Poland's long history of repression by foreign powers includes in recent decades: Nazi brutality, communist satellization, and the Jaruzelski coup last December that produced a surrogate military occupation. It isn't surprising, therefore, to hear that Jan Nowak's detailed account of the 1939-44 period is now being studied as a handbook for resistance in its author's homeland. First published in London in Polish in 1978, the book attained immediate popularity in Poland, where it has gone through at least two unofficial printings.
''It reveals a part of our most recent history which is passed over in silence by official history . . . and restores to the nation's memory events which until now have been concealed,'' says one of its underground publishers, Miroslaw Chojecki, who was traveling in the United States at the time of last December's crackdown and has stayed in the West since then.
This process of ''restoring to the nation's memory events which until now have been concealed,'' was trivialized by the banal tell-all revelations so popular in America during the 1970s. In this book we learn the real meaning of the concept.
This is no routine wartime memoir, though in good English translation it reads like high adventure. It had been years since I devoured a book of nearly 500 pages in only two sittings. The most profound drama is in the courage of the Poles, the hope, the determination to undermine and frustrate tyranny, and in the sense of fraternity - solidarity - which they displayed in every phase of life as well as in their readiness to die.
Born in 1913, Jan Nowak (his original name was Zdzislaw Jezioranski) grew up during Poland's 21 years of independence. He was beginning an academic career when he was called to military duty at the age of 26 to meet the Nazi invasion. After Poland's quick defeat he avoided falling into Soviet hands, where he might have suffered the fate that befell a sizable proportion of the Polish officer corps at Katyn. He made his way back to Warsaw and into the underground. He soon became a key operative, making five wartime trips, each a major adventure in itself, between Warsaw, Stockholm, and London, traveling in disguise through Germany, meeting with Churchill, Eden, and other Allied leaders.
During the 63-day Warsaw uprising, Nowak was in charge of English-language broadcasting from the beleaguered capital.
Novak recounts with both candor and occasional humor the workings of the underground government structure set up by the Poles under the noses of the Nazis.
He describes with utter frankness the differences in perception of Poland's position that developed between Warsaw and London, which, of course, had originally declared war on Hitler over Poland. There is emotion in these descriptions and honesty but only limited rancor, reserved for a few figures Nowak found dishonest, such as Winston Churchill's aide, Maj. Desmond Morton.
Many, many others he found self-deceived. One winces at Nowak's unadorned recollections of how key figures in Allied governments and the press refused to recognize Stalin's deceptiveness. Wishful thinking produced familiar disastrous results.
Zbigniew Brzezinski in his foreword stresses this lesson of the book: ''(It is) an eye-witness account of the political trends which led ultimately to the division of Europe and the coming of the Cold War.''
Nowak was the last emissary to come from London to Warsaw before the uprising in 1944 and the first of its survivors to reach London afterward. But he does not limit his narrative to fighting and political confrontation. There are descriptions of the self-sacrifice and dedication to principle of simple people, including Germans and above all Jews; accounts of the author's visits to his family, and, in the commotion of the uprising, of his marriage to a woman working as an underground courier.
The final chapters, which describe their escape across almost-defeated Germany over the border into Switzerland and then to France at Christmastime 1944 are, like the entire book, a rich combination of dangerous adventure, human decency, and political frustration.
Nowak eventually continued the struggle for Polish freedom as director of Polish broadcasting for Radio Free Europe for 25 years. Nominally in retirement since 1976, he has made with this book - being read now by millions of Poles - as valuable a contribution to their continuing struggle for freedom as anything else he has done.
Like Jan Nowak himself, it has been Poland's fate to be at the very center of the major political confrontations of our time - between democracy, pluralism, and freedom on the one hand and totalitarianism on the other. Whether the totalitarianism has been of the right or of the left, the fight has been essentially the same. And it goes on.
''Courier from Warsaw'' tells us why the Poles won't give up. The Polish national anthem declares Polska jeszcze nie zginela - ''Poland is not yet lost.'' And it isn't - not with men such as John Paul II, Lech Walesa, and thousands like Jan Nowak fighting for Solidarity today.