Polish Journalist Stefan Bratkowski Dead at 86, Praised Radio Free Europe During Cold War

I was saddened to learn that Stefan Bratkowski, born 22.11.1934, described on Culture.pl website as “one of the outstanding Polish journalists of the last few decades” died on April 18, 2021. He was one of the organizers of the Jan Nowak-Jeziorański Association of Employees, Freelancers and Friends of the Polish Service of Radio Free Europe formed in Poland in 1994.

Bratkowski joined the Communist Party in Poland in 1954, the year after Stalin’s death, but quickly emerged as a reformist journalist and for many years was censored and prevented by the communist regime from publishing in state-controlled media. He was expelled from the Communist Party in 1981 after becoming involved with the independent Solidarity trade union and serving as an advisor to its leader Lech Wałęsa. During the period of the martial law and de-legalization of Solidarity in the 1980s, he gave lectures in Roman-Catholic churches in Poland on political, economic, social and cultural topics at the invitation of bishops and priests although he remained an atheist.

Among my audio tapes, I found Stefan Bratkowski’s Recorded Message to Participants of “Voices of Freedom ’87: Challenging the Censors” —a conference attended by 150 journalists and media leaders from 35 countries which took place in London on 16-18 January, 1987. The recording was transmitted from London to the Voice of America (VOA) in Washington where I worked since 1973.

Hope is what we serve, not hatred. Hatred is fruitless. 

Stefan Bratkowski, 1987

Stefan Bratkowski, President of the then banned Polish Journalists Union in Warsaw, was not able to come in 1987 to London to attend the conference on press censorship because the communist regime put him under an investigation and refused to give him his passport, but his taped message, recorded in English, was heard by the participants. The Voice of America news bureau in London sent the recording of his message to the VOA Polish Service where I was the service chief during Solidarity’s struggle in Poland for democracy and the country’s independence from the Soviet Union.

Bratkowski did not record the message specifically for the Voice of America. It was erroneously described by the technician who transmitted the recording from London to Washington as an interview.

Bratkowski mentions in his recorded message to the conference the role of Western radio stations broadcasting in Polish, with specific references to Radio Free Europe. He said that these Western stations, which also included the Voice of America Polish Service and the Polish Service of Radio France Internationale (RFI), Deutsche Welle (DW) and a few others, “often publicize the most interesting texts and news from the underground press.” Radio Free Europe devoted more airtime to articles from the underground press in Poland than any of the other Western radio stations and was the most influential and the most listened to Western broadcaster in Poland, but the VOA Polish Service greatly expanded its audience during the Ronald Reagan presidency in the 1980s. The entire message from Stefan Bratkowski for the conference in London was about 18 minutes long.

This audio file includes the beginning and the end of Stefan Bratkowski’s 1987 recorded message.

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January 1987

…speaking Stefan Bratkowski, former President of the banned Polish Association of Journalists. DEAR FRIENDS, PARTICIPANTS in the conference, I thank the organisers of the meeting for their kind invitation. To my regret I could not get a passport for the very simple reason that after my home was searched, my papers taken, and after many long interrogations, I am now always under investigation. 

The market of information is naturally narrowed and littered with the effects of the propaganda operations. So the most influential medium is the officially issued Catholic press, the independent press. The second are the Polish-speaking broadcasting stations from abroad. They often publicize the most interesting texts and news from the underground press. In spite of their poor transmitters, much weaker than the jamming stations, they really participate in the public life of Poland; and the official press, the Party-controlled press, often attacks the opinions of underground newspapers only just after they have been publicized by, for example, Radio Free Europe. So it has attacked my private “Gazette.” I produce, for myself only, only one copy of a one-hour cassette tape, a so-called “Sound Gazette,”  speaking to the world, not too often, only once in two or three months. 

Sometimes I hear myself screeching or speaking in a very deep voice after many re-recordings transmitted by Radio Free Europe, and then I am publicized by the official press, mostly by the Government Spokesman (such a funny guy, simply obsessed with personal hatred of me). Is it possible to go along in this way? Yes, it is. The power elite do not want to accept reality. They are isolated, psychologically and socially. They have guns and truncheons, but they don’t know how to solve any of the problems of the country. They have many able men even within the power elite, but they don’t use them. 

We cannot export them, nor can we exchange them. To our regret they are not exchangeable. Maybe, changeable. 

Is, it really possible to change them — at least a little? 

They are poor and sad; and we are not ‘dissidents’ — don’t call us by such a word — we are the majority. We are at home. They are the ones who have chosen an internal emigration. 

When I am lecturing in a church from an altar — not being a believer in God — on questions of self—organisation, on the social doctrines of the Church, on work ethics, on independence and patience, I speak casually for a few thousand people; and so do others: scientists, writers, journalists and artists. 

Every Sunday, many millions of people form the strongest church, a sign of victory, in token of fidelity to the ideas of Solidarity. 

Once a week the millions vote against the government, singing the anthem “Our God Who Has Blessed Poland Throughout The Ages” with its special last words: “Return To Us, Oh Lord, A Free Fatherland,” instead of “Bless, Oh Lord, Our Free Fatherland.” 

They feel strong and hopeful. They have their moral authority, the Polish Pope; they have Lech Walesa, their unquestionable leader, the worker who works every day in his shipyard; they have their intellectuals and their parsons; and they have their press and their journalists; they have us. 

So we are strongly fortified. It is a Polish invisible Maginot Line, much stronger than concrete walls and pillboxes. Hope is what we serve, not hatred. Hatred is fruitless. 

So we try hard to maintain the nation’s common sense and open mind of the nation. 

Now, thank you, dear friends, for your patience in listening to me, and for all the help we have received during these five difficult years. Excuse my poor English. So long.

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