Just a few days ago I spoke at the first ever Freedom Of Speech Awards Gala held at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland. Sitting there before me in this gloriously resplendent ballroom of towering marble pillars and restored frescoes, was Solidarity leader Lech Walesa. As I looked out upon this esteemed room of world leaders, journalists and many others who honor free speech, I could not escape the magnitude of the moment and think about my own heroic father who passed away just last year. For it was in that very same building nearly 70 years earlier, that a teenage freedom fighter known as "Rys" or Ryszard Kossobudzki, along with his fellow comrades, dodged and scrambled against the massive Nazi onslaught of grenades and tanks, as they fought tirelessly for Poland's survival during WWII.
At the end of the war, Poland was taken over by the Communists for decades. Old Town Warsaw, where the Royal Castle once brilliantly stood was reduced to rubble, but not before my father and his courageous comrades got in some shots and showed their foes that Poland would not give up easily.
When I visited Poland's capital with my father in 2009, it was his first visit in 65 years to see the rebirth of his once decimated homeland, and a deeply emotional time for us both. Tears filled his eyes as he walked toward the castle in the heart of this extraordinary city. He recalled how, during intense fighting, a Nazi tank was positioned and firing directly in front of the castle, and how one of his comrades, who had only seconds to take aim and fire... missed the tank, not once, but twice, blowing holes into the walls of the crumbling building. Ominously, the turret gun of the German tank turned towards them... and opened fire with all its might. They narrowly escaped.
This time in Poland, there were no bullets or bombs, just immense pride for me as I took part in the International Association of Press Clubs' event held appropriately on June 4th, the historic day in 1989 of the first free elections in Poland, which ended Communist rule and marked the beginning of the end of the Iron Curtain in much of Europe. Poland was the icebreaker, months before the Berlin Wall fell in Germany. It was shipyard worker Lech Walesa who led that incredible victory for freedom, and he shared with me how he and others in the Solidarity movement often thought of the unwavering bravery of the Uprisers during their own struggles. To hear this true living legend call my father a hero, was one of the greatest things a daughter could ever hear. I will carry those words with me the rest of my life.
Photo credit: Maksymilian Rigamonti
Poland is a land of miracles with people of sheer will and tremendous patriotism. When the Nazis suddenly invaded in 1939, young men and women stayed to fight. Indeed, my father told his mother he wanted to remain in Poland because, "He would rather die with friends... than live with strangers. He would fight for his country." Before becoming a full-blown member of the Home Army, young Rys wrote anti-Nazi symbols on the ghetto walls and was running and jumping on and off trams, secretly distributing the Polish Underground news bulletins while hanging onto the back of the tram, hiding them from the Nazis who at the same time filled the front of the vehicle. If caught, these actions would've resulted in immediate execution no matter what his age.
My father never would've imagined that decades later his own daughter would be a TV journalist, and asked to attend this groundbreaking international event spearheaded by Press Club Polska, addressing freedom of speech before such luminaries as Walesa, distinguished journalists from around the globe and Oscar-winning filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, who in his film Kanal, so powerfully portrayed how men like my father crawled through the harrowing, dark sewers to escape the fiery hell above ground. The man who literally crawled in front of my father one night in 1944 came as my guest to the gala and was appropriately given a standing ovation. I only wish my father could've been there to see the devout appreciation Poland has for those in its turbulent, yet profoundly inspiring past.
Poles appreciate that freedom is not free, something my father and anyone who's been in battle against a brutal enemy deeply understands. How wonderful that Poland will again host this event next year and how wonderful that my father lived to see a thriving Democracy and a daughter who will now carry on his mission, not with the fury of guns, grenades and molotov cocktails... but with stories broadcast on TV, radio, online, and to this day, the mighty pen. As journalists, it's critical we stand vigilant on the freedoms we have as we remember those whose sons and daughters, mothers and fathers have forever sacrificed loved ones to keep freedom of speech alive and well for all of us.