Across the curtain: Polish football defectors and the Cold War

‘Exile is morally suspect because it breaks one’s solidarity with a group, i.e., it sets apart an individual who ceases to share the experience of his colleagues left behind. His moral torment reflects his attachment to a heroic image of himself and he must, step by step, come to the painful conclusion that to do morally valid work and to preserve an untarnished image of himself is rarely possible.’

Czesław Miłosz, on despair in Notes on exile, 1976

‘A writer living among people who speak a language different from his own discovers after a while that he senses his native tongue in a new manner. It is not true that a long stay abroad leads to withering of styles, even though the vivifying influence of everyday speech is lacking. What is true, however, is that new aspects and tonalities of the native tongue are discovered,for they stand out against the background of the language spoken in the new milieu.’

Czesław Miłosz, on language in Notes on exile, 1976

It is early June 1982 and the World cup in Spain is just under a fortnight away.  In preparation for the tournament the Polish national team is happily ensconced in the Gasthaus ‘Sonne Post’ in the small Baden-Württemberg town of Murrhardt.  The gasthaus was well known to the Polish squad, as it had been their base during their successful 1974 World Cup campaign.   Their stay this time however was not to be so propitious.  On the night of the 2-3 June Polish reserve goalkeeper Jacek Jarecki disappeared from the hotel and did not return – choosing to leave Poland behind for a career in the capitalist west. One of Poland’s greats Grzegorz Lato remembers how it happened:

‘On the last evening before we returned to Poland several of us went for a beer.  When we got back to the hotel it was midnight. No-one was staying there apart from our squad, and the hotel was always locked up by that time.  I remember that Zibi Boniek, Paweł Janas and Władek Żmuda and I were sitting in my room and having a couple more beers….At that time Jarecki was frantically packing and looking a little bewildered.  Why was he bewildered? Because he couldn’t get out of the hotel…The windows would only open partway and the main doors were locked so there was no way to get outside.  But I had the keys as the owners of the hotel knew and trusted me.  This whole palaver happened at 4am when all the other players and coaches were fast asleep. In the end Jacek said: “see you guys” got into his girlfriend’s car and drove off.  That was that.’

This article’s focus is on the select few Polish footballers who went against Communist party wishes and chose to defect during the Cold War.  It aims to answer several questions; firstly what drove players such as Jarecki to cross the iron curtain to seek a new life in the west?  Secondly what consequences did these escapes have and finally can these football escapes tell us something new about the narrative of the Cold War?

Cold war monoculturalism

As I write this article the Polish international striker Robert Lewandowski has just agreed to move between the two great German behemoths, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich.  Lewandowski is just one of a plethora of Polish players who now ply their trade in leagues the length and breadth of the European continent.  Many have no chance of achieving the success of their illustrious compatriot but are encouraged to play abroad by the allure of high salaries, improved training facilities and better levels of competition .

Once, not all that long ago, the situation was very different.  During the Communist era in Poland players, with several notable exceptions, were not permitted to play abroad until they were 30 years of age.  Most stars thus decided to stay in Poland and waited calmly for the chance to leave the country.  Some however were not as patient and decided to risk an illegal defection to the west. Their decisions were often met with uproar in the Polish press and many suffered serious consequences as a result of their actions. This article is these players’ story.  Before we look at them though some context needs to be provided.  Hold on to your hats.

Escape during the Cold War

Footballers were by no means the only people who decided to cross the iron curtain and defect to the west during the Cold War.  A whole array of diplomats, artists, entertainers and cultural figures made their way west between 1944-89.  These escapes made their way into popular western consciousness due to a host of films and newspaper articles depicting the ‘escapee.’  These films often portrayed outlandish escapes to underline the lengths that people would take to flee Communist tyranny and opt for freedom.

One film for example, Elia Kazan’s ‘Man on a Tightrope’ (1953), portrays the fictional escape of a circus troupe in early 1950s Czechoslovakia. The troupe travels to the border with Austria, with the supposed mission to entertain the border guards stationed there.  When the guards are caught unawares the troupe piles across the heavily manned border.  While planning the escape the troupe-leader explains why he sought to leave: ‘We’re dead now, this is our last chance to be alive again.’


Kazan’s ‘Man on a tightrope’

Susan L. Carruther’s excellent article ‘Between Camps: Eastern Bloc “Escapees” and Cold War Borderlands’ shows just how important escapees were to the American administration’s propaganda drive in the 1950s.  The US government aimed to incite escapes from the Eastern bloc and help them settle in the west.  US plans often had a zany element to them.  One for example consisted of the establishment of an army battalion made up of exiles which was to eventually liberate the Eastern bloc.  American ideas very rarely left the drawing board.

There were of course different levels of defectors. Although it put much propaganda effort into the support of lower level departures the American government’s main focus was on high-level defectors. In terms of Poland the west hit pay-dirt in 1953 when Józef Światło, a high-ranking official in the Polish Stalinist Ministry of Public Security, defected. Światło was involved in some of the most heinous crimes of the Polish post-war state and, fearing a post-Stalinist thaw, escaped via West Berlin. The US government subsequently put him to good use. For the next couple of years Światło appeared regularly on Radio Free Europe which transmitted his revelations to millions of Polish homes. Światło’s defection was highly uncomfortable for the Polish government, which denounced the defector as a traitor and imperialist lackey.

Józef Światło
Imperialist lackey Józef Swiatło

At a slightly lower level were the artists, writers and entertainers who felt they could not perform creatively due to censorship in the Eastern bloc.  Communist regimes in the east often treated these figures very well – seeing them as crucial in the battle for hearts and minds. Perhaps the most famous Polish defector in this field was the future noble-prize winning poet and author Czesław Miłosz.  Miłosz had decided to support Polish communism immediately after the Second World War partly through his feeling that inter-war Poland had failed in its lurch to the right.  However, when he saw up close the machinations of state Stalinism his conscience pushed him to defect in 1951.  The Polish state punished Milosz by not publishing any of his works until he won the Noble prize in 1980.


Czesław Miłosz as a young man

At the bottom of the pile were thousands of ‘ordinary’ escapees who sought to make a better life for themselves in the west. Interestingly enough, despite the US administration’s early calls for people to escape, Carruthers shows that escapees were often viewed with suspicion after they had crossed the iron curtain.   Many escapees found themselves in refugee camps for several years before they could legally enter the ‘free world.’  This situation somewhat changed after the Hungarian revolution in 1956 when the US allowed 35,000 political refugees to settle on American soil.

Escape narratives were thus an important part of the story of the Cold War.  No matter what people’s motives were for starting anew in the west, and behind many decisions were probably hopes of material betterment, crossing the curtain was always highly politicised.  But where can we place football escapees in this defection hierarchy?  To answer this question we must look at sport’s function during the Cold War.

Sport, football and footballers during the Cold War

Sport played a crucially important propaganda role during the Cold War as the two blocs faced each other.  Eastern European governments, especially in the first post-Second World War decade, put heavy emphasis on strong sporting performances.  Success achieved when competing against western teams and individuals was seen as proof of the righteousness of Socialist political systems.  Gyozo Molnar has for example underlined the immense resources the Hungarian people’s government poured into football between 1945-56, bringing about the rise of the mighty Magyars.  In addition the East German people’s government also diverted huge resources into sport to show the world (and especially West Germany) that they deserved to exist as an independent state.

Despite state efforts the unpredictability of sport often left Communist planners with egg on their faces.  The failure of Hungary’s wonderful side to win the World Cup in 1954 provoked mass rioting which many see as one of the causes of the Hungarian revolution in 1956.  In addition Joan Soares illustrates the displeasure expressed by party activists when Czechoslovak crowds booed the Soviet Union’s Ice Hockey side during the 1959 World Championships in Prague.

Sportspersons enjoyed a rather privileged position within Eastern bloc societies.  If sport was a means of illustrating the Communist world’s superiority over the west then sportspersons were soldiers that required protection.  Often football club chairmen for example would bend over backwards to accommodate their star players.  Sportspersons were officially amateurs as professionalism in sport was banned in the Eastern bloc.  In actuality they were ‘shamateurs’, i.e. sports-persons were employed in good jobs in factories but factory directors gave them leave to spend all their time training.

Perhaps the biggest difference between sportspersons and the general populace was their right to travel.  It was mightily difficult for the average Pole to obtain a passport but sportspersons travelled to the west quite regularly.  As Fryc & Ponczek in ‘The Communist Rule in Polish Sports History’ show, this was a blessing but with it new dilemmas emerged.  In the west they encountered things that starkly illustrated the differences between capitalism and communism:

‘Being able to compare the standard of life in the west with that in Communist states, they became aware that the financial status of the best Polish sportsmen could not equal that of their western counterparts.’  

As a result many sought to get to the West to seek the fortune they felt their talents deserved.  In Poland this was common too, former World champion boxer Dariusz Michalczewski was just one of many who chose to leave the east.

Things were no different in the world of Polish football.  Players were acutely aware that they could earn considerably better wages in the west but were prevented from doing so by the Polish state.  Henryk Latocha, a defender who was an integral part of the great Górnik Zabrze side of the early 1970s put it thus:

In the 1970s every Polish footballer dreamed about playing abroad.  In the West you could really get rich.  The difference in pay was huge and all the Górnik players knew about it.  Each player was promised a bonus of $120 if we beat Manchester City in the European Cup Winners Cup Final in 1970.  The English players were promised £3,000 a head.  I don’t think I need to say any more.’

The situation was such that even the great Kazimierz Deyna thought about escaping in the mid 1970s.  Former Poland manager Andrzej Strzelau states: ‘I remember how Kaziu Deyna used to complain that the authorities wouldn’t let him go to the West.  Deyna had a bit of a catch 22.  He wanted to play at the highest level but on the other hand he was afraid to escape.  In the end he left too late and he chose the wrong place.’

Deyna was afraid to escape for a reason.  To see why I present exhibit one – the case of talented Polish striker Jan Banaś.

Jan Banaś and unhappy exile

There are far too many things that I would do over again if I had the chance.  I made a lot of bad choices and I still regret making them.’

Jan Banaś in an interview in 2010

Jan Banaś

Jan Banaś was born Hans Dieter Banaś in Berlin in March 1943 to a German father and a Polish mother.  His father Paul was a German soldier stationed in Lviv during the second world war and his mother Edyta worked as an accountant in a factory.  The two hit it off and Edyta agreed to return to Berlin with her new man.  Once in Berlin Hans Dieter was born but Edyta soon found out that Paul had been lying to her, he already had a German family and he would not leave them.  On discovering this Edyta immediately decided to return to Poland with her infant child.

Skip forward two decades and Hans Dieter was a free-scoring striker playing for Ekstraklasa side Polonia Bytom.  He was famous for his technical ability and awareness on the pitch and first represented the Polish national side as a 21 year old in 1964.  Suddenly Hans-Dieter’s father Paul contacted him out of the blue in 1966 when Banaś had already appeared 13 times for Poland.    Somehow Paul managed to convince his son to leave Communist Poland.  Banaś did so soon after Polonia Bytom played an Intertoto cup game with Swedish side IFK Norrköping.  After running away from the team he went to visit his father who lived in Bavaria.

Once in West Germany Banaś initially did odd jobs at a local supermarket while his father tried to fix him a contract with a Bundesliga club.  However Banaś quickly realised that his father was only interested in taking advantage of him and thus decided to break all ties.  Stuck without a German club Banaś wrote letters to his old team Polonia Bytom begging to be taken back.  As he states: ‘I was 23 years old I couldn’t live without football.’

Due to his prodigious talent the Polish government took pity on him, allowing him to return to Poland and play for Górnik Zabrze who were in the midst of their greatest ever era.  But Banaś paid a heavy price for his misdemeanor.  Despite playing in almost all Poland’s qualifying games for both the 1972 Munich Olympics and 1974 World Cup he was not allowed to play in the finals.  The Polish FA would not let him travel to West Germany, they thought the temptation to defect would be too great.  Banaś self-imposed exile thus had tragic consequences.

Banaś scoring the first and second goals for Poland in a crucial Olympics qualifying game in 1972

Andrzej Rudy and an exile without regrets

Rudy Polska

The case of Andrzej Rudy was perhaps the loudest Polish footballing defection of them all, even though it took place just one year before the fall of the wall.  In the autumn of 1988 Rudy was a talented midfielder who had just made a big move to the Silesian side GKS Katowice.  Rudy was the golden-boy of the Polish press who saw in him the successor to Deyna and Boniek.  His club treated him as if he was the chosen one as ex GKS player Marek Koniarek shows:

‘When the club president asked him if he liked his flat in Wełnowiec, he sort of turned up his nose and said that there weren’t many trees around.  The next day a special team turned up and planted trees in his garden.’

This was not enough however for Rudy who wanted to strike out on his own.  It is likely his head was turned by his partner at the time, Miss Lower Silesia, Anna Dąbrowska who wanted to make a career in the west.  Rudy chose an unfortunate time to make his escape.  In November 1988 he was selected to play in a Polish-league select side which would take the field against an Italian league select eleven in Milan.  Rudy took his leave from the squad on the morning of the match and made his way to West Germany to join Dąbrowska who had departed Poland several days earlier.  Rudy’s escape became a scandal, with famous Polish commentator Dariusz Szpakowski informing the Polish TV audience about his disappearance during the match.  The Polish sporting press attacked Rudy viciously.  Here’s what Przegląd Sportowy had to say:

‘Leaving teammates who are representing their country in a prestigious match has to be seen as a betrayal.. Loyalty and morality still mean something these days however Rudy’s actions have shown that they hold no meaning to him.  He had a good life in Poland. He made a very good salary.  Despite all of this he has taken this uncalled for step, one that deserves to be condemned in the sternest possible manner.’

After his defection Rudy went on to have a decent career at among others FC Köln and Ajax but he never hit the heights his early career promised, turning out for the Polish national side only 16 times.  He has never returned to live in Poland and seems happy in Germany which has become his home.  Rudy states that he has no regrets despite the fact that he was so badly criticised in Poland. Earning one million euros a year while at Ajax must surely have helped.

Rudy sets up FC Köln’s second goal in their 4-0 win over Bayern Munich (3 minutes in).

Footballing exile in Communist Poland

In an age when footballers were controlled by the state it took immense guts to defect to the west.  Footballers in Communist Poland were somewhat akin to the artists and entertainers mentioned at the beginning of the article.  Both groups had relatively privileged positions in Communist Poland; they were supported by the state, supplied with nice apartments and had the luxury of  travelling to the west.  However both groups’ power was bequeathed to them by the Communist state and, by deciding to leave they forfeited this power and prestige.

Cast off by the protective power of the state, football and other privileged defectors had to find their own way in the world, developing a new language to confront their exile.  The two footballing examples spoken about here had two very different outcomes.  In the first case Banaś was not able to survive without the state that had succored him forcing him to once more seek sustenance in its arms.  Unfortunately the state did not completely forgive him for his actions, meaning he had to forfeit his place at both the Olympic and World Cup finals.  Rudy was much more self-sufficient and managed to survive the scorn of the state and public he spurned.  Like Miłosz before him he found a new language with which to speak to the world.  Luckily today’s Polish players are not confronted with such stark choices.

To write this article I received advice from Marek Wawrzynowski and Piotr Żelazny and drew on articles in Przegląd SportowyRzeczpospolita,, and Ligarski, S, PIŁKA I POLITYKA. HISZPAŃSKI MUNDIAL ́82 OCZAMI KOMISARZA WOJSKOWEGO.

I also consulted Gyozo Molnar, ‘Hungarian Football: A Socio-historical Overview.’ Sport in History (2007), Friederike Kind-Kovács, ‘Voices, letters, and literature through the Iron Curtain: exiles and the (trans)mission of radio in the Cold War.’ Cold War History (2013), John Soares, ‘Very Correct Adversaries’: The Cold War on Ice from 1947 to the Squaw Valley Olympics.’ International Journal of the History of Sport (2013), Susan L. Carruthers,’Between Camps: Eastern Bloc “Escapees” and Cold War Borderlands.’ American Quarterly (2005), Adam Fryc & Mirosław Ponczek, ‘The Communist Rule in Polish Sport History.’ The International Journal of the History of Sport (2009), L.W. Gluchowski, ‘The Defection of Jozef Swiatlo and the Search for Jewish Scapegoats in The Polish United Workers’ Party, 1953-1954.’ Intermarium (1999) and Czesław Miłosz, ‘Notes on Exile.’ Books Abroad (1976).

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