul II has told of listening (illegally) to Jan’s news broadcasts while shaving in the morning. Indeed, Poles of a certain age will tell you that, for two decades, Jan Nowak was the man who told them the truth about Poland and about the world, for RFE told the Poles what the government-controlled media wouldn’t tell them.
I met Jan in Washington, where he served for almost twenty years as executive director of the Polish-American Congress. During that time, he worked hard to improve Polish-Jewish relations and during the Carter administration served as a consultant to the National Security Council, led by Zbigniew Brzezinski. During the Reagan years, Jan was an informal and valued counselor to the President, the State Department, and AFL-CIO leader Lane Kirkland, who played a crucial role in supporting the Solidarity movement. President Clinton awarded Jan Nowak the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, in 1996.
Jan was a remarkable combination of conviction and modesty. His judgments on men and affairs were clear-eyed and judicious; he could be critical, but without drawing blood. Utterly trustworthy himself, he reposed trust in those with whom he talked, on and off the record, about his role in some of the most dramatic events of our time. The Pope esteemed him. Recuperating in 1981 from Agca’s assassination attempt and told by his doctors to read something that wasn’t business, John Paul II chose Jan’s memoir, Courier from Warsaw. The book, alas, is only available today from on-line used-book services; there are few other contemporary volumes I would rather give a young man to teach him what manliness truly is.
My last conversation with Jan took place in July 2004; I was teaching in Cracow and called him at the Warsaw apartment to which he had moved in 2002. He seemed tired but was courteous as always, eager for whatever news I had. Just a few weeks before, he had enthralled dozens of Polish Dominican novices with stories of his adventures; those stories always illustrated, one way or another, his profound Catholic faith.
In Jan Nowak, Poland and America “met” as they hadn’t since the days of Kosciuszko and Pulaski. His life was a blessing to two peoples; both honor themselves by revering his memory.
This column has been made available to Catholic Exchange courtesy of the Denver Catholic Register.