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“On the way to LOT”

Part 1--May 1998

Director Wilanowski remembersHaving completed my primary education, like many of my friends I wanted to serve in the army. My family believed that a boy who has never donned a uniform is not a real man. I was glad when I received my “conscription card” in 1936, because after three months’ training I could take an exam to the military college offering a choice of specializations. During a medical check-up, however, a doctor discovered I had a strange defect: my eyes reacted too fast to the movement of his finger, which he waved in front of my face. I was rejected.

The true reason was different: my father belonged to the Polish Socialist Party and it was feared that I had inherited his leftist views. So I decided to be a seaman on a submarine, but shortage of money prevented me from realizing this plan. Each candidate striving to be enrolled to a naval college had to buy two uniforms, a pair of shoes, a cap, underwear, towels, bed linen and what not. All in all, it cost one thousand zlotys. My father, a war invalid, received a pension not exceeding seventy zlotys a month. He could buy forty kilograms of pork fat, but not a uniform, not to mention two uniforms.

Eventually, I became a reservist of the 13th Infantry Regiment in Pultusk. I was assigned to the machine guns platoon. This was not what had dreamt of but it had good points too. If I had become a professional serviceman, I would have to look for a proper match, a wife from a well-off family, as that was what was required from servicemen at that time . . . Instead, I followed my heart.

Shortly before the outbreak of the second world war, my brother Leonard and I were mobilized. My brother was sent to the front and I was delegated to Rzeszow to help evacuate the local Aviation Plant. Ironically, this is how I eventually landed up in the air force. But not for long. The factory was bombed by the Nazis and only a small part of the valuable equipment was transported to Romania. Fleeing from the Nazis, I tried to reach my parent military unit in Vilnius on a bicycle. In Brzesc I fell into the hands of the Red Army, which invaded eastern Poland. I was thrown into a POW camp, established in a local church. Everything was in turmoil. It was impossible to control the huge mass of people running away from the approaching war front. I escaped from the during a night-time air raid of the “Stukas”. I decided to return to Rzeszow, which was already occupied by the Nazis. It took me a couple of days to reach my destination. I had only three bars of chocolate to sustain me on the way. Farmers used to put me up for the night. They invariably showed hospitality and shared whatever food they had with me. I could see how poor the Polish countryside was--everywhere the food was similar: only sour milk and plain boiled potatoes were served.

In Rzeszow i began to work in the same factory I had helped to dismantle not long before. Now it was in the hands of the occupation authorities and served the needs of their armed forces. Together with Jewish co-workers we organized a resistance movement. We operated in groups of six. My “six”, which included my father and brother, was soon nailed by the Gestapo. We were arrested in a clandestine flat where, pretending to play cards, we listed to news from London on the radio and prepared a bulletin for the factory crew about the situation on the front. Of course we knew that we risked imprisonment for illegal possession of a radio set. The six of us were interrogated and tortured for months on end. I still have marks of the brutal beating. A Special Court sentenced me and my brother to two years of hard labour, my father’s term was half a year longer. He never returned from prison. I served my term in various places, working in a quarry and building the Berlin-Paris motorway. I must say that the best motorways were built in Germany during the war. The occupation authorities had the world’s cheapest labour at their disposal. I have only recently obtained compensation for forced labour, a mere one thousand, one hundred zlotys.

Having served my sentence, I was ordered to report back to my workplace in Rzeszow. When the German army began to take a beating from the Russians, the factory crew was told to dismantle the most expensive machinery. But those who could, fled to the nearby forest. Took cover there with my whole family. In effect, eighty percent of the equipment remained in the factory. There was on one at hand to dismantle it.Russian troops seized Rzeszow one year before the end of the war, in the spring of 1944. I was offered the post of senior technologist in the factory. Shortly afterwards, I was promoted to the post of production manager. I was also active in the trade unions. In the initial period we worked for free, driven by sheer enthusiasm. After a few months, the Polish currency was in circulation, people started to get some money but it was not the most important thing at that time. In the initial period we worked for the needs of the Soviet Army, repairing airplane engines, mainly for the “Kukuruzniks”. Economic improvisation flourished. We used to take trucks from the Russians and drive to Warsaw and Lublin to organize food for the crew. We brought back UNRRA relief parcels, flour, buckwheat, lard, herrings, sometimes canned pork. To survive, everyone traded with the local farmers. Clothes, shoes, pots and various household appliances were exchanged for meat, pork fat and sausages.

With the passage of time, the situation returned to normal and the plant ambitiously began to produce jet engines under Soviet license. We also assembled the “Mikrus”, the first Polish passenger car, smaller than the “Fiat 126p” economy car. Time passed by almost unnoticed. October 1956 marked a breakthrough in my career. Wladyslaw Gomulka came to power and a period of unrest in factories throughout the country began. The factory in Rzeszow was visited by prime minister Piotr Jaroszewicz, who came to explain to the workers what “friendly Soviet army divisions” were doing in a state of full combat readiness near Przemysl. More than three thousand workers turned up for the rally. A first they listed to what the prime minister had to say, but halfway through his speech they started to shout: “down with the dictatorship of Bloody Oles”. This was a nickname of the man managing the factory, with the blessing of the communist party. Then they shouted: “Wilanowski for director”. I was as much taken by surprise as Jaroszewicz. The prime minister had no choice than to ask: “Who is he?” In a matter of seconds people carried me on their shoulders to the speaker’s platform. Jaroszewicz nodded with consent: “As you wish . . .” and this is how I became director for the first time. But it was not for long. When emotions subsided in the country, the communist party began a purge. It was getting rid of people such as me, who were promoted on the request of factory crews. Wladyslaw Kruczek--first secretary of the PZPR communist party organization in Rzeszow--called me to his office and “advised” me to resign. This kindhearted advice meant that I would be sacked if I did not step down of my own accord. It turned out that I had committed offenses, which the Marxist party would not forgive me. Namely, I took part in Corpus Christi religious celebrations and my two daughters were spilling flower petals in front of a procession. I tried to explain that I had never hidden my convictions, that my roots were in the PPS socialist party and I was automatically incorporated into the communist party after the Unification Congress at which the PPS and the communist PPR had merged, that my daughters were baptized at the request of the mother. This did not help. There was no future for me in Rzeszow but aviation was still my vocation.

I moved to Warsaw, where my name was known, and I had no problem in getting a job in the Aviation Institute, where I was engineering director. The was a short-lived career. The Polish aviation industry experienced various ups and downs after the war, but this is a different and long story. I then found a job in the State Aviation Institute (PZL, because it was were the first Polish jet planes “Iskra” and multipurpose “Wilga” aircraft were made. I was head of the Aviation Designing Centre. Hard times began for the Polish aviation industry. In Moscow, Nikita Khrushchev convinced Gomulka that is was pointless to invest in that industry. “Why should you need airplanes, when we are building rockets capable of reaching all targets and destroying everything that should be destroyed?” - the number one figure in the USSR is reported to have said. Soon, even such great experts as professor Soltyk and engineer Swidzinski, constructors of “Iskra” and engineer Frydrykiewicz constructor of “Wilga” lost their jobs. There was no point in my staying in the plant either. I opted for LOT Polish Airlines, where the job of technical director was vacant. It was spring 1969. I went with my wife to the spa of Ciechocinek for a treatment of my post-occupation ills. On Sunday we went to mass at the local church. There I was found and dragged out by a LOT driver. “It is an urgent matter. The minister expects you at eight am tomorrow. We have to hurry.”

I terminated my spa treatment and returned to Warsaw scared out of my wits. As technical director I was responsible for the air-worthiness of aircraft. It is a demanding post. On Monday I was received by the under-secretary of state in the Ministry of Transport, Mroczek, who announced unexpectedly: “From now on you will be managing director of LOT.” And that’s how it all began.

Recorded by Tadeusz Zakrzewski.