Bradford-born musician and curator, Chris Hladowski tells the fascinating story of how two members of his family used media to penetrate the infamous ‘Iron Curtain’. Their journalistic work helped to consolidate a sense of Polish identity in exile and the solidarity needed to fight against the Soviet occupation of Poland.
Print and radio provide people with a direct means of communicating not just ideas, but also a sense of belonging – such as being Polish. This can create and maintain strong bonds, even across great distances. To demonstrate this my mother Barbara Hladowski and I selected objects that belonged to my grandfather, Roman Stefanowski for the exhibition ‘Above the Noise: 15 Stories from Bradford’. Roman played a key role in keeping fellow Poles behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ informed, using radio to overcome the physical barrier of his political exile in the West. His work contributed to the liberation of Poland from Soviet rule.
However, his adoptive father, Anatol’s story is just as compelling. Anatol, helped to tell the stories of Polish prisoners during the Second World War and bring the brutality of the Soviet labour camps to the attention of the wider world. He gave a voice to young war orphans, bringing them within the wider Polish community despite the devastating impact that the war had on their lives. His story gives context to what was shown in the exhibition and helps to illuminate how Roman came to live in Bradford and just why it was so important to keep polish identity alive in exile.
Anatol Krakowiecki was born in 1901 in Kraków, Poland. During the 1930s he was a writer, magazine editor, and was involved with cabaret and theatre. He was arrested by Soviet forces when attempting to leave Poland as the Second World War began in 1939.
Stalin wanted to erase Poland, and the idea of being Polish, from the map of Europe. He saw educated Poles as dangerous enemies of the Soviet Union and sent thousands of them, including Anatol, to Kołyma, a notorious Russian gulag in Siberia. Hard labour, poor food and the harsh Artic climate meant hundreds of thousands of prisoners died working in the vast gold and platinum mines which made Kołyma famous. During this time Anatol, whilst building roads, contracted frostbite and had to have the fingers on his right hand amputated.
As both Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany carved up Poland, tens of thousands of civilians were deported to Soviet camps. Among them was Roman Stefanowski, separated from his mother at the age of 10 and taken to work on a farm. He would never see his mother again. When Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, the Soviet Union abandoned their neutrality pact with Germany and joined forces with Britain and Poland. Stalin was forced to issue an “amnesty” to the nearly two million Poles held captive in Soviet labour camps, and both Anatol and Roman were eventually released. Anatol sailed from Magadan to Vladivostok as a free man on the night of 7 July 1942, a distance of 1500 nautical miles.
Anatol, alongside tens of thousands of fellow Poles, joined the army of General Anders. They helped to evacuate Polish civilians who had been held captive, including young Roman, via the ‘Persian Corridor’ across Russia through Iran, and eventually to Palestine. In Tehran, whilst living at an orphanage, Anatol met Roman. Discovering that they were both from Kraków, and bonding over their shared love of writing, they soon became close. Before long Anatol had adopted Roman as his son.
Anatol reported on many young people evacuated from the USSR, including an orphan called Basia, who inspired his children’s book Bajki Biało-Czerwone (‘Red and White Stories’). Sadly Basia died before the book was finished, but Roman would go on to name his own daughter after her.
After leaving Iran Anatol and Roman went on to live in Polish settlements in Baghdad and Jerusalem. During this time Anatol wrote for the newspaper ‘Kurier Polski’ and encouraged Roman to follow a similar career path.
In the relative peace of the Middle East Anatol began writing about his experiences of the war. Although this was difficult for him, he had promised his fellow prisoners at Kołyma that he would do so. He received encouragement from historian, politician, and member of the Polish government in exile, Stanisław Kot.
At the end of the war Anatol and Roman, like thousands of Poles, sought refuge in the UK. They initially lived in resettlement camps in the south of England. Here they began writing articles for Polish-language publications, while Anatol continued writing what was to become Książka o Kołymie (‘Book of Kołyma).
Having survived the brutalities of Kołyma, Anatol collapsed on a London street in April 1950, aged just 49. ‘Książka o Kołymie’ was finally published a few months after his death. Roman, at 20 years old, was left the sole custodian of Anatol’s work, towards which he maintained a professional and deeply personal interest throughout his life.
In 1952 Roman joined the Polish Socialist Party in Exile (PPS), and was appointed chairman of the Young Polish Socialist Party. He contributed to many publications, and attended conferences in Europe and Canada. He remained a party member throughout his life, and in later years wrote a centennial history of the PPS from 1892-1992.
In 1960, having married four years earlier, Roman and his wife Urszula moved from London to West Yorkshire with their young daughter Barbara. While working as an accountant Roman became headmaster of one of the two Polish Saturday schools in Bradford, and president of KS Polonia Sports Club. Undoubtedly his life experiences continued to influence his politics during this time.
In 1975 Roman successfully applied for a job in the Polish department of Radio Free Europe, in Munich. His wife Urszula also took up a secretarial position. Roman went on to become Head of Polish Research in 1980, a role he occupied until the closure of the department in 1992. Radio Free Europe had been founded, in 1951, with the intent of undermining Communist regimes in five Soviet-bloc countries: Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. In each country it acted as an exiled domestic radio station, in effect breaking the Communist information monopoly exerted there.
Until 1972 Radio Free Europe had been covertly funded by the CIA. When the CIA’s role was exposed, however, Congress continued government funding through an independent board of directors. From 1978, Roman worked alongside Jim Brown, the director of Radio Free Europe until he quit in 1984 due to disagreements with the Reagan administration.
During Roman’s time at Radio Free Europe Lech Wałesa, a shipyard worker, found out about strikes taking place across Poland’s Baltic coast via RFE broadcasts. On that basis he set up an inter-factory strike committee that became Solidarity. This grew into a national protest movement that challenged the Polish Communist dictatorship, until martial law was imposed on 13th December 1981.
Throughout the 1980s Radio Free Europe was in constant communication with Wałesa, Roman Catholic Church officials, and reform-minded members of the Communist party – playing a key role in efforts to promote democratic change. Although Solidarity was supressed, it survived. In June 1989 a free election was held in Poland, leading to the first non-Communist government there in 40 years.
Radio Free Europe’s strategy of comprehensive and sympathetic coverage of the Solidarity movement reminded listeners of the direct threat posed by the USSR. Roman’s work involved researching for radio programs, and publishing reports on a regular basis, which informed people on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and contributed to the gradual breakup of the Soviet Union.
In 1994 Urszula, who remained at RFE two years longer than Roman, retired – receiving a letter of recognition from American president Bill Clinton. The couple returned to Bradford, to be closer to their family. Roman continued writing, as a British correspondent for Polish newspapers, and for the Yorkshire Post. He died on the 11th December 2000, aged 71.
Extracts from this story and many of the objects selected by Barbara and Chris Hladowski from their family archive featured in the exhibition ‘Above the Noise: Fifteen Stories from Bradford’, National Science and Media Museum, Bradford, 14th March 2019 – 19th June 2019.