To those who knew her personally, Zofia Korbonska was a loyal and generous friend. But Mrs. Korbonska, who passed away last week in Washington at theage of 95, was also a heroic figure of the anti-Nazi and anti-Communist resistance movement in Poland between 1939 and 1947. In later years, driven from her native country by the socialist regime, she worked tirelessly in the United States as a Voice of America (VOA) journalist to bring uncensored news to her native country.
As a member of the Polish Undergroud Army, Armia Krajowa (AK), during the Nazi occupation, Mrs. Korbonska daily risked her life writing and coding secret shortwave radio transmissions sent from Poland to the Polish government in exile in London. Her dispatches kept the outside world informed about Nazi atrocities and anti-German resistance. Thanks to her, some of the first news about the killings by the Gestapo of members of the Polish intelligentsia, the Nazi extermination of the Polish Jews and the medical experiments on women prisoners at the Ravensbruck concentration camp reached the Free World and were broadcast back to occupied Europe by the BBC.
Mrs. Korbonska’s dispatches also sent critical information for Swit, a radio station providing Poles living under German occupation with local news. Although Swit was based in Britain, its up-to-date and accurate reporting convinced many that Swit was operating inside their country - a last bastion of free Poland.
If caught by the German Gestapo, who constantly searched for radio transmitters, she would have been tortured and executed - the fate of many of her colleagues in the Polish underground. Her courage was legendary.
In addition to her radio work, Zofia also served as an assistant to her husband, Stefan Korbonski, the leader of the anti-Nazi civil resistance and the last chief of the Polish underground state.
The Korbonskis were arrested in Krakow by the Soviet secret police in June 1945. Later released from a secret police prison following an amnesty, Stefan became briefly an anti-Communist member of the Polish Parliament. But soon, faced with a prospect of another arrest, Stefan and Zofia escaped to Sweden, hiding in a ship transporting coal. Stefan later served as chairman of the Assembly of Captive European Nations (ACEN) but he was never able to return to his homeland and, sadly, died in 1989, just months before Poland regained independence.
I got to know Zofia in the early 1970s when I joined the Polish Service of the Voice of America in Washington. Her fire undimmed by adversity, she was still a sharp and often witty critic of the socialist regimes of Eastern Europe and Western naivete about those regimes. Her adopted country was not immune: One of her favorite stories was about a phone call from a diplomat at the U.S. State Department asking in all seriousness, “Who is Mr. Katyn?” Katyn, of course, was not a person but the name of the infamous site where the secret police murdered more than 20,000 Polish prisoner-of-war officers during World War II.
But for all her fire, Zofia was also a warm and welcoming hostess, drawing visitors from Poland and around the world to her and Stefan’s home for elaborate meals. Nor did her generosity stop there: She constantly sent packages and money to former colleagues in the Resistance or their family members who remained in Poland.
Zofia retired from the Voice of America, but she never stopped thinking about foreign affairs. In the last phone conversation I had with her, a little more than a month ago, she spoke not about herself but about current U.S. policy toward Poland and other U.S. allies in East-Central Europe. She was greatly concerned. She saw it as the first steps toward another Yalta - that is, another abandonment of allies in a misdirected effort to appease a falsely friendly Russia.
Zofia Korbonska never wavered in her resistance to dictatorship, appeasement, fellow-traveling or revisionist history. She always described her political philosophy as being uncompromisingly supportive of true democracy and free media. That is how I will remember her.
Ted Lipien is with Free Media Online and is a former acting associate director of the Voice of America.