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From Major Jordan's Diaries


The Priest Who Confronted Stalin

     Many surprising things turned up on the Pipeline, but the most unexpected of all was a priest.

     Before I tell the story of Father Orlemanski, it is necessary to recall some details of the tragic fate of Poland. In a speech on Jan. 22, 1944 Winston Churchill gave the first clue that the Western Powers were planning to deliver Poland, one of their staunchest allies, into Russian hands.

     The Prime Minister could afford to take the public lead; he had no Polish constituency, while the United States had 3,000,000 citizens of Polish birth or descent. At Teheran, four months earlier, Poland’s death-sentence had been arranged; it was to be executed at Yalta early in 1945.

     Prominent roles in the tragedy were played by two American citizens who were cleared from Great Falls to Moscow on April 12 and 19, 1944. Both had been equipped by the State Department with passports authorizing travel to the Soviet Union, and by the War Department with military passes for the Western Defense Command (Great Falls) and Alaska Defense Force (Fairbanks).

     First to arrive was Oscar Richard Lange, professor of economics at Chicago University. Born and educated in Poland, he had been a traveling fellow of the Rockefeller Foundation from 1934-36 and had come to America in 1937, at the age of 33. He was naturalized in 1943.

     I first heard of Oscar Lange from Colonel Kotikov, who was leaving on one of his mysterious hurry-up flights to Washington. He asked me to keep a particular look-out for a man “high in Polish affairs” who would be passing through on the way to Moscow. He could be identified because he “walked with a limp.” On account of an urgent appointment in Edmonton, he was to be sent along without delay.

     As my diary records, Professor Lange arrived on April 11 and departed early the next morning. In the press of other business I took little notice except to examine his papers, which were in order. But I sat up when a telegram was forwarded by the Airbase Commander. It was from General Marshall, who sent his personal order for the professor’s clearance. I thought, “This Lange must really be a V.I.P.” Never before, at Great Falls, had such intervention from the Chief of Staff occurred.

     The second American was Father Stanislaus Orlemanski. To the best of my information, Professor Lange and Father Orlemanski were the first Americans to pass the “Iron Curtain” stretched across the Bering Sea.

     Father Orlemanski was the pastor of a church in Springfield, Mass. He was possessed by the idea of an heroic mission. He would confront Joseph Stalin face to face and wrest from him a promise that Communist persecution of religion would cease. For such a dream there have not been too many parallels since the Middle Ages.

     In the year 1219 another of “God’s fools,” Saint Francis of Assisi, trudged across a no-man’s land in Egypt, through the Moslem camp where there was a price on every Christian head, and stood at last before the Saracen commander-in-chief. To Sultan Malik-al-Kamil the friar preached the Gospel and implored him to accept baptism. The monarch smiled, but granted safe-conduct to Francis and remarked to his courtiers that for the first time he had met a true “Nazarene.”

    On the morning of April 18 Colonel Kotikov telephoned us that he had been stranded at Billings, Montana. In a B-25 bomber, Colonel Boaz, Major Paul Reid and I flew to the rescue, returning about 2:15 the same afternoon.

     There in my office, sitting with an air of tranquil patience, was a Catholic priest. He was nearly six feet tall and had the build of a husky workingman. We shook hands and exchanged names.

     Quite simply, Father Orlemanski said that he was on the way to Moscow. I, Major Jordan, was to put him on a plane. He spoke with the serenity of one who had taken to heart the favorite maxim of Saint Francis of Assisi: “Cast your care upon God, and He will protect you.” Thinking of the fate in store for a priest in Russia, I was horrified.

     I demanded his credentials, never dreaming he could have any. To my stupefaction, he ordered military passes for the Alaska Defense Force and Western Defense Command, bearing the names of their respective chiefs, Major General Simon B. Buckner and Major General David McCoach, Jr. Next he produced a passport from the State Department empowering him to travel to the Soviet Union by way of Egypt, Iraq and Iran. He also had visas for the three countries.

     I asked why he was in Montana instead of the Near East. The Soviet Consulate in New York, he answered, had instructed him to ignore the visas and report to me in Great Falls. I went immediately to Colonel Kotikov, who showed me a wire from the Soviet Embassy directing him to facilitate the priest’s departure. He was bound for Moscow by personal invitation from Premier Stalin himself.

     “But it isn’t safe!” I objected. “Your people have been killing priests by the thousands!”

     “Ho, ho!” Kotikov laughed. “Was years ago, during bad part of Revolution. Today, under the great Stalin, religion in Russia very fine.” He shrugged off the visas for Egypt, Iraq and Iran..

     “Stalin wants him. Is visa enough,” he said.

     Full of worry, I went back to Father Orlemanski and asked how it happened that he, a Catholic priest, had been invited to Moscow by Joseph Stalin. He explained that his flock was made up entirely of Poles, by nativity or heritage, and that he had been besieged with questions, which he could not answer, about the fate of the Catholic religion in their homeland. Would it be suppressed? Would it be allowed to survive? Would it be tolerated for an interval and then destroyed? Had the hour not come for trying to bring about good relations between the Vatican and Kremlin?

     Believing in direct action, Father Orlemanski sat down and wrote an appeal to the one man in the world who had the answers.

     No letter could have been more providential for Stalin. He was preparing to swallow Poland, a morsel notoriously indigestible. There was urgent need of help from quarters which were Polish and non-Communist. Father Orlemanski was both. That he was also an American, and beyond all else a Catholic priest, was too good to be true.

     It happened that the Springfield cleric had published some writings on the position due to labor in society. The son and pastor of workingmen, and himself no stranger to manual labor, he had advanced ideas on the subject. His writings came into Stalin’s hands.

     The result was one in which the priest saw the hand of God. Through the Soviet Consulate in New York he received a cordial invitation to go to Moscow as Stalin’s personal guest, for a discussion across the table of the matters cited in his letter.

     “When Mr. Stalin invited me,” the priest told a correspondent in Moscow named Harrison E. Salisbury, “he sent a message to Mr. Roosevelt and asked him if it was all right for me to come over and, if it was, to fix it up about my travel papers.”

     Out of his native independence, Father Orlemanski responded with demands so uncompromising that they might have served as an example for the White House and State Department. He had the boldness to dictate the three conditions under which he would accept Stalin’s invitation:

(1) He would not travel to Moscow unless there was a sworn understanding that he would talk with Stalin himself.

(2) In case of an attempt to elude the promise after he got there, and foist some lesser person upon him, he would take the next plane home.

(3) Under no circumstances would he travel with Professor Oscar Lange, who had been suggested as a companion.

     I told Father Orlemanski that transportation would not be available till the following afternoon. So I phoned for a reservation at the Rainbow Hotel and asked him to tell me about himself.

     He was 54 years old, and pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Church on Franklin Street, Springfield, Mass. His father was an immigrant from Posen who had come with his young bride to Erie, PA, in 1876. Then had ten children, five girls and five boys, of whom four became priests. The elder Orlemanski started life in America as a common laborer, but gained a modest fortune in the contracting business. In 1912 he won a Carnegie medal for heroism: he had risked his life in an effort to snatch a stranger from death in a railroad accident.

     In 1917, two years after ordination, Father Orlemanski was sent to Springfield to found a parish in a settlement of Polish-Americans who were employed in local mills. There were only 80 families, but the number grew in 27 years to 965, aggregating bout 3,000 souls. Beginning with a rented tenement, he developed a parish center, not without fame, which covered more than a city block and was valued at half a million dollars. It boasted a school, convent, community house, rectory and an extraordinary new church, dedicated in 1940. Most of the construction was done with their own hands by men and boys of the parish, who gave their work free. As carpenter, plasterer and painter, the priest toiled shoulder to shoulder with the others. He himself designed the church. He finished with an expression that was very old-fashioned and somehow touching in an era of installment buying and public deficits: “There isn’t a penny of debt!”

     By this time I began to feel protective toward Father Orlemanski. Though not a Catholic, I was moved by his courage, simplicity and faith. I asked whether he had flown before. He had never been on a plane, and had traveled from New York to Great Falls by railway, at his own expense. He had no parachute.

     “Do I need one?” he asked.

     Under regulations, he could not board a plane without it and it would be useful in getting to the ground, I said, if anything happened. He looked so disturbed that on impulse I offered to lend him my own. But he must be sure to return it, as the Army would charge me $125 if it were lost. (The parachute arrived by express several weeks later.) To show how the apparatus worked, I buckled it over his black coat.

     “Father,” I warned, “if you do have to jump, don’t start praying until you’ve counted to ten and pulled the release handle. After that, you can pray your hardest.” He laughed, and said he would remember. I saw him to the hotel and asked him to lunch at the Officers’ Club at 11 A.M. the next day.

     We entered the club with Colonel Kotikov, in Red Army uniform. Eyes bulged and jaws dropped. While the Colonel chatted with other Soviet officers, I was glad to have the priest to myself, for I had another question, and a serious one. Did he have the sanction of the Catholic Church for his one-man crusade?

     A look of distress crossed his face. To be frank, he admitted, he was acting against orders from his superior. This was the Most Rev. Thomas M. O’Leary, Bishop of Springfield, who has since died. He had told Bishop O’Leary of the invitation from Stalin, and had been expressly forbidden to accept it. “There were fences,” he said, “and I had to leap over them.”

     He realized that if he went to Russia, it would have to be as a private individual. The Church must not be committed in any way. If he got back alive, and had accomplished something of benefit, the rest would be up to the Bishop. The priest had applied for his first vacation in 30 years and it had been granted. So here he was in Great Falls, severed temporarily from his parish and free, as he imagined, to act on his own.

     I had thought of a small service that would make the trip to Fairbanks more pleasant. Going to the ready-room where pilots waited for assignment, I asked whether any of them spoke Polish. A stocky, blonde lad, whose name I have forgotten, came forward.

     I introduced him to Father Orlemanski before the take-off. They broke into happy exchange in their own tongue as Colonel Kotikov and I walked with them to the C-47. The priest’s farewell word to me was: “Bless you, Major, for such a good Polish pilot!” I went to my office and wrote in the date-book: “Rev. S. Orelmanski departed for Moscow, 14:40.”

     At Fairbanks, it appears, the transport halted only long enough to take on gas and a Soviet pilot. Father Orlemanski had no chance to dismount. It seems probable that no one at Ladd Field knew he was aboard. The first night was spent in Siberia, at the third airfield beyond Nome. According to my list, it was Nova Marinsk.

     The flight across Asia was punishing. Winter still prevailed. Due to cold, altitude or motor noise, or all together, the priest’s hearing was permanently injured. There was a day when the plane got lost. The pilot was too stubborn to consult his maps or too proud to admit that he didn’t know how to use them. Father Orlemanski was accustomed to taking charge and making decisions. He got out the maps, identified points on the ground and convinced the pilot he was 150 miles off the course.

     He arrived in Moscow on April 25, and was promptly fastened upon by Professor Lange. They were in a theatre at 10 P.M. when a messenger notified Father Orlemanski that a car was waiting to drive him to the Kremlin. He arose, and so did Lange. The priest halted.

     “If this man is going along, I’ll stay here,” he announced.

     The economist dropped back into his seat and the priest went alone to meet Stalin. Also present at the Kremlin were Molotov and the interpreter, Pavlov.

     No respecter of persons and the son of a fearless man, the priest talked to Stalin as if he were a member of his own parish. At emphatic moments he did not hesitate to pound the table and shake his finger in the autocrat’s face. He addressed the Generalissimo as “Mr. Stalin” or simply “Stalin.” Flatly he declared that Poland must never have Communist rule, but a government modeled on the American system.

     For his part, the wily Stalin acted to perfection a role that was to take in Americans more worldly than Father Orlemanski. Such a performance tricked President Truman into praising him as “good old Joe,” and led General Arnold, returning from Teheran, to swear that Stalin was not a Communist at all, but the soundest of democrats.

     In every respect he was the jolly, flattering host, full of deference and good humor. He made jokes, and laughed heartily at those cracked by the priest. Throughout he used the respectful title “Father.” No offense was taken when the pastor charged that Communism was persecuting the Catholic Church. On the contrary, Stalin protested, he was an ardent champion of liberty of conscience and worship. After a decent resistance, he admitted that Father Orlemanski was right about everything.

     When he saw that the spell had taken effect, Stalin got down to business. At Sumy, he revealed, was the Red Army’s first detachment of Polish recruits, numbering 8,000. For the moment, at least, they had been christened the “Kosciuszko Division.”

     Tadeusz Kosciuszko, one of Russia’s most formidable enemies, was a hero of the American Revolution, an aide to General Washington and an honorary citizen of the United States. Father Orlemanski himself was the founder of a society in America named the “Kosciuszko League.” Visibly he was enchanted by what seemed the happiest of omens.

     If he liked, Stalin went on, it would be possible to arrange for Father Orlemanski to inspect the camp, and perhaps speak a few words to his countrymen. The pastor accepted gratefully, and in his enthusiasm consented to a further proposal that he should address the Polish people over the radio. Two and a half hours had passed when the session broke off.

     “You won’t believe me,” Father Orlemanski exclaimed afterward to a friend, “but when Stalin was talking to me I couldn’t help thinking to myself: ‘There is a man who would make a good priest!’” Stalin, it has been said, trained for the priesthood in his youth.

     The Washington Bureau of the Tass Agency broke the story for the morning papers of April 28. It was confirmed by Radio Moscow. All the globe was electrified by news that Stalin and Molotov had been in conference with a Catholic priest from America. Dispatches stated that no Catholic priest had entered Russia, at least openly, since 1934. Only rarely, they emphasized, did Stalin receive a private person, and almost never a religious one.

     Russian newspapers, on April 29, gave the episode a play reserved for guests at highest official rank. On front pages were headlines and group photos of Stalin, Molotov and Father Orlemanski. It was noted that the Generalissimo was smiling broadly.

     In the United States this caused a tumult. Polish cliques branded Father Orlemanski as a man of “divided loyalties.” The Springfield chancellor announced that “diocesan authorities had no knowledge of the pastor’s trip to Russia” and that the journey “was made on his own initiative, without permission.”

     Speaking for the National Catholic Welfare Conference, the Rt. Rev. Monsignor Michael J. Ready, its general secretary, described the mission as “a political burlesque, staged and directed by capable Soviet agents.” He added pointedly that one would like to know “the exact part our own government had in the performance.”

     Secretary Hull admitted that the State Department had supplied passports to Russia for Father Orelemanski and Professor Lange. They went as private citizens, he declared, and in no way represented the American government. Both had been invited to Moscow by Soviet authorities.

     At a news conference, the President diverted inquiries from himself to the chief of the Passport Division, Mrs. Ruth B. Shipley. Everyone knew her severity in granting passports, he pointed out, and whenever an applicant got by Mrs. Shipley, it was certain the law had been complied with.

     One midnight, toward the end of April, I was aroused by a telephone call from New York or Washington. The speaker was a woman correspondent for a wire service. She asked whether I had cleared a Catholic priest through Great Falls to Moscow.

     She repeated the question in several forms, taking care not to mention Father Orlemanski’s name. I was sleepy and shivering with cold. I instructed her that any information about Father Orlemanski must come from Colonel William Westlake, chief of public relations for the Army Air Forces.

     “Thank you, Major,” the girl chuckled, “you’ve told me exactly what I wanted to know.”

     Newspapers revealed the next morning that Father Orlemanski had been routed through Great Falls. The airfield’s gates were thronged with reporters, who waylaid mechanics and crewmen and learned from them that a Catholic priest had been walking with me.

     A general in Washington got me on the phone. Had I seen the newspapers? I had. “Well,” he shouted, “you’ve certainly stuck your neck in a sling! What right had you to put a priest on a plane and send him to Moscow?” The voice was full of menace.

     I hastened to remind him that Father Orlemanski, in addition to a passport, had two permits from the War Department, covering the Western Defense Command and the Alaska Defense Force. Evidently this was news to the General. There was a pause. In a very different tone, he muttered: “Oh. I see!” He hung up, and that was the last I heard from the Pentagon.

     In the meantime, Father Orlemanski visited the “Kosciuszko Division” at Sumy. A special train was put at his disposal for the four-day trip. He was pleased to note that the men were duly provided with Catholic chaplains. He assured them in a speech that he was no Communist, and led cheers for Poland, the Soviet Union and the United States. But he declared that Stalin, to his personal knowledge, was a true friend of Poland and the Catholic religion. Of similar tenor was his radio address to the Polish people.

     Back in Moscow, he was taken in charge by Salisbury, bureau chief in Russia for the United Press, and by a commentator for the Columbia Broadcasting System, James Fleming, who was a Catholic. They knew that turmoil was raging in America, and were fearful about the reception awaiting Father Orlemanski. The public would have only his word, they declared, that Stalin’s intentions were friendly and peaceable. The pastor would be “slaughtered” unless he could furnish tangible proof – something over Stalin’s signature, for example.

     On that evening the priest had a second engagement at the Kremlin, which also lasted two and a half hours. He said: “Mr. Stalin, I have to have something in writing, I must have some sort of statement from you to take back to America.” The Generalissimo answered that was a “good idea.”

     The remainder of the night was spent by Father Orlemanski in drafting two documents. One was his own statement summarizing conclusions reached at both interview. The other contained two questions, for which Stalin was asked to give signed answers. Father Orlemanski’s statement, sanctioned by Stalin, was released on the day the pastor left Moscow. It read in part:

       Unquestionably Marshal Stalin is the friend of the Polish people. I will also make this historical statement: Future events will prove that he is well disposed toward the Catholic Church…

       “Poland should not be a corridor through which the enemy passes at will and destroys Russia,” said Stalin.

       He really wants a strong, independent, democratic Poland to protect herself against future aggressors.

       He has no intention of meddling in the internal affairs of Poland. All he asks for is a friendly Poland.

       As to religion, the religion of our forefathers shall be the religion of the Polish people. Marshal Stalin will not tolerate any transgressions in this regard.

     Salisbury and Fleming were delighted when Father Orlemanski produced the other document, signed by Stalin. The document read as follows:

Translation of the answers of Marshal Stalin to questions by Rev. Stanislaus Orlemanski.

Q. Do you think it admissible for the Soviet Government to pursue a policy of persecution and coercion with regard to the Catholic Church?

A. As an advocate of freedom of conscience and that of worship, I consider such a policy to be inadmissible and precluded.

 Q. Do you think that cooperation with the Holy Father, Pope Pius XII, in the matter of the struggle against persecution and coercion of the Catholic Church is possible?

 A. I think it is possible.

     Stalin invited Father Orlemanski to a third meeting, from which the priest excused himself. He was in haste to report the success of his mission at home. After 12 days in Russia, he departed on May 6 in jubilation.

     The priest had no doubt that he had managed single-handed to negotiate a private concordat with Stalin guaranteeing the Catholic Church against persecution throughout the Communist world. As evidence that Christianity was still free in Russia, the guileless cleric took with him a basket of Easter eggs procured in Moscow.

     Disillusionment began at Fairbanks, where he arrived three days later. The War Department, alarmed by public clamor, refused him transportation to Great Falls. Borrowing $200 from a Catholic chaplain, he took passage on a commercial airliner and reached Seattle May 10.

     His journey across the continent was accompanied by a blare of headlines. At a press conference in Chicago, he made public the questionnaire signed by Stalin. He was welcomed by his parishioners with music, banners and acclamations. From Bishop O’Leary, however, came a missive ordering him into seclusion. The charges were “disobedience” and “treating with Communists.”

     He was not helped by an announcement from the Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Cicognani, that Father Orlemanski, like every priest, was subject to his Bishop. There could be an appeal, if he wished, to the Pope, but the Apostolic Delegate had no jurisdiction.

     After two days the pastor surrendered. To Bishop O’Leary he wrote a letter of apology. An old friend and enthusiastic admirer of his accomplishments as a parish priest, the Bishop on May 21 allowed him to celebrate Mass once more at Our Lady of Rosary Church. His two papers, including the document with Stalin’s signature, were sent by ordinary post with a three-cent stamp, to Archbishop Cicognani. Presumably they are now in the Vatican archives.

     Early the following June the Premier of Free Poland, Stanislaus Mikolajczyk, arrived in Washington to offer a last desperate prayer for the life of is country. He refused to receive Professor Lange, whom he regarded as a notorious Soviet propagandist. Mr. Bohlen, of the State Department, sent for Mikolajczyk.

     Although Lange was a Marxist, Bohlen asked the Premier to see him in the interest of good relations between the USSR and the United States. Unable to refuse, Mikolajczyk had to listen to Lange’s “realistic” views. Stalin, he said, thought Poland unadapted to Communist rule, did not wish to dominate the country and had no interest in its internal structure.

     Soon afterward the Premier had a conference with Mr. Roosevelt, who thanked him for meeting Lange and suggested that he talk also with Father Orlemanski, “a good man, pure and decent, possibly too naive, but with the best of intentions.” Father Orlemanski would tell him that Stalin favored religious freedom and particularly freedom for the Catholic Church.

     Father Orlemanski had reported, he went on, that Stalin was troubled by religious separatism. Obviously he did not wish to become, like the Tsars, head of the Greek Orthodox Church. He might agree to a union of the Catholic and Greek Orthodox faiths, with the Pope in command of both.

     What did Mikolajczyk think of sending Father Orlemanski to Rome to submit this idea to the Vatican? The Premier answered dryly that he would be ready to believe in Stalin’s sincerity after he released many Catholic priests still held in Soviet prisons.

     Poland was sold down the river at Yalta in February, 1945. Three months later Stalin and Harry Hopkins met companionably in Moscow to discuss the “Government of National Unity” which was to be the intermediate step toward that country’s absorption in the Soviet empire.

     There would be 18 or 20 ministries, the dictator said, of which four would be offered to Mikolajczyk’s faction. The rest would go to the pro-Soviet “Lublin regime.” What would Hopkins think of Professor Lange as a member of the new Cabinet?

     The only objection offered by Hopkins was that the economist might be unwilling to give up his American citizenship, which was only two years old. Shortly afterward Lange was in Warsaw getting himself re-naturalized as a Pole.

     It was decided that he should become Ambassador to the United States. For an obscure pedagogue, he proved to have unparalleled backing. Former Ambassador Davies entreated him in a letter to accept the appointment for the sake of Soviet-American friendship. Arthur Bliss Lane, Ambassador to Poland, warned the State Department that Lange had been known for years as a Communist sympathizer, but his warning was ignored. On July 5, 1945 Poland’s Stalinist government was recognized by the United States and the United Kingdom.

     As for Father Orlemanski, he is still pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Church. But events in East Europe have taught him that the only freedom of religion tolerated by Communism is freedom to serve as an organ of the state; and that Communist cooperation with any creed is impossible save on terms of overlord and vassal.

     One condition of his reinstatement was a promise of silence regarding the mission to Moscow. He is quoted, however, as reflecting sadly: “Stalin tried to use me and I tried to use him, for the good of my Church. He won and I lost.”

     It is possible that he finds a bit of comfort in remembering the occasion on which Stalin took him to admire Lenin’s tomb. The priest said to Stalin: “I suppose you’ll be having a bigger one.” Then he looked him in the eye and said: “Because you know, Stalin, you too will die some day, like the rest of us.”

Continue with Chapter 12

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