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Poland: Former RFE Executive Awarded Freedom Medal

  • Frank Csongos

Washington, 9 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton today awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Jan Nowak, former director of Radio Free Europe's Polish broadcasting service.

"For 25 years he was a dominant voice at Radio Free Europe, that great beacon of hope that brought so many through the darkest hours of communism," Clinton said as he presented the award to Nowak.

Nowak's commitment to democracy is an inspiration to all Americans, and this commitment is still being felt in his native Poland, said Clinton.

Nowak was one of 11 Americans to receive the citation during a ceremony at the White House. The medal is the highest civilian honor awarded by the United States.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Nowak said he is "greatly honored" by the award and is very happy.

Nowak was a founder of Radio Free Europe's Polish Service. He directed the service from its inception in Munich, Germany in 1951 until he retired in 1976. During Nowak's tenure, RFE's Polish broadcasts pierced the Iron Curtain and brought news and other programming to Poles living under communist rule.

During World War II, Nowak fought against the Nazis and served the Allies in the Polish Underground. He risked his life several times, working as a courier between Warsaw and London. Nowak wrote a book in 1982 about his exploits, entitled "Courier From Warsaw."

Former National Security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, in a preface to the book, says Nowak faced countless dangers and was "usually only a step ahead of the Gestapo, but miraculously escaped arrest and certain death."

Nowak says his five trips between Warsaw and London "was a sort of a record." He said his life was at risk "many, many times" and said he believed it was a miracle that he survived.

Nowak told RFE/RL that the Gestapo knew about him and was looking for him and described some very close calls, including one where he was nearly cut in half by a plane's propeller because he jumped from a bomb bay door before the engine stopped.

Nowak met some of the most important leaders at the time, including Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Ironically, Nowak said he could not return to Poland after the war.

"I could not," he said. "I was very high on the black list of the Soviet NKVD (the KGB's predecessor) ... so I couldn't possibly go back to Poland."