Polish children refugees from Russia – silenced by Soviet and U.S. propaganda


U.S. Government Propaganda Photo (OWI – 1943)

By Ted Lipien

U.S. government propaganda pictures taken in 1943 by the U.S. Office of War Information (OWI) photographer in Iran showed Polish children and women several months after they had come out of Soviet Russia in a mass exodus of former Gulag prisoners and their families.1 The OWI photographs were carefully staged and their descriptions skillfully written to obscure any signs pointing to Soviet responsibility for the plight of the refugees or to any wrongdoing on the part of the Kremlin. The women and children in U.S. government’s propaganda photos looked relatively healthy and adequately nourished. It was the beginning of a coverup, distortion of the refugees’ true story and eventual silence. It started out with Soviet and American government propagandists attempting to hide Stalin’s genocidal crimes or to blame them on others or even their victims. It was a brazen act of manipulation of historical facts and public opinion about which Americans have already forgotten even though it was briefly investigated and exposed in the 1950s.

In addition to managing Voice of America (VOA) radio broadcasts beamed abroad, the U.S. Office of War Information was a powerful domestic government propaganda agency. It was in charge of all U.S. government media outreach programs, both domestic and foreign. As such, it had control over which of its  photographs would be shared with American press and how they would be described. There were other U.S. government photos of Polish refugees which showed starving, ill and dying children. These photographs were taken in Iran by a U.S. Army officer shortly after the children had been evacuated from Russia in 1942. Roosevelt administration officials promptly classified them as secret because they would have uncovered to Americans and the world the real face of Soviet communism.2 Toward the end of the war, U.S. Army released films and photographs of dead bodies of inmates in Nazi concentration camps and of their starved survivors,  but U.S. military photographs of Polish wartime refugees who came out of Russia in 1942 were not made public until ten years later. Even then, their release happened only due to persistent requests and strong pressure from the U.S. Congress.

Human life was cheap under Soviet communism and, as children of the “reactionary Polish class” (many were peasants), they were left starving. Their mothers were forced to work or sell their bodies to Soviet overseers for food, but it was not enough for an adequate diet for themselves, their children and any older adults who could not do heavy labor. Husbands and fathers may have already been executed or were being worked to death under even worse conditions in Gulag camps.

Even after the U.S. Army photographs were declassified and could have replaced the propaganda photos distributed by the OWI, images of emaciated Polish refugees children who had escaped death in Russia have been rarely reproduced in articles, books or online. Even today Internet users are still likely to see World War II Roosevelt administration’s propaganda material on Polish refugees without knowing about its deceptive purpose. It is also many times more likely that a young American will view an online video, see a film or read a book about prisoners in Nazi concentration camps than about prisoners in the Soviet Gulag, even though in each case millions of innocent victims had met their brutal deaths because of their ethnicity or social class. The Soviets did not use gas chambers, but they still managed to carry out acts of genocide against the so called undesirable elements, which also included Polish women and children. If Hitler had not attacked his former Soviet ally and Stalin was not forced to release Polish prisoners, most of them would have been dead in a few years. A similar genocide happened earlier during the Soviet man-made Holodomor famine in Ukraine in 1932 and 1933 that killed millions of Ukrainians. Only the collapse of the Hitler-Stalin alliance saved the surviving Polish men, women and children from death. They became instead refugees and an annoying symbol of Stalin’s duplicity and cruelty that President Roosevelt and his propagandists wanted to keep out of the public eye.

Silenced and Ignored

The initial deception created by the Roosevelt administration propagandists around the question of Polish and other deportees, prisoners and slave laborers in Russia, although exposed and condemned by members of Congress of both parties in hearings and reports in the early 1950s, continued in other forms for many more decades through a lack of effort or unwillingness to correct the initial disinformation.3 Its effects can be seen even today in the still silenced story of the Polish refugee children rescued from Russia during World War II. For years, many of the children themselves remained silent for various reasons, including psychological trauma of Soviet captivity, the loss of their parents and the need to build their life anew in exile, starting out as penniless immigrants. When a few of them wrote their gripping Gulag memoirs years later, they did not become instant bestsellers. There was no overwhelming public interest in their stories and no desire to turn them into blockbuster Hollywood movies.4 

During most of the Cold War, American and West European publics, especially those on the left, were not receptive to hearing stories of East European refugees who had decided not to return to their communist-ruled homelands. Some left-leaning Westerners saw them, in line with Soviet propaganda, as right-wing reactionaries and enemies of better relations with the peace-loving Soviet Union. They refused to believe in the 1950s and in some cases even later that Stalin and Soviet communism could have been responsible for crimes against humanity.

Others no longer saw Soviet Russia as perfect but were still willing to make allowances for the homeland of socialism, convinced, again in line with Soviet propaganda, that America and its NATO allies were a threat to a noble experiment in social justice being carried out in the Soviet Union and in other communist states. Charges made by Polish refugees in the West against Russia were met by many on the left with skepticism and suspicion.

Polish Children in Camps for Japanese-Americans

America had its own shameful episode of not nearly as brutal as Soviet deportations but still inexcusable arrests of American citizens of Japanese origin and forcing them into internment camps. The Roosevelt administration may have gotten the idea from Stalin’s mass removals and deportations of undesirable ethnic groups viewed as potential enemies. The same Office of War Information which lauded Stalin and covered up his crimes produced propaganda films to justify the internment of American citizens.

When two groups of Polish refugee children had arrived in the United States in 1943 for a brief stopover before being transported to a resettlement camp in Mexico (the Roosevelt administration had refused requests to give them political asylum in the U.S.), they were kept under isolation and military guard in former detention centers for Japanese-Americans in southern California. Some of the children were reportedly traumatized when they saw a barbed wire fence and a camp guarded by soldiers with rifles. They were further traumatized, according to some accounts, by being transported on sealed trains with blacked out windows. While these comfortable American passenger trains and American soldiers were friendly, locked doors and windows reminded them of their previous journey in dark Soviet cattle trains to labor settlements in Siberia and Central Asia. American journalist and a Catholic Relief Services worker Eileen Egan reported that “the refugees could not leave the carriages to mingle with American citizens.”5

Julian Plowy, who was three-years-old, when he arrived in Mexico with his mother and older sister, recalled that the help the Polish children received in Mexico from the Mexican people, Polish-American nuns and American workers of Catholic Relief Services helped them to rebuilt their faith in God and humanity. Plowy wrote that love for Poland and religious faith instilled in them by their parents and teachers strengthened their drive to never give up. He and members of his family who had survived the Soviet captivity came to the United States after the war. One of the photos in the Plowy family album shows a group of young Polish refugee children at their camp called Colonia Santa Rosa near the city of León in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato. (Photo: Courtesy of Julian Plowy.)

Polish refugee children in Mexico. Plowy family album.

Deception in Library of Congress

The extent of the damage the initial propaganda from the Roosevelt administration had on the handling of the Polish refugees story is not always easy to document, but some of the false information has kept reappearing in new forms for many years. After the arrival of the Internet, the Library of Congress posted online more than a dozen of OWI’s propaganda photos of Polish refugees taken in 1943 in Iran without labeling them as part of a deceptive U.S. government propaganda effort to obscure the truth.6 While some of the photographs of children and women are indeed stunning, regrettably they convey an entirely false image of what they had been through in the Soviet Gulag. Those looking at the photos cannot tell from their inadequate online descriptions that the women had been imprisoned in the Soviet Union and had worked there as slave laborers before being evacuated to Iran. Some of the older children were also doing slave labor to keep themselves and their families from starving. The Library of Congress online catalogue shows only one low-resolution photograph of three emanciated Polish girls of the World War II period. This photograph has an inadequate and confusing caption with no reference to Soviet Russia.7

The small image in the online Library of Congress collection, titled “This is how Polish children look when they arrive in Iran,” is attributed to the Polish American Council and its online record does not say from where these children came to Iran during the war. The mystery photo was probably taken in Iran in August 1942, most likely by a U.S. Army officer, Lt. Col. Henry I. Szymanski who reported to Washington in 1942 that 50% of Polish children in Soviet captivity many have died from malnutrition and that “[Polish] Women not accustomed to hard manual labor and consequently not able to earn enough for their daily bread had a choice of starving to death or submitting to the Bolshevik or Mongol supervisor.”8 Women of all nationalities were victim of repeated rapes by Soviet guards. Very few women refugees were willing to talk about it after the war. They were silenced by their trauma and shame.

Lasting Effects of Propaganda

U.S. government officials in the Roosevelt administration had access to Szymanski’s photos of starved Polish children coming out of Russia and to other U.S. military and diplomatic reports on Soviet atrocities but classified them as secret to prevent their use by media outlets in the United States and abroad. Pro-Soviet OWI propagandists produced instead their own photographs, press releases and Voice of America radio broadcasts designed to mislead and confuse Americans and foreign audiences about the condition of wartime refugees who had been Stalin’s prisoners without, mentioning that they had been arrested, deported and cruelly mistreated by the Soviet communist regime. The disinformation they produced not only had confused many independent journalists as it was being released; for many decades it has affected future media reporting by poorly-informed journalists. Propaganda can have a very long shelf life, as it has had in the case of Polish refugees. It is, however, important to remember that not all Americans were deceived by Soviet and Roosevelt administration’s narratives about Stalin’s intentions. There were many, including members of Congress and some journalists outside of the OWI and VOA who were not afraid to point out fraud and deception in how Stalin and Soviet Russia were being sold to Americans by their own government in collusion with Russian propagandists.

While the active coordination of U.S. and Soviet propaganda lasted only a few years, some of its effects and impact continued much longer.9 There are thousands of public domain photographs online showing the victims from Nazi extermination and concentration camps and scenes of other German atrocities, but finding even a single photo of a former Polish adult male prisoner in the Soviet Gulag or a Polish mother and child as they really looked shortly after coming out of Russia during World War II is nearly impossible. As of January 2019, the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division online catalogue has only one entry for “Gulag.” In an incredible affront to historical truth, the no longer intentional but still real legacy of silence about the Polish children refugees and other Gulag victims continues. The deception which the Roosevelt administration propaganda agency had initiated during the war in support of Soviet disinformation has been largely unreported and unchallenged. It is a worrisome testimony to the lasting effects of even decades-old attempts to manipulate public opinion, in this case in U.S. government’s collusion with a foreign power ruled by a totalitarian regime. While later U.S. administrations had made significant efforts to counter Soviet propaganda, including the creation of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty in the early 1950s, significant misconceptions and avoidance of some sensitive topics by most other Western media remained a long lasting problem.

The Soviet government engaged on its own in a massive disinformation campaign to suppress the truth about the Gulag and create confusion about what really happened to millions of innocent victims. On the Polish refugees and Katyń stories, as well as many others, the Soviets received active help from the Office of War Information and its Voice of America radio broadcasts. For several years, these U.S. government, taxpayer-funded institutions put out misleading information about 120,000 Polish refugees, soldiers and civilians—all of them Stalin’s former prisoners—who in 1942 had entered the British-controlled zone in Iran from Russia with his permission. By that time, Stalin wanted to get rid of the non-communist Polish Army, composed of former Gulag prisoners loyal to the Polish government in exile based in London. He was getting ready to break relations with the London Poles and to create his own puppet communist regime to rule Poland after the war. Most mainstream U.S. media easily bought into the U.S. government propaganda campaign that the Polish refugees who came to Iran were saved by Stalin from Nazi oppression, with no word in OWI press releases and VOA radio broadcasts about those non-communist Poles who were executed or perished in Soviet Gulag camps.

Time Magazine Story

In addition to misleading foreign audiences through VOA radio broadcasts, domestic “news” outreach by OWI propagandists had a definite impact on independent U.S. media. A short Time magazine entry on November 15, 1943 described a group of Polish refugee children who had arrived in Los Angeles on their way to their resettlement camp in Mexico as “fleeing horror since 1939” on their way “(via Russia, Persia, India) to a haven near Mexico City.” There was no mention in the Time magazine story about prison camps and work settlements in Russia from which these children had came. There was no hint as why these children, some of them orphans, could not have been adopted by Polish-American families. Most American readers would have assumed reading the short Time magazine report that the Poles were fleeing from under Nazi occupation, when in fact this group of Poles, which also included a few Jews, most likely had never seen any Germans. Their parents were arrested and deported by the Soviets, a fact conveniently omitted from the U.S. news magazine report. Time noted that the children were guests of the U.S. Army “in the barracks of Camp San Anita littered and marred by resentful Japanese,” as the camp was used before as a detention center for Japanese Americans, but the magazine did not disclose, assuming it even knew it, that the Polish children were kept isolated by the U.S. government, not allowed to leave the camp, and later transported in sealed trains to Mexico.10 This is exactly how U.S. government propagandists eager to protect Stalin wanted the story to be reported, if it were to be reported at all.

Nowy Świat Editorial

Some Polish-American newspapers and several members of Congress attempted to expose the Office of War Information’s deceptive foreign and domestic media outreach and to set the record straight.11 Both during and after the war, Republicans and Democrats in Congress issued warnings about Soviet and communist influence over OWI and VOA programs. High-level OWI officials, including future U.S. Senator from California Alan Cranston, took secret and unlawful actions to shut down Polish American media outlets, both newspapers and radio stations which were critical of the Soviet Union and exposed VOA radio broadcasts for repeating Soviet propaganda. Some of these efforts were successful and other failed.12 Nowy Świat (“New World”), a target of an earlier illegal and ultimately unsuccessful Office of War Information attempt to shut it down, published an editorial on January 4, 1944 which was discussed in a previously classified OWI memorandum. Some members of Congress often quoted from Polish-American media to expose Soviet atrocities and pro-Soviet and misleading propaganda from the Roosevelt administration.

We are submitting this OWI article to our Polish readers as an example of the service Polish press receives from the Office of War Information. The observations of the American soldier on duty at Santa Anita, where Polish refugees en route to Mexico were housed, excited all. That is true. But the OWI purposely omitted the explanation and has not added that these tragic children came from Russia, that they forgot to smile there, that they learned there of hunger and want, that they there learned of fear. Freedom of fear… Polish children did not know of that freedom upon their arrival to America. But it also appears that neither does the OWI know of this freedom. It is afraid to admit that these children reached America from Russia. It speaks of a four-year journey, which they completed fleeing Hitler.13

A careless reader may gain the impression that with the beginning of the war, some group of Poles started on their journey to America, and after four years, had reached this continent. Not a word about the fact that together with millions of Polish citizens this group of refugees which has now reached Mexico was deported from Poland by the Soviets and was kept by Russia under the most miserable conditions. But seeing the obvious is not a virtue with the OWI. That Office is not evidently free from fear. (Fear) before whom?14

Voice of America Communists

Some of the individuals put in charge in 1942 of the U.S. Office of War Information and Voice of America programs were notorious foreign and American fellow travelers and communists, many of them hired by the man later described as the first VOA director. His name was John Houseman who later became an Oscar-winning actor. Among his staffers were a future member of Communist Party USA Howard Fast15, Polish communist Stefan Arski, aka Artur Salman, and head of VOA Czechoslovak desk Adolf Hofmeister who later served as a diplomat for the communist regime in Prague. These VOA managers and journalists were even more committed to disinformation and censorship in support of Stalin than some of FDR’s U.S. State Department and War Department officials.16 At one time in 1943 even the Roosevelt White House intervened to curb the excessive pro-Soviet zeal of OWI broadcasters, but it was not nearly enough to allow the true story of Polish refugees to emerge. President Roosevelt and the State Department did not want it to be told. Honest journalism was not even remotely possible in a war emergency and in light of FDR’s almost unlimited willingness to appease Stalin as an indispensable war ally. The State Department merely warned OWI and VOA to be careful in accepting all Soviet propaganda on Katyń at face value. 17

In an effort to confuse Americans and foreign audiences, U.S. propagandists tried to present Polish refugees in Iran as fleeing from the German Nazis. There were indeed at that time many Jewish, Polish and other refugees trying to escape from the German Nazis and regimes collaborating with Hitler, but Polish refugees who came to Iran were escaping to safety not from the Nazis but from Germany’s former ally, the Soviet Union, after enduring unimaginable suffering under Soviet imprisonment. While estimates vary slightly, about 43,000 refugees who came to Iran from Russia in 1942 were civilians; 20,000 were children. The rest were soldiers who formed the Polish Army under the command of General Władysław Anders, himself a former POW in the Soviet Union, one of the few high-ranking Polish officers who were not secretly executed on Stalin’s orders in 1940.

Why So Many Orphans?

Despite efforts by Polish, British, American and Iranian authorities to save sick and malnourished children and adults, about 2,900 Polish wartime refugees died in Iran shortly after their arrival from Russia, most of them from illnesses contracted due to starvation and exhaustion during their Soviet captivity. Such news was not reported by OWI or mentioned in VOA broadcasts. What was reported briefly although without naming the root causes for such needs is that Polish refugees in Iran were receiving substantial assistance from private relief organizations, including the American Red Cross. The Iranians, shocked by the condition of former prisoners in Russia, also offered the Poles a warm welcome, as did later the Indians in British-ruled India, the Africans in British colonies, the New Zealanders, and the government of Mexico and its people. In many respects, the Polish refugees were well-treated and received more help than many of the Jews fleeing from Hitler. Polish refugees, among them a large number of Jews who had Polish citizenship and were thus also able to leave Russia in 1942, had a government in exile to look after their safety and welfare. But at least initially, they had to pay the price for such help by remaining silent about their experience of arrests, executions and enslavement under Soviet communism. While they were not formally sworn to silence, they were encouraged to keep quiet.

In all other ways, the Polish refugees were greeted by many with sympathy and kindness. When they arrived in the summer of 1942 at the beach at Pahlavi (now known as Anzali), Persia, on the Caspian Sea, they were met by the Iranians with exotic food and drink, Wesley Adamczyk, a Polish boy refugee from Russia who was 9-years-old at the time, wrote in his award-winning book. It describes many acts of generosity shown by the British, the Iranians, the U.S. Army officers and soldiers and American nurse. Young refugees in Iran also had dedicated Polish teachers and caregivers working for the Polish government in exile in London. Adamczyk had lost his father, a Polish reserve officer who was executed by the NKVD, and would soon lose his mother. She was only 45-years-old when she died in Iran from exhaustion and disease after three years of imprisonment in Soviet Russia. In his memoir, When God Looked the Other Way, published in 2004, Adamczyk recalled that the Iranians wanted to know why there were so many orphans among the Polish refugees who came from Russia?

The Persians were horrified when we told them about our imprisonment and starvation in the Soviet Union, which was plainly attested to not only by our physical condition and the diseases we brought with us but by the number of people who died shortly after arrival. … The Soviet government meanwhile countered with a perfidious public relations campaign, blaming the Germans for the condition of the Polish evacuees and claiming to have saved the Poles by taking them in at great sacrifice and expense. The incongruity of such assertions was transparent, and we wondered how the Soviet leaders could think the world so gullible.18

As a young boy, Wesley Adamczyk underestimated the willingness of the Roosevelt administration to appease Stalin for the purpose of keeping the anti-Hitler alliance intact. The influence of FDR’s pro-Soviet advisors and the power of both Soviet and U.S. government propaganda combined with censorship of unfavorable information about Soviet Russia by most American journalists kept the real story of Polish refugees in deep background. Photographs and reports by U.S. government officials who had witnessed the condition of Polish refugees or had information about the mass murders of Polish prisoners in Russia were immediately classified as secret and some of them were later destroyed. Eileen Egan, an American journalist who participated in the Catholic Relief Services’s (CRS) first project in 1943 of serving and resettling Polish refugees in Mexico described the political mood in America during the Second World War.

In that period, the United States and Russia were allies in a war, and any broadcasting of the experiences of these people during their Russian captivity could hardly contribute to the closeness of the alliance. Truth, as someone has remarked, is always the first casualty of war. The truths about the Stalinist system that these victims could relate had to be buried, at least for the duration of the war effort. 19

Some of the truth about the Polish refugees from Soviet Russia started to emerge slowly after the conclusion of the war, but the original damage from disinformation was never fully corrected. Many U.S. government documents describing Soviet atrocities remained hidden for years and only some were later declassified and made available to Congress.

Photographs By Lt. Col. Szymanski, U.S. Army

Ten-year-old Polish girl, evacuee from Russia, 1942.

One of the photographs kept secret by the Roosevelt administration was taken in Iran in August 1942 by Lieutenant Colonel Henry I. Szymanski, a U.S. Army liaison officer to the Polish Army. It showed a ten-year-old girl, Polish evacuee from Russia. His photographs remained classified for ten years. They were published for the first time in 1952 by the bipartisan Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation of the Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre, Eighty-Second Congress, also known as the Madden Committee after its chairman, Rep. Ray Madden (D-IN). In his report, which the Roosevelt administration also classified, Lt. Col. Szymanski described the fate of Polish children in Soviet Russia kept secret from Americans.

The children had no chance. It is estimated that 50% have already died from malnutrition. The other 50% will die unless evacuated to a land where American help can reach them. A visit to any of the hospitals in Teheran will testify to this statement. They are filled with children and adults who would be better off not to have survived the ordeal.20

What Really Happened

The starved Polish refugee children shown in these formerly classified photos taken in Iran in August 1942 by Lieutenant Colonel Henry I. Szymanski, a U.S. Army liaison officer to the Polish Army during the Second World War, were arrested by the Soviet secret police with their parents and relatives in eastern part of Poland after it had been invaded and occupied by Russia in September 1939 under the secret terms of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Poles who had avoided immediate executions by the Soviet NKVD secret police, were later deported in inhuman conditions into Siberia and Soviet Central Asia where many perished from hunger and maltreatment. The U.S. propaganda agency and Voice of America banned and censored such news to protect Stalin and the anti-Hitler alliance with Russia. The civilian Polish refugees in Iran, including thousands of children and orphans, were fleeing not from Nazi-occupied Poland but from the Soviet Union.

The Poles who had survived the deportations and forced labor were saved after Stalin had reached an agreement with the Polish government-in-exile, declared an “amnesty” for Polish citizens in 1941, and agreed in 1942 to let them leave with the Polish Army of General Władysław Anders which was being evacuated from Russia to the Middle East. The Polish Army, formed from survivors of Soviet prisons and Gulag labor camps after the Hitler-Stalin alliance collapsed with the surprise German attack on Russia in June 1941, later fought the Germans in North Africa and Italy alongside American and British troops. However, about 15,000 of their officers were missing. They had been secretly executed on Stalin’s orders in 1940, which left some of the Polish women in Russian captivity widows and many children as half or full orphans. During the period when U.S. government propagandists were obscuring and distorting the real story of the Polish refugees being evacuated from Russia, they also spread Soviet propaganda lies in Voice of America broadcasts that Nazi Germany was behind the execution of the Polish officers, known collectively as the Katyń Forest massacre. The Soviet government continued to deny responsibility for the massacres until 1990.

After reaching safety in Iran, Polish refugees were told to remain silent about their captivity. Representatives of their own government which was still futilely hoping to salvage relations with Stalin’s Russia were urging them not to discuss with media what they had gone through in the Soviet Union. The Soviets were still keeping hundreds of thousands of Polish citizens as hostages whom the Polish government hoped to evacuate eventually from Russia. The Roosevelt administration, for its own reasons, also took steps to keep Polish refugees in Iran and elsewhere away from the press.

Refugees rescued from Soviet prisons, forced labor camps and collective farms were later temporarily resettled by the Polish government-in-exile with the help from the U.S. and British governments in camps in India, Africa, Palestine, New Zealand and Mexico. They could not be brought to the United States to be taken care of by the large Polish-American community because the Roosevelt administration had refused to admit them. One of the reasons for the refusal was the fear of bad publicity for Stalin and for U.S.-Soviet relations. The governments of the United States and Britain felt they had a moral obligation to help these Polish women and children, especially in light of the Polish Army helping in the fight against the Germans in North Africa, Italy, France and Holland, but it appears that they wanted to keep them as far away as possible from easy access by independent journalists.

Desperate for Information

Since 1942, the OWI was also in charge of Voice of America shortwave broadcasts, which potentially could reach Polish speakers in Nazi and Soviet occupied Poland and provide information about Polish prisoners in Russia and Polish refugees trying to leave Russia and find their missing loved ones. They would not get such information from the U.S. government radio station broadcasting from New York. The reach of these broadcasts was in any case very limited. In Nazi-occupied Poland, only those who had secretly kept their radio receivers could listen to these broadcasts. They would risk arrest and most likely death for having unauthorized radio sets, but some listened despite such risks. The underground army in Poland even maintained radio contact with the Polish government in exile in London. The coding of secret messages was done in Nazi-occupied Poland by a future Voice of America Polish Service broadcaster Zofia Korbońska. At that time, she was still a member of the Polish underground army. The information she provided was then broadcast by shortwave radio from England back to Poland. It included reports on prisoners in German concentration camps but very little if anything on Polish prisoners in Russia. The Polish underground state had some information on what was happening in the Soviet Union but not enough. Those desperately waiting for news, especially the wives of Polish officers imprisoned in Russia, would not be able to learn much from American radio broadcasts about their husbands or other relatives missing in the Soviet Union. Voice of America programs in Polish were still then being prepared in New York by communist sympathizers. They had little interest in those whom Stalin had arrested as enemies of socialism.

In an effort to protect Stalin and Russia’s reputation as a war ally against Hitler, Voice of America broadcasts in English, German, Polish and in other languages during the war were silent on the topic of Soviet executions of Polish prisoners of war, arrests and deportations of hundreds of thousands of Polish civilians in the Soviet occupation zone and the inhumane treatment of prisoners in the Gulag’s forced labor camps. The desire to appease Stalin was such that the U.S. government did not produce radio programs in Russian or Ukrainian during World War II, apparently out of fear that they might offend him. Broadcasts about Polish children refugees who had left the Soviet paradise would offend him even more. There was no chance of VOA saying anything critical about the Soviet Union during the war years, but the station also started to present the Soviet dictator as a believer in radical democracy.

The wartime Polish Prime Minister Stanisław Mikołajczyk, who was responsible for the safety and wellbeing of Polish refugees streaming out of Russia after they were released by Stalin, complained to Roosevelt administration officials about the pro-Soviet propaganda tone of VOA broadcasts. He described them as consistently following the communist line. Other governments in exile allied with the United States against Germany were making similar complaints. Most of them were ignored.21

From the very beginning of their escape from Russia, the homeless Polish refugee children, many of who had seen their parents, brothers and sisters die in Soviet captivity, had against them two powerful actors interested in keeping them silent and in putting out a false story of their plight: the Soviet regime and pro-Soviet propagandists in the Roosevelt administration. For wives, mothers and children of Stalin’s Polish prisoners seeking true information or trying to find other relatives missing in Russia, U.S. government radio broadcasts were useless and in many cases deceptive.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

A few prominent West European and American communists and fellow travelers eventually saw through the evils of the Soviet system and exposed it in books. While the case of the victims of communism was further strengthened after the publication in the West of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, the passage of time, inadequacies of American educational system, continued Soviet disinformation, and deaths among the refugees took their toll on historical truth. The genocide of their families in Russia and their refugee experience are still often overlooked. One rarely hears today about victims of communist genocide.

Polish refugee children were victims of propaganda by both Soviet and U.S. governments. First the Soviet regime and later the Russian government of President Vladimir Putin have carried out massive disinformation campaigns in the West designed to deflect attention from Stalinist crimes and to blame others for the decisions made by Stalin and his cohorts, presenting Russia as an innocent victim rather than the initiator of aggression and occupation of other countries’ territories. Critics of the Soviet Union and later the Russian Federation were invariably labeled as fascists, reactionaries, and aggressors. In the 1970s, pressure from the Kremlin managed to intimidate the Nixon and Ford administrations. Top administration officials forced government managers in charge of the Voice of America radio station to censor lengthier readings for audiences behind the Iron Curtain from Solzhenitsyn’s books, which presented in powerful narratives the real Soviet Union to the Western world after they were translated and published in English and in other languages. Fortunately, Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe, also funded and managed by the U.S. government, resisted pressure and continued to broadcast all credible information about Stalinism in Russia and in Eastern Europe, including lengthy excerpts from Solzhenitsyn’s books.

In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn mentions Stalin’s Polish prisoners .22

They took those who were too independent, too influential, along with those who were too well-to-do, too intelligent, too noteworthy; they took, particularly, many Poles from former Polish provinces. (It was then that ill-fated Katyn was filled up; and then, too, that in the northern camps they stockpiled fodder for the future army of Sikorski and Anders.) They arrested officers everywhere. Thus the population was shaken up, forced into silence, and left without any possible leaders of resistance. Thus it was that wisdom was instilled, that former ties and former friendships were cut off.23

But the story of Stalin’s mass deportations, which included many other nationalities–Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Belorussians, Ukrainians, Tatars and others–was never fully exposed by American and European journalists and filmmakers in a way it deserved to be told. Solzhenitsyn himself had been a target of vicious Soviet propaganda portraying him as a right-wing nationalist and fascist–disinformation amplified by agents of influence in Western media and ill-informed Western journalists. The Nobel prize-winning author was neither a nationalist nor a fascist. The same labels were also used by Soviet and Polish communist propaganda against the Poles and other East European and Russian exiles who had remained as political refugees in the West.

Refugees Without A Home And Justice

As a final humiliation after the war for these Polish refugees, mostly women and children, and for their male relatives, the Polish soldiers who had fought the Germans in the West, they could not return to their homes because President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had secretly agreed to Stalin’s demands at the wartime conferences in Tehran and Yalta that eastern Poland would become part of the Soviet Union. Western leaders were making these momentous decisions with Stalin about the fate of millions of people without the knowledge or permission of the Polish government-in-exile.

Betrayed by their Western allies and denied the benefits of victory over Nazi Germany, many of the Polish refugees were eventually allowed to come to the United States after the war to live exiled from their homeland. Poland was by then firmly under the control of the Soviet-imposed communist regime and the vast majority of Polish refugees chose to remain in the West. It would have been too dangerous for them to return to Poland. Had they returned, they would risk arrest and torture and could not talk about Katyń or the Gulag.

But even in the West, the story of the millions of victims of Stalin’s mass deportations was rarely told in books, films and in other forms of mass media. Unlike the Nazi war criminals, the perpetrators of Stalinist crimes were never tried. There was no Nuremberg Tribunal for the NKVD executioners in Katyń or for the members of the Soviet Politburo who issued orders for the executions. The voices of victims and the stories of surviving refugees were never given a proper hearing, partly as a result of Soviet propaganda, which continued for several decades, and partly due to censorship of true information about Polish refugees initiated during the war by the governments of the United States and Great Britain.

Radio Free Europe

There was, however, one successful attempt by the U.S. government to rectify the Voice of America propaganda mistakes of the World War II period. In the early 1950s, the U.S. created Radio Free Europe which broadcast the whole truth about Katyń, other Soviet atrocities and about refugees from communism without any restrictions or censorship. Eventually, the Voice of America also started to talk more about communist oppression only to resume partial censorship in later years which lasted until the Reagan administration. Under President Reagan, VOA was finally able to talk freely about the “Evil Empire,” even though many left-leaning Americans, Europeans and some VOA broadcasters thought that the term was unnecessarily propagandistic and provocative. The reluctance of some to face the reality of mass murder and suffering under communism was yet another proof of the success and power of communist propaganda.

Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty remained the bright spot throughout the entire Cold War. Since 1950, their radio broadcasts consistently offered moral support and hope to the people behind the Iron Curtain. They could not, however, greatly increase the awareness in the West about the Polish refugees and their story. The mission of these U.S.-funded radios was to broadcast to the Soviet block countries. The Polish children who had fled with the Anders Army from Soviet Russia remained, as one of them put it, “a group lost in history.”

Photo Credits

U.S. Government propaganda photo, OWI, Iran, 1943.

U.S. Government Propaganda Photo

Teheran, Iran. Polish woman and her grandchildren shown in an American Red Cross evacuation camp as they await evacuation to new homes

  • Date Created/Published: 1943.
  • Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Photos by Lt. Col. Szymanski, U.S. Army

  • Ten-year-old girl, Polish evacuee from Russia, August 1942
  • Twelve-year-old boy, Polish evacuee from Russia, August 1942
  • Six-year-old boy, Polish evacuee from Russia, August 1942
  • Three sisters, ages 7, 8, and 9, Polish evacuees 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.


  1. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/related/?&pk=2017854318&st=gallery&sb=call_number#focus.
  2. 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.),The Katyn Forest Massacre: Hearings Before The Select Committee to Conduct An Investigation on The Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre, 459-461, https://archive.org/details/katynforestmassa03unit/page/460.
  3. See: Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation and Study of the Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre, The Katyn Forest Massacre: Final Report (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1952), 10-12. The report is posted on the National Archives website: https://archive.org/details/KatynForestMassacreFinalReport.
  4. The Way Back, a 2010 film directed by Peter Weir, starring Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, was inspired by The Long Walk (1956), the memoir by former Polish prisoner of war Sławomir Rawicz, who claimed to have escaped from a Soviet labor camp and walked 4,000 miles through the Gobi Desert, Tibet and the Himalayas to freedom in India.
  5. American journalist Eileen Egan, who was then a Catholic Relief Services (CRS) worker helping the Polish children, wrote, “As a sealed train had been in the beginning of the trek of agony that carried simple people across three, four and, in the end, all five continents, of the world, so also the train that brought them into León and Colonia Santa Rosa was, in effect, also a sealed train.” See: Eileen Egan, For Whom There Is No Room: Scenes from the Refugee World (New York: Paulist Press, 19950, 19.
  6.  Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/related/?&pk=2017854318&st=gallery&sb=call_number#focus.
  7. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA, “This is how Polish children look when they arrive in Iran.” Attributed to Polish American Council, ca. 1942, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003678080/.
  8. 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, The Katyn Forest Massacre: Hearings Before The Select Committee to Conduct An Investigation on The Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1952), 455, https://archive.org/details/katynforestmassa03unit/page/454.
  9. Ted Lipien, “75th Anniversary of Voice of America – Propaganda Coordination with USSR,” Cold War Radio Museum, April 14, 2018, http://www.coldwarradiomuseum.com/75th-anniversary-of-voice-of-america-propaganda-coordination-with-ussr/.
  10. “Happiness in California,” Time, November 15, 1943, 23.
  11. See: Cold War Radio Museum, “April 20, 1943 — Congressman Woodruff warns of Soviet propaganda in Voice of America broadcasts,” http://www.coldwarradiomuseum.com/april-20-1943-congressman-woodruff-warns-of-soviet-propaganda-in-voice-of-america/ ; “Senator Taft’s early warning of Soviet propaganda in WWII Voice of America,” April 2, 2018, http://www.coldwarradiomuseum.com/senator-tafts-early-warning-of-soviet-propaganda-in-wwii-voa/ and “U.S. Congressman on Katyn Massacre Coverup at Voice of America,” September 17, 2017, http://www.coldwarradiomuseum.com/u-s-congressman-on-katyn-massacre-coverup-at-voice-of-america/.
  12. The bipartisan Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation and Study of the Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre, also known as the Madden Committee, said in its final report issued in December 1952: “In submitting this final report to the House of Representatives, this committee has come to the conclusion that in those fateful days nearing the end of the Second World War there unfortunately existed in high governmental and military circles a strange psychosis that military necessity required the sacrifice of loyal allies and our own principles in order to keep Soviet Russia from making a separate peace with the Nazis.” The committee added: “For reasons less clear to this committee, this psychosis continued even after the conclusion of the war. Most of the witnesses testified that had they known then what they now know about Soviet Russia, they probably would not have pursued the course they did. It is undoubtedly true that hindsight is much easier to follow than foresight, but it is equally true that much of the material which this committee unearthed was or could have been available to those responsible for our foreign policy as early as 1942.” The Madden Committee also said in its final report in 1952: “This committee believes that if the Voice of America is to justify its existence, it must utilize material made available more forcefully and effectively.” A major change in VOA programs occurred, with much more reporting being done on the investigation into the Katyń massacre and other Soviet atrocities, but later some of the censorship returned. Radio Free Europe (RFE), also funded and indirectly managed by the U.S., never resorted to such censorship, and provided full coverage of all communist human rights abuses. See: Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation and Study of the Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre, The Katyn Forest Massacre: Final Report (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1952), 10-12. The report is posted on the National Archives website: https://archive.org/details/KatynForestMassacreFinalReport.
  13. Paul Sturman, “Nowy Swiat and OWI releases,” Executive Office of the President, Office for Emergency Management Office Memorandum, January 4, 1944. Declassified. U.S. National Archives.
  14. Paul Sturman, “Nowy Swiat and OWI releases.”
  15. Fast, Howard. Being Red. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990.
  16. Warnings about communist influence at VOA were given to the Roosevelt White House in 1943 by FDR’s personal friend and foreign policy advisor, Under Secretary of State Sumner Wells, who helped to arrange for the transport of a group of Polish children refugees to Mexico, and by General Dwight D. Eisenhower. See: Ted Lipien, “First VOA Director was a pro-Soviet Communist sympathizer, State Dept. warned FDR White House,” Cold War Radio Museum, May 5, 2018, http://www.coldwarradiomuseum.com/state-department-warned-fdr-white-house-first-voice-of-america-director-was-hiring-communists/ and “President Eisenhower condemned biased Voice of America officials and reporters,” Cold War Radio Museum, December 5, 2018, http://www.coldwarradiomuseum.com/president-eisenhower-condemned-biased-voice-of-america-reporters/.
  17. Ted Lipien, “First VOA Director was a pro-Soviet Communist sympathizer, State Dept. warned FDR White House,” (May 5, 2018), http://www.coldwarradiomuseum.com/state-department-warned-fdr-white-house-first-voice-of-america-director-was-hiring-communists/.
  18. Wesley Adamczyk, When God Looked The Other Way: An Odyssey of War, Exile, and Redemption (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), 137-138.
  19. Eileen Egan, For Whom There Is No Room: Scenes from the Refugee World (New York: Paulist Press, 1995), 19.
  20.  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, The Katyn Forest Massacre: Hearings Before The Select Committee to Conduct An Investigation on The Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1952), 455.
  21. “I mentioned also the tone of OWI broadcasts to Poland. They had been following the communist line consistently, which made out own job more difficult.” See: Stanisław Mikołajczyk, The Rape of Poland (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1948), 58-59.
  22. Ted Lipien, “SOLZHENITSYN Target of KGB Propaganda and Censorship by Voice of America, Cold War Radio Museum, November 7, 2017, http://www.coldwarradiomuseum.com/solzhenitsyn-target-of-kgb-propaganda-and-censorship-by-voice-of-america/.
  23. Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation I-II (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1974), 77.