Radio Free Europe
Stash Pruszyński recalls his time at the historic station and the daring escape that led him to Munich
I ended up working for Radio Free Europe (RFE) after I was smuggled out of Poland in 1955. Under the communist regime, it was a grim, hopeless place with no future at all. Before I escaped, I lived in an orphanage and I dreamt of America every night. I spent two great years there after World War II, when my father worked at the UN. After three years living in The Hague – where he was the Polish ambassador to the Netherlands – he was killed in a car accident in 1950 and I returned to Poland. In the summer of 1955, over 30,000 kids came from all over the world for the International Festival of Youth in Warsaw. It was far too many for the authorities to be able to deal with. I could speak fluent English from a young age and I made friends with some students from Cambridge University. After two fun weeks with them, the Festival ended, and they agreed to help smuggle me out.
The initial plan was to dye my hair black and glue a false photo onto one of their passports – he would then pretend to have lost his. Thankfully we couldn’t find a photographer, because the plan would never have worked. My hair was already dyed black though! Instead, on the long train to West Germany, I was stowed away on a luggage rack. I’d travelled like that before because Polish trains were so cramped. I hid under rugs and coats, while one of the party – a literature student called Bridget Haines – lay on top, moaning and pretending to be ill. It was stiflingly hot and I could barely breathe. When we reached Cheb, on the Czech-West German border, I was soaked in sweat and half-dead. After sneaking between carriages and hiding in the train toilet, Bridget managed to slip me one of the group’s passports and somehow I got through the border check. When we arrived in Nuremberg, I was elated. Our story became popular – the media nicknamed the students “the Cambridge Pimpernels”.
The Polish section always did this really well – their programmes were very high quality and well-focused on what mattered back home.
I ended up in Munich with Bridget and a few of the others and they helped me get on my feet. They were well-connected and sent my story to a couple of journalists, including Cecilia Gillie, who worked for the BBC in Paris at the time. I had no qualifications, but both RFE and Voice of America heard of my story and offered me work. I ended up spending a year in Munich working in Jan Nowak-Jeziorański’s Polish section at RFE as a consultant. Because I was 19 and had lived under the communist regime, the producers wanted to make sure that their content would be popular with a young, Polish audience. I always advised that listeners wanted straight, fact-based news and good music. The Polish section always did this really well – their programmes were very high quality and well-focused on what mattered back home. In Poland people had been told that jazz was capitalist – and therefore evil – and that Coca Cola was poisoned to make people subservient to their capitalist regimes, so getting the truth across was very important.
A young “Huligan”
Munich was a memorable place. The job paid well and I got to know a lot of the station’s journalists, editors and tech crew from all of the different sections. Most of my colleagues were twenty years older than me, but they spoiled me and took me for weekend walks in the mountains – they affectionately nicknamed me “Huligan” because of my age. Munich was a great place to be a 19-year-old – I shared an apartment with my boss, Michał Tyszkiewicz, who was a diplomat and songwriter who had helped evacuate Polish children from the USSR as part of Anders’ Army in World War II. One afternoon, a boss at Voice of America’s Polish section took me for lunch, gave me fifty Deutsche Marks and asked me to present programmes on his station. I refused outright. I didn’t want to risk my family in Warsaw. He said I was overreacting and that he’d never heard of the family of an escapee being put in danger. That was because no-one got out, I said.
It was very risky to be associated with western radio back home – listening carried a ten year prison sentence, effectively hard labour in the coal mines.
It was very risky to be associated with western radio back home – listening carried a ten year prison sentence, effectively hard labour in the coal mines. But people persevered! They closed their windows and listened under their bedsheets. The communist government tried to jam the broadcasts: when the jamming kicked in, you could make out a few words before a big whoop of frequency dashed across the set. But still the listeners didn’t give up! Old folks especially became very good at dialling in the best frequencies to get reception and avoid the jamming. RFE started broadcasting its Polish programmes on 3 May 1952 – Poland’s constitution day, a historic national holiday banned under communism. Its broadcasts were essential: all press in Poland was controlled, with different newspapers printing the same stories, simply rewritten but laid out differently. The papers did have a use, however. Because the communist regime did not deem it particularly essential, had little toilet paper, and the daily news made an adequate replacement!
The lack of alternative media meant that people had no idea what was really going on. For example, the first time I ever heard of someone being detained was only a few weeks before I escaped. A girl I was seeing, Elżbieta Zamoyska, told me her father, the famous resistance fighter and Zamość aristocrat Jan Zamoyski, had been arrested the year before, on trumped-up charges of collaboration and espionage. I was shocked. Talking was dangerous. I really don’t know how my mother survived; she was a very intelligent and well-educated woman who struggled to hold her tongue! These times seem an age ago now, but I don’t where i’d be without the station. Having escaped, I had no qualifications, no job and I knew no-one. Without the work and connections that RFE gave me, I think my life could have turned out considerably different!
The Great Escape
Stash Pruszyński was born in Warsaw in 1935. After his escape and subsequent year in Munich, he studied History and Economics at Edinburgh University. Graduating in 1962, he worked for publishers Harper Rowe and several notable Canadian newspapers. After establishing himself as a restaurateur in Canada, he moved to Warsaw in 1992 and opened the Radio Cafe, a club for retired radio employees which showcases memorabilia from the station.
Radio Free Europe is a US-funded broadcasting organisation that provides news, information and analysis in countries where it claims the free flow of information is either banned by government authorities or not fully developed. Opening in 1949 with support from US President Eisenhower, the station broadcast in both English and the native languages of its target audience. Merging with Radio Liberty in 1976, the organisation moved its headquarters to Prague in 1995 and currently broadcasts to 23 countries in 26 languages.