2012 Exhibition – Fugitives from the People's Republic

Wystawa Uciekinierzy z PRL-u, Muzeum PRL-u

Wystawa Uciekinierzy z PRL-u, Muzeum PRL-u

Wystawa Uciekinierzy z PRL-u, Muzeum PRL-u

Wystawa Uciekinierzy z PRL-u, Muzeum PRL-u



Uciekinierzy z PRL-u


Exhibition prepared by the Institute of National Remembrance

Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation

Branch Office for Public Education in Katowice


"Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own..."

(Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)


One of the elements of the communist system in Poland was the deprivation of Polish citizens of the possibility to leave their country. The closed borders and isolation from "external" influences were aimed to enable the authorities to take absolute control of the society. Faced with the fact that free emigration was impossible, those who, for different reasons, could not imagine their future existence in the People's Republic, decided to leave the country illegally.


In order to fulfil its role, the control strip had to be ploughed regularly. (Jagiellonian Library. “Border” 1972. No 42)

80 procent granicy

Before 1955, the total length of the control strip was already 2.9 thousand km, a number equivalent to more than 80% of the length of the Polish border. (Jagiellonian Library. “Border" 1964, No 24)

 naruszenie granicy

A border guard has noticed traces on the control strip. In 1951, more than 1.3 thousand trespass events were reported. (Jagiellonian University, "Border" 1970, No 48)


Electric barrier at the border between Czechoslovakia and Austria. (Radio Prague)

Mieczysław Drążkowiak

Mieczysław Drążkowiak, one of the victims of the fatal barrier. (Collection of Konstancja Drążkowiak)

Stanisław Mikołajczyk

Stanisław Mikołajczyk. (Archives of Audiovisual Records)


One of the ways of defection was to hide in the luggage of people who were leaving for the West legally. (Forum)


"Vessels" in which defectors tried to cross the Baltic sea.


(Silesian Library. “In the Service of the Homeland” 1969. No 164)


(Jagiellonian Library. “In the Service of the Homeland” 1975. No 39)

Skrytka wagon

Secret compartment between the ceiling and the roof of a carriage. (Archives of the Institute of National Remembrance)


Hijacked Mi-2 helicopter after landing on Tärnö, 8 February 1983. (Picture from the book: "Flight to Freedom" [Lot do wolności], published by Transit http://transit.pl)



Hijacked PLL LOT aircraft at Tempelhof Airport in West Berlin, 22 November 1982 (BE&W)


Krzysztof and Adam Zieliński during their stay in a refugee camp. (Collection of Józefa i Tadeusz Zieliński)

Płk Józef Światło

Col Józef Światło during a press conference in the Voice of America Headquarters in New York, 1 October 1954. (Corbis Images/Free)

Gen. Leon Dubicki

General Leon Dubicki. (Central Military Archives)

Płk Ryszard Kukliński

Col Ryszard Kukliński. (Central Military Archives)

Płk Paweł Monat

Col Paweł Monat. (Central Military Archives)

ORP Żuraw

Hydro-graphical service ship, ORP "Żuraw" (HG-11). (Central Maritime Museum)

Kapitan Ćwikliński

Capt Jan Ćwikliński. (Collection of Janusz Ćwikliński)

Żart rysunkowy

There were many ways to leave the homeland. The greatest risk, increased with the introduction of gradually more effective methods of border protection, was related to the escape made by crossing the border undetected. In such a case, one stood a greater chance of success thanks to the western special services; however, this method of "evacuation" from Poland was used in few instances. The safest "way" to freedom was the refusal to return home after a short stay abroad.

Escape from Poland was chosen by people representing various groups and social circles. For many of them, this was a form of opposition or resistance to the communist reality. During the period of the greatest terror inspired by the state security organs, it was often the only alternative for those, who were in danger of being arrested. In the following decades, defection was chosen not only because of political repression, but even more often for economic reasons. The group of defectors also included those, who contributed to the power of the communist government, or were its beneficiaries – high-ranking government and party officials, officers of the security services and of the People's Army of Poland, as well as diplomats. Both in their country and behind the "Iron Curtain", their escapes caused a great sensation, and they generally were at the centre of media attention themselves. They did not always deserve it, as was proven by the case of Col Józef Światło, one of the most prominent representatives of the Stalinist apparatus of repression, who defected in December 1953.

The purpose of this exhibition is to present the numerous ways of escape from communist Poland, and the methods used by the authorities to counteract them. The authors are aware that this exhibition is not exhaustive, and that some issues have only been touched upon (the number of illegal emigrants from Poland has not been clearly established). Despite this, they hope that it will encourage the visitors to reflect upon the functioning of systems in which a human being, in order to remain personally free, is forced to make the dramatic decision on leaving their homeland.

In the early period of the communist system in Poland, the authorities, protecting the citizens against the "destructive" influence of the West, adopted a policy of almost strict closure of the borders. One of the methods to achieve this aim, was the subordination of the state border security forces to the omnipotent Ministry of Public Security in December 1984.

This marked a new period in the history of the Border Defence Troops [Wojska Ochrony Pogranicza – WOP], formed as early as September 1945. Their creator and first commander was the experienced Soviet officer, graduate of the Leningrad Higher Military Border Control School – Col Gwidon Czerwiński who, while creating WOP, used the "proved" Soviet formulas, on which he based both the structure and the scope of responsibility of the new formation. Their proper implementation was ensured by assigning the most important command positions to a group of 376 officers of the Red Army. The shift in the departmental affiliation greatly expanded WOP. Starting from 1949, the number of soldiers in "green-rimmed hats" was constantly growing, until its peak in 1953 and 1954. In 1953, the borders of the People's Republic were protected by 32,300 border guards.

Despite the vast numbers of soldiers, the borders were to be protected with different types of technical devices and explosive materials. Along the sections which were most "at risk", watchtowers were constructed along with barriers and barbed wire fences, and signal devices were installed. By the end of 1955, along the 3,566 km of the Polish borderline, there were 1,314 watchtowers (every 2,700 m on average), approx. 1,100 km of barbed wire fencing, and more than 13,500 signal launchers. However, the most important element of this particular infrastructure was the so-called control strip – a section of ploughed land, more than a dozen metres wide – a method used first by the Soviet border guards. Work on the strip was commenced already in 1947, but only in 1949 did it accelerate, and by the end of 1955, the length of the strip exceeded 2,900 km.

However, more dangerous obstacles awaited the fugitives along the direct border with the "free world". In early '50s, the Czechoslovak authorities, aiming to prevent their citizens from defection to the West, erected an electric barrier along the border with Austria, with voltage of 3,000-5,000 V. No warning signs informed of the danger; thus, numerous escapees, completely unaware of the threat, were electrocuted.

Among the casualties were also Polish citizens. Between September 1952 and August 1965, 29 Poles died in this way on the Czechoslovak and Austrian border.

Each event of defection and refusal to return to the country was analysed in detail by the People's Republic security services. According to the guidelines of 1966, work within this scope was organised, coordinated and supervised by Department II of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and tasks were handled at the provincial level by Provincial Offices of the Citizens' Militia, Section II. Explanatory proceedings with respect to some categories of people, were also carried out by: Department I (in cases of employees of Polish diplomatic, consular and commercial posts, and of international organisations). The Military Internal Service [Wojskowa Służba Wewnętrzna] (with respect to soldiers and officers in active service in the People's Army of Poland [Ludowe Wojsko Polskie, LWP]), intelligence of WOP (with respect to citizens, who left the territory of the People's Republic without permission of the authorities), and the Border Traffic Control Divisions [Wydziały Kontroli Ruchu Granicznego] (with respect to employees of deep-sea fishing and Baltic sea fishing industry). In the event a defector's activity abroad was identified as, or even suspected of being of "hostile nature", he or she became the subject of a detailed operational inquiry.

The means used to seal the border successfully slowed down the wave of escapes, remarkable especially in the first post-war months. According to the estimates of the Polish authorities in London, by spring 1946, each day around 300 people defected via the Pilsen route, where American troops were present at that time. This form of opposition against the new, communist reality, was chosen mainly by those who were connected with the independence underground or anti-communist opposition, and whose family members were in the West.

In the successive years of the greatest terror inspired by the state security organs, defection was often the only alternative for those, who were in danger of being arrested. The escape of Stanisław Mikołajczyk, president of the Polish People's Party [PSL], and of other leaders of the peasant movement, caused tremendous excitement in Poland and abroad. Mikołajczyk, facing the threat of arrest, decided to defect in October 1947. With aid of the American embassy, he left the country, hiding on "Baltavia", a UK-bound ship.

His closest collaborators: Stefan Karboński with his wife Zofia, Kazimierz Bagoński with his wife Paulina, and Paweł Zaleski, soon followed his example and left Poland. However, the attempts of Maria Hulewiczowa, Mieczysław Dąbrowski and Wincenty Bryja proved unsuccessful. Stopped by the Czechoslovak security services, they were handed over to the Polish authorities.

Throughout the early post-war years, a popular way of leaving the country was to slip across the border undetected. As time went by, border guards started to use more and more effective methods to secure the borders, which forced the defectors to make attempts at crossing the border illegally, passing through official posts. For this, they would use fake documents and bribe the border guards. It was also possible to leave Poland by hiding in cars, lorries, buses and railway carriages.

The citizens' ingenuity in constructing new hiding places was the reason why the ability to detect them was one of the basic elements of the would-be border guards' training. In this area, the Training Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs employed the vast experience which the East Berlin security services had in the detection of methods and ways of illegal smuggling of people to the West.

The proximity of Danish Bornholm and the closeness of Swedish shores, the development of fishery, and the increasing numbers of commercial ships under foreign flags, encouraged many people to opt for this way of escape. Only from January 1948 until March 1949, 22 fishing boats failed to return to port, with 88 escapees on board.

In order to restrict this phenomenon, in 1949 the authorities ordered that the hulls of all fishing vessels be painted yellow – the most visible colour at sea. Also, limitations were introduced into the fishing traffic, e.g. special corridors were outlined, along which the ships were allowed to sail and return to the shore; it was also prohibited to go fishing unaccompanied.

There was never a lack of those, who tried to cross the Baltic sea using their own "floating vessels".

The most spectacular escapes of the communist times were made by military and civilian pilots. Between 1948 and 1989, nineteen cases of military aircraft hijacking were reported. One of the first ones took place in March 1949, when an Ilyushin Il-2, belonging to the Polish navy aircraft squadron, landed in Swedish Gotland, with Sub-lieutenant Arkadiusz Korobczyński and a mechanic, boatswain Zbigniew Kaczorowski, on board.

The year 1953 was remarkable in this respect. On the day of Stalin's death, 5 March, Sub-lieutenant Franciszek Jarecki hijacked a modern, at that time, MiG-15 jet fighter and flew to Bornholm. Exactly two months later, his feat was repeated by Sub-lieutenant Zdzisław Jaźwiński. The pilots would not only escape alone. In July 1956, four officer cadets from the Air Training Centre in Dęblin hijacked two Yak-18 training aircraft, and landed in Austria. In July 1963, Major Ryszard Obacz, an experienced instructor and test pilot, landed with his wife and two sons in West Berlin in a 2-person TS-8 Bies trainer aircraft, from which he had previously uninstalled all unnecessary devices.

It was not an April Fools' Day joke, when three Warrant Officers from an air transport squadron, Andrzej Kumor, Andrzej Malec and Jerzy Czerwiński (he returned to Poland), on 1 April 1982 hijacked an An-2 aircraft and, after "completing" the crew with their family members, flew to Vienna.

The country was not only "left" in the cockpit. In February 1983, two pilots: Henryk Książek and Zbigniew Wojsa, defected to Sweden on an armed Mil Mi-2 attack helicopter.

The first cases of passenger aircraft hijacking took place as early as by the end of 1940s. In December 1949, three pilots of the Polish "LOT" airlines – Capt Mieczysław Sadowski (at that time, head of the flying personnel at Okęcie airport in Warsaw), Capt Jan Konikowski and Capt Tomasz Tomaszewski, hijacked a passenger aircraft, flying from Katowice to Gdańsk, and landed on Bornholm. The hijacking was spiced up even more by the fact that apart from relatives of the hijackers, a high-ranking official of the Ministry of Public Security was on board. In the next decades, with the gradual increase in the popularity of air communication, hijacking passenger aircraft became more frequent, to reach its peak in the 1970s. Between 1970 and December 1982, as many as 14 successful hijackings were reported in Polish passenger aviation, and 20 attempts.

The summer of 1970 was particularly "heated". Within three months, three unsuccessful attempts, and two hijackings of aircraft in the "LOT" livery were recorded. The most common landing place was the West Berlin Tempelhof airport, located in the American sector. In time, German journalists coined a humorous definition of the name "LOT" – Landet Oft in Tempelhof – which meant, "Often lands on Tempelhof". Between 1963 and 1987, 16 "unannounced" flights from Poland were accepted.

The lack of perspectives in the communist reality, curiosity of the world, or even a simple desire of adventure were the reasons, why attempts to escape West were often made by the youth. In November 1985, the Zieliński brothers: Adam, 15, and Krzysztof, 12, hidden under the chassis of a lorry, arrived in Sweden on a ferry. Despite the determined efforts of the Polish authorities, they did not manage to bring the boys back home. The escapees' parents did not give in under pressure, and did not demand extradition of their sons, believing that they should be able to make their own decisions about their fates. The brothers stayed in Sweden, where they lived with a foster family until the age of majority.

The authorities were especially uncomfortable with escapes of people who, due to their position or place of employment, had information that could reveal the mechanisms behind the communist regime in Poland. Many times, a revelation of such facts to the western public had serious social and political implications in Poland.

A real storm was caused by "revelations" of Col Józef Światło, deputy director of Department X of the Ministry of Public Security, who "disappeared" in the American sector of Berlin during his official visit to this city in December 1953. He was found as late as September 1954, when a press conference was held in Washington. In the months that followed, Radio Free Europe broadcast his accounts of the real picture behind the scenes of the communist power apparatus in Poland.

Emotions stirred by the information revealed by Światło were still running high, when in January 1956 one of the leading party ideologists, Seweryn Bialer, professor of the Institute of Social Science at the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers' Party and employee of the Department of Propaganda, fled the country.

In autumn 1958, Radio Free Europe broadcast a series entitled "How the new class lives", informing about the luxuries unavailable to ordinary citizens but enjoyed by the authorities in Poland. The programmes were based on statements made by Irena Świat-Ihnatowicz, a housekeeper employed by Czesław Bąbiński, minister of industrial construction of that time.

In March 1977, Tomasz Strzyżewski, an employee of the Kraków branch of the Main Office for the Control of the Press, Publications, and Public Performances, left for Sweden. He took with him a particularly valuable document – a hand-copied book of censorship of the People's Republic of Poland, exposing the methods used by the authorities to manipulate the society through the mass media.

The authorities were greatly surprised by escapes made by high-ranking officers of LWP, who were familiar with numerous secrets of the defence capabilities of the People's Republic of Poland and of the Warsaw Pact. Most often, they took place during official or private foreign visits. A special "initiative" was shown by intelligence officers, for whom this kind of travel usually presented no great difficulty.

In total, between 1948 and 1989, the communist homeland was left by two Generals: Izydor Modelski and Leon Dubicki, and five Colonels of the People's Army of Poland: Paweł Monat, Władysław Tykociński, Klemens Nussbaum, Włodzimierz Ostaszewicz and Ryszard Kukliński. Particularly sensational was the June 1959 defection of Col Paweł Monat, head of the Military Attachés' Department at Section II of the General Staff of the Polish Army, as he was accompanied by his wife – step-daughter of the president of the State Council, Aleksander Zawadzki.

However, a real shock was the defection of the head of the Strategy and Defence Planning Division of the General Staff of the Polish Army, Col Ryszard Kukliński, in November 1981. For almost eleven years, he had been revealing to the United States some priceless information concerning the Soviet Army and the strategic plans of the Soviet Union. Because of the risk of his exposure and arrest, the American intelligence services evacuated the Colonel's wife and sons. He himself, under a false name, left Poland on a passenger LOT plane.

None of the top officers of the Navy decided to escape. Such attempts were, however, made numerous times by sailors. An unprecedented event was the seizure of the hydro-graphical service ship, ORP "Żuraw", in 1951. On 2 August, the ship headed for Gdynia was taken control of by several members of the crew and directed to Ystad.

Eleven sailors and one non-commissioned officer present on the ship asked for asylum in Sweden. After the vessel's return to Poland, its commander and the remaining members of the crew were arrested, and after a show trial, sentenced for cowardice and handing the ship over to the enemy without a fight. The ship was considered as "dishonoured" and crossed out of the register of Navy vessels; later, she was given a new name, ORP "Kompas".

In a reality of strict control and limited possibilities to leave the country, foreign trips organised by travel agencies significantly grew in importance. For many people, they meant an opportunity to escape. In this respect, tourist cruises were particularly convenient. The most famous of the Polish transatlantic ships, "Batory", was even nicknamed "the fugitives' ship" by the Western press. The year 1949 witnessed the first group escape from "Batory". After the ship’s arrival in New York, 24 people went missing from the passenger list. In 1953, the ship's commander, Capt Jan Ćwikliński, left her and asked for asylum in England. The largest group "exile" of the passengers of "Batory" was in August 1957, when 70 people failed to return after a cruise to Copenhagen.

Some of those, who refused to return home, were important representatives of the Polish cultural, scientific and sports circles. Objecting to the decisions made during the Congress of Composers and Music Critics, held in Łagów Lubuski in August 1949, when the new socialist music style for "wide masses" was proclaimed, Roman Palester decided to stay in the West. In February 1951, Czesław Miłosz left the Polish embassy in Paris, where he held the position of the 1st secretary, and moved to the office of the Literary Institute in Maisons-Laffitte.

In 1954, Andrzej Panufnik, a composer, refused to come back after his trip to Switzerland. For seven years, Leopold Tyrmand was striving to obtain a passport which would allow him to travel abroad. When finally, in spring 1958 he received the desired document, he left Poland for good.

In October 1958, facing the risk of being refused an extension of his passport, Marek Hłasko asked for political asylum while staying in the West. When he changed his mind after three months and asked for permission to return to Poland, the authorities refused.

Refusal of return expressed by the top athletes, who were treated almost as a national treasure, was often disapproved of by their fans and the rest of the society. Despite this, the team of Polish athletes lost e.g.: Jan Chtiej – a two-time Polish cycling champion, Robert Felisiak – a Polish and world gold medallist fencer, Władysław Kozakiewicz – hero of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, Andrzej Rudy – a promising footballer, or Dariusz Michalczewski, a future professional boxing star.

An escape did not mean that bonds with the homeland would be broken, since in numerous cases relatives of the defectors stayed in Poland. As often as possible, they would visit their mother country. In some cases, the authorities themselves made efforts to enable them to visit Poland. When Poland fully regained its independence, many defectors came back to stay.

Monika Bortlik-Dźwierzyńska, Marcin Niedurny

The exhibition presents materials from the collections of:

  • BE&W Photo Agency
  • Corbis Images
  • Free Agency
  • The Central Archives of Modern Records
  • The Archives of Audiovisual Records
  • The Archives of the Institute of National Remembrance
  • The Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
  • The Archives of the Jagiellonian University
  • The Jagiellonian University
  • The Silesian University
  • The Central Military Archives
  • The Central Maritime Museum
  • The National Film Archive
  • The Museum of the Polish Peasant Movement
  • The Polish Navy Museum
  • FORUM Polish Photography Agency
  • Polish Press Agency
  • Radio Prague
  • TVN Television
  • The Ossoliński National Institute in Wrocław
  • The Polish National Song and Dance Ensemble "Śląsk" in memory of Stanisław Hadyna
  • and private individuals

We would like to sincerely thank all those, who contributed to the creation of this exhibition, and in particular:

Helena Borlik, Zygmunt Cyrk, Janusz Ćwikliński, Zbigniew Dłubek, Maciej Drygas, Piotr Grajda, Jerzy Jujka, Jakub Michalak, Krzysztof Toboła, Józef Szaniawski, Józefa and Tadeusz Zieliński


  • Monika Bortlik-Dźwierzyńska
  • Marcin Niedurny


  • Prof. Jerzy Eisler
  • Prof. Andrzej Paczkowski
  • Dr Piotr Semków

For the first time, the exhibition was presented at the Upper Silesian Cultural Centre in May 2005.

ilustracja końcowa