Having served briefly (Dec. 2020-Jan. 2021) as Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) President and having been before Voice of America (VOA) Polish Service chief in the 1980s and VOA acting associate director in 2005/2006 in charge of central programs, I wanted to repost my 2019 Silent Refugees website’s article on how early VOA managers, editors and journalists lied about Stalin’s crimes and repeated Soviet propaganda. Fortunately, VOA no longer repeated such Soviet disinformation during the Cold War, and dropped all restrictions during the presidency of Ronald Reagan on reporting on communist human rights abuses. To their great credit, neither Radio Free Europe (RFE) nor Radio Liberty (RL) ever censored news about the Soviet Gulag, which the Voice of America occasionally did even as late as the 1970s.
A Soviet-instigated plan to kill an anti-communist woman journalist in the early years of the Cold War was linked to her attempts to tell the story of thousands of Polish children who in 1940-1941 had been deported with their families from eastern Poland to Siberia and Central Asia where many died from brutal treatment. The assassination plan was revealed in 1953-1954 by a defector to the West from communist-ruled Poland and was never carried out.
Throughout World War II, Polish children who had been prisoners in Russia faced many attempts from various governments to isolate and silence them in order to prevent their accounts of slave labor and death from reaching Western media. The censorship was to a large degree successful. Americans were misled by their own government. The fate of Polish prisoners in Russia, those who had died and those who had survived the ordeal and became refugees, was both hidden and distorted in official U.S. public information programs during the war. The story was also completely hidden and distorted by Soviet propaganda both during and after the war. 1
When some Western media started to report in the early years of the Cold War about Stalin’s children prisoners and his other victims, one Polish journalist became a target of an assassination plan, which according to a communist defector, was ordered by Moscow. The woman journalist was not harmed, most likely because one of the key planners of the assassination suddenly defected to the West in December 1953 and revealed the plan to the CIA. The assassination plot was later described in Radio Free Europe broadcasts to Poland.
The Polish children refugees were not the only reason Moscow wanted to silence the journalist who spoke about them to RFE listeners in Poland. As a former communist, she also knew other secrets about Stalinist crimes and the corruption of the communist elite, but apparently the Soviets were particularly concerned about the propaganda impact of her accounts of the mistreatment of Polish and Russian children under Stalin’s rule.
The plight hundreds of thousands of Poles from eastern Poland started when they were arrested and deported by the Soviets following the German-Soviet attack on Poland in 1939. After Hitler betrayed his former ally and attacked Russia in June 1941, some of the Polish children were allowed to leave Russia in 1942 with the Polish Army of General Władysław Anders assembled from former Gulag prisoners who were Polish citizens.
But even after some of the Polish prisoners-slave laborers and their children regained their freedom, left Russia for Iran and became refugees, they were still unable to talk freely about their former captivity. The Polish government-in-exile was not making the plight of the refugees public because it feared of what might happen to other Polish citizens who were not yet evacuated and remained in the Soviet Union. The refugees themselves were concerned about their family members and friends who remained in Russia. The British and American authorities who assisted in the resettlement of Polish refugees from Russia tried to keep them isolated to prevent them from embarrassing the Soviet ally with stories of deportations, executions and other communist atrocities.
The abuse of children became an especially a sensitive topic for the Kremlin, its propaganda machine and later for the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Several years after the war when a former communist journalist told the story of the Polish children in a series of Radio Free Europe broadcasts to Poland, she reportedly became a target of an assassination plan ordered by Moscow. The planned assassination was revealed by a high-level official of the Polish secret police who had defected to the West in 1953. The assassination was not carried out most likely because communist authorities in Moscow, Warsaw and East Berlin knew that their secret plan was revealed. The communist defector’s name was Józef Światło. The journalist who broke with communism and spoke in Radio Free Europe broadcasts about Soviet atrocities was Wanda Brońska-Pampuch. She was the daughter of a Polish communist who had been a close associate of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin and was one of many foreign and Soviet communists executed on Stalin’s orders in 1938.
In 1942, the Soviets allowed about 120,000 former Polish prisoners to leave Russia for Iran after Stalin’s earlier alliance with Hitler had collapsed with the German attack on the Soviet Union the year before. Among the released Polish prisoners were tens of thousands of children. Many of them were orphans. Their parents had been either executed, died in the Gulag labor camps, work settlements and collective farms, or were still missing in Russia.
The Soviet propaganda machine immediately tried to present the Polish children evacuated to Iran as beneficiaries of Stalin’s protection and made very effort to hide what had happened to them, their parents and to other Polish adults and children during their captivity in Russia. What is not widely known is that the Soviet government received help for their disinformation campaign from left-leaning American and foreign journalists employed by the U.S. administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who presented the children as fleeing from under German occupation and did not mention anything about their imprisonment in Russia and massive death toll among them and other prisoners.
After they were evacuated to Iran, the Roosevelt administration adopted a policy aimed at isolating and silencing the Polish refugees. Officials in Washington classified U.S. government reports about Soviet atrocities in order to protect Stalin and the military alliance with Russia. Voice of America (VOA) radio broadcasts prepared during the war by pro-Soviet leftist radicals in New York and Washington avoided any critical reporting about the Soviet Union and praised Stalin as a progressive leader. The U.S. propaganda agency, the Office of War Information (OWI), which was in charge of government radio broadcasts, issued a press release in 1943 presenting surviving Polish children after their evacuation from Russia as victims of Hitler’s rather than Stalin’s aggression. 2 Many U.S. media outlets, including TIME magazine, were misled by such disinformation. 3
When a group of Polish children refugees, including many orphans, arrived from India to California on their way to a refugee camp in Mexico (President Roosevelt would not allow them to stay in the U.S.) they were kept in isolation at a former detention camp for Japanese-Americans and put in sealed trains to prevent media access and contacts with ordinary Americans. All of these measures were designed to silence these children refugees and to protect Stalin and the Soviet Union from bad publicity. 4
Such censorship of the story of Polish children refugees and their incredible suffering in Russia diminished somewhat after the war but was still not being reported in any great detail by the Voice of America. Only after the U.S. government created Radio Free Europe in the early 1950s, its Polish Service started to talk at length about what happened to the Polish families forcibly deported by the Soviets from their homes in eastern Poland in 1940 and 1941. This apparently triggered the Soviet plan to assassinate the Polish journalist who defected to West Germany in 1949.
An eyewitness who described the plight of the Polish children and their parents in Radio Free Europe broadcasts was a former member of the Polish Communist Party Wanda Brońska-Pampuch. She herself was a prisoner in the Soviet Gulag in Kolyma for eight years. Her father, Mieczysław Broński, was one of Lenin’s associates who accompanied him on his trip from Switzerland to Russia shortly before the Bolshevik Revolution. Wanda Brońska and her family moved to the Soviet Union in 1931. Her father was arrested in Moscow in 1937 and executed the following year. His 23-year-old daughter was also arrested sent to the Gulag. Her three-year-old daughter was placed in an NKVD orphanage. Wanda Brońska was released form the Gulag in 1946, returned to Poland, and worked briefly for the communist regime as a journalist. She was sent to East Germany from where she defected to West Berlin in 1949.
In a Radio Free Europe program titled, “A Broadcast for Communists,” which aired on June 24, 1953, Brońska-Pampuch explained why it took her so long to break with communism. She told RFE listeners how as a member of the Young Community League Komsomol she visited collective farms and saw young peasant children with their bodies swollen from hunger.
“I can’t forget the eyes of these children who were even afraid to ask us for bread,” Brońska told RFE. She admitted that under the pressure of communist propaganda, she was able to suppress her doubts about the Soviet regime for several more years. 5
It appears that her RFE broadcasts, in which she also talked about the Polish children imprisoned in Russia, caught the attention of the Soviet regime. According to Zbigniew Błażyński, a Radio Free Europe Polish Service journalist who in 1954 interviewed Józef Światło, a former high level official in the Polish secret police, the leader of the Polish Communist Party Bolesław Bierut had ordered at the end of November 1953 that Wanda Brońska be “silenced” (eliminated) partly because of her descriptions of the plight of the Polish children in Stalin’s captivity.
Światło told RFE that a plan was developed to get the East German Stasi secret police to carry out the mission to silence Brońska who was at that time in West Germany. Światło was picked to coordinate the assassination plan with the East Germans. He and one of his superiors reportedly got the East Germans to agree to “silence” Wanda Brońska. There is no specific information made public about what methods would be used to “silence” Brońska, but two Radio Liberty exiles were murdered under mysterious circumstances.
Światło’s CIA files have not been declassified. What we know about his 1953 trip to East Germany is from his own descriptions provided to Radio Free Europe.
While in East Berlin in December 1953 to coordinate the silencing of Brońska, Światło found himself by accident in West Berlin (he said that he and his companion took a wrong train). There he saw well-supplied Western stores and made his decision to defect. The next day, he and his supervisor went back to West Berlin to buy goods unavailable in East Germany or in Poland. Światło separated from his supervisor while he was exchanging money, went to the American authorities and asked for political asylum. He became one of the most useful defectors of the Cold War because of his extensive knowledge of how the Polish and Soviet secret police operated.
After nearly a year of debriefings by the CIA, Światło was made available in 1954 for interviews to the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe in which he revealed how communist leaders lived in luxury and how the secret police spied on, arrested and tortured the regime’s real and imagined opponents, including many communists. Former CIA official Cord Meyer disclosed in his book, Facing Reality: From World Federalism to the CIA, published after his retirement from CIA, that “Colonel Światło confessed that part of his assignment had been to ‘silence’ Wanda Brońska, a former Communist broadcasting for RFE.” 6
Światło told RFE Polish Service journalist Zbigniew Błażyński that Wanda Brońska’s graphic descriptions of the suffering of the Polish children during their wartime captivity in the Soviet Union triggered in Moscow the plan for her assassination.
In a series of programs, coincidently also recorded by me for the [RFE] Polish Service in Munich, Wanda Brońska, a former German communist, and later an activist in the KPP [Communist Party of Poland], who became completely disillusioned and betrayed, revealed details of some of the events connected with the KPP, and later during her wartime stay in Russia. She spoke among other things about the tragic fate of Polish children in Russia. Światło told me that these programs shocked the Party. Moscow intervened. An order was issued: Brońska must be silenced. 7Zbigniew Błażyński, Mówi Józef Światło: Za kulisami bezpieki i partii 1940-1955 (London: Polska Fundacja Kultutralna, 1986), 12.
The Polish Service of Radio Free Europe was known in the early 1950s as the “Voice of Free Poland.” Zbigniew Błażyński recorded in Munich a series of programs with Wanda Brońska and another former Polish communist Irena Bron. Some RFE American managers and Polish Service journalists were opposed to giving former communists extensive airtime, but the director of the Polish Service Jan Nowak Jeziorański with the support of the senior management concluded that they should be allowed to participate in RFE programs because of the impact their revelations would have on the leaders and the rank-and-file party members in Poland while at the same time providing all listeners with details of human rights abuses by the regime. Zbigniew Błażyński, who interviewed both Wanda Brońska and later Józef Światło, was a former Polish diplomat and World War II soldier. After working for RFE, he was later director of BBC’s Polish Service and deputy director in charge of BBC programs to Eastern Europe.
Impact and Aftermath
Józef Światło said that the Soviets were especially upset about Brońska’s earlier RFE interviews. Communist party activists in Poland were, according to Światło, shocked and horrified by her revelations about the execution of Polish communist leaders in the Soviet Union during the 1936-1938 Great Terror, the plight of the Polish children in Russia, the NKVD homes for orphans where they were sent after their parents were arrested or killed, and Brońska’s search for her daughter from whom she was separated at the time of her arrest by the Soviet secret police. 8
The suffering of innocent Polish children in Russia made an impression on some communists in Poland, especially since the parents of some of the children were Polish communists arrested and murdered in the Soviet Union on the orders of Stalin. The vast majority of Stalin’s millions of victims were, however, not communists but ordinary people of many nationalities.
From the propaganda viewpoint, the story of the Polish children was especially sensitive, not only for the Soviet regime but also for the U.S. government’s wartime propaganda agency and Voice of America radio broadcasts during the Roosevelt administration. Both the Soviets and pro-Soviet U.S. propagandists took various steps to keep the true story of the Polish children refugees from being told. Only several years after the war, with the creation of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, the U.S. government put a final stop to such censorship and embarked on a decades-long but ultimately successful campaign to undo peacefully the effects of the impact of Soviet propaganda on the Roosevelt administration.
Photo by Lt. Col. Henry I. Szymanski, U.S. Army
- Twelve-year-old boy, Polish evacuee from Russia, August 1942
- Photos by: Lieutenant Colonel Henry I. Szymanski, U.S. Army
- Source: The Katyn Forest Massacre: Hearings Before The Select Committee to Conduct An Investigation on The Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre; Eighty-Second Congress, Second Session On Investigation of The Murder of Thousands of Polish Officers in The Katyn Forest Near Smolensk, Russia; Part 3 (Chicago, Ill.); March 13 and 14, 1952 (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1952), pp. 459-461.
- Silenced Refugees, “How the Roosevelt Administration Shipped Polish Refugee Orphans to Mexico In Locked Trains and Lied About It to Protect Stalin: The Untold Story of Polish Refugee Children from Soviet Russia: ‘A Group Lost in History’,” October 1, 2018, http://www.silencedrefugees.com/how-u-s-lied-about-polish-refugee-children-to-protect-stalin/ ↩
- Ted Lipien, “Polish refugee woman from Russia as seen in American propaganda,” Silenced Refugees, January 13, 2019, http://www.silencedrefugees.com/story-of-a-polish-refugee-woman-from-russia/. An OWI January 4, 1944 memorandum describing the press release and comments on it by a Polish-American newspaper can be seen at this link: http://www.silencedrefugees.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Nowy-Swiat-Polish-Children-Refugees-Santa-Anita-Paul-Sturman-Alan-Cranston-January-4-1944-.jpg ↩
- “Happiness in California,” Time, November 15, 1943, 23. Also see: Ted Lipien, “Polish children refugees — TIME and OWI/VOA propaganda,” Silenced Refugees, January 9, 2019, http://www.silencedrefugees.com/polish-children-refugees-time-and-owi-voa-propaganda/. ↩
- Ted Lipien, Polish Children in Camps for Japanese-Americans, Silenced Refugees, January 11, 2019, http://www.silencedrefugees.com/polish-children-in-camps-for-japanese-americans/ ↩
- Wanda Brońska-Pampuch, “Dlaczego przestałam być komunistką? – uwagi Wandy Brońskiej-Pampuch” Radio Free Europe Polish Service, June 24, 1953, Radia Wolności, PolskieRadio.pl, https://www.polskieradio.pl/68/2461/Audio/289867. ↩
- Cord Meyer, Facing Reality: From World Federalism to the CIA (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1980), 120. ↩
- Zbigniew Błażyński, Mówi Józef Światło: Za kulisami bezpieki i partii 1940-1955 (London: Polska Fundacja Kultutralna, 1986), 12. ↩
- Zbigniew Błażyński, Mówi Józef Światło: Za kulisami bezpieki i partii 1940-1955 (London: Polska Fundacja Kultutralna, 1986), 250. ↩