Walter Zachariasiewicz, 104, a distinguished leader and a legendary figure of the Polish American community in the U.S. died Thursday, September 22, 2016, after a prolonged illness. He dedicated his entire life to the promotion and understanding of Polish culture and history and to humanitarian causes worldwide. He was a proud patriot of the United States and of his native Poland.
He was a former Polish diplomat and military officer, a Gulag survivor, a political and social activist, U.S. Government official and a founder and organizer of numerous cultural and religious institutions, clubs and organizations here and abroad.
He was born November 7, 1911, in Cracow, Poland, before modern-day Poland was reestablished as a sovereign country after World War I.
Zachariasiewicz's leadership qualities emerged early on in his life. He was a graduate of Faculty of Law and Administration of the Jagiellonian University, where he was president of the Alliance for International Understanding and of the Academic Alliance for International Standing. During vacations, he received internship training at the Polish Consulate in Leipzig and the Embassy in Riga.
Zachariasiewicz was serving as Director of the Youth Department of the World League of Poles Abroad in Warsaw when World War II broke out. He had attended the Officer Cadet School in Grodno and, during the Nazi invasion, was assigned as a second lieutenant to the II Tank Battalion.
He was captured and arrested in October, 1939 while trying to cross the Romanian border to join the Polish forces in France. He was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor and spent nearly three years in a Soviet gulag near the Archangelsk region.
Following Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union, Zachariasiewicz was released in 1942 under a general amnesty of Polish prisoners. He was appointed by the Polish Government in Exile in London to establish a Polish Welfare Office in Chelyabinsk to assist other Poles being released from incarceration in the Archangelsk region.
He was then assigned to the Polish Embassy in Kuybyshev but was re-arrested by the Soviet NKVD and accused of political crimes, interrogated and tortured. He was freed after four months following the intervention of the Polish Government in Exile and was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1943. He was then posted to the special liaison office with the Polish underground at the Polish Consulate in Istanbul.
After a brief tour in London with the Polish Government in Exile, he was assigned to run the Rome office of Polish Refugee Affairs. This assignment galvanized his dedication to address the plight of refugees from occupied countries. He returned to London in 1946 to serve as the General Secretary, Polish Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare.
In 1948 he came to the U.S. and once again became engaged in refugee affairs. From 1949 to 1962, he was Executive Vice President and Executive Director in charge of overseas operations of the New York Polish-American Immigration & Relief Committee, actively assisting over 30,000 refugees, concentration camp survivors and Polish soldiers to immigrate.
A man of indefatigable energy, it did not take long for him to become an active participant and leader in the life of the Polish-American community in New York.
He soon became director of operations, Nationalities Division, of the Democratic National Committee while also serving as a Vice-President of the Polish American Congress and its General Pulaski Memorial Committee in New York City from 1954 to 1962.
His ability to express himself fluently in either Polish or English, and his demonstrated natural leadership qualities, soon had him fully engaged and sought after as an organizer and co-founder of important Polish-American civic, cultural and religious organizations.
In the 1950s and 1960s: he was a member of the board of the Polish language daily, "Nowy Swiat"; executive board member, American Council of Voluntary Agencies for Foreign Aid; and board member, American Council on Immigration and Naturalization. In more recent years, he worked closely with "Wspolnota Polska" (Association of the Polish Community).
He enjoyed music, dancing and the arts and help found and served as president of the Polish American Art Association of Washington, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. He also served three terms as president of the American Council of Polish Culture, a national umbrella group of Polish-American and cultural organizations.
Also active politically, he coordinated the activities of thirteen ethnic groups involved in the election campaigns of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1965, he was appointed as Special Assistant to the Postmaster General John Gronouski. He directed the International Exchange Programs and served in that capacity until 1978. From 1978 to 1982, he served on the Board of Directors of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and its Program Committee.
Until recently, he continued to actively engage in lobbying for Polish causes with members of Congress and other political leaders. The Polish Foreign Ministry and the Polish Parliament (Sejm) both recognized him for his efforts, especially his work on gaining Polish entry into NATO. In June, 2008, on behalf of Poland’s President, the Speaker of the Sejm, Bogdan Borusiewicz, appointed him to the Consultative Council on Polonia, the Polish government's organization dealing with contacts with the Polish diaspora.
Among his many memberships, he was on the Executive Committee of the Polish-American Jewish American Council, since he firmly believed in promoting dialogue and understanding between the Polish and Jewish communities. He was an advisory council member of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences (NY); Vice President of the Polish American Congress divisions in New York and Washington; and member of the National Press Club and the Knights of Malta.
A devoted Roman Catholic, he was most proud of his work on behalf of the first Polish Pope, Saint John Paul II. He coordinated the world-wide fundraising drive along Polish communities to establish the John Paul II Pilgrims Home in Rome. He energetically supported the establishment of the John Paul II Foundation chapters throughout the United States and, in 1984, was personally appointed by the Pope to the nine member Administrative Council of the Foundation in Rome.
He authored many articles, pamphlets and reports. At the age of 94, he wrote the book: “Independent Ethos of American Polonia,” published in Poland. It is considered an indispensable compendium of cultural and political history of Americans of Polish descent. An English translation is in preparation.
Given his century of activity, his medals, decorations, honors and awards are numerous. But he was particularly proud of his becoming a Knight Commander with Star in the Order of St. Gregory, bestowed upon him in 1991 by Pope John Paul II; and the Commanders Cross, Order of Polonia Restituta, presented to him by President Lech Walesa in 1994. He recently was awarded Poland's Decoration of Honor "Bene Merito" for his many activities in strengthening Poland's position internationally.
He was also greatly appreciative of the distinguished service awards and the many honors and recognitions he received from the Polish American organizations he belonged to: recognition by the Order of Siberian Exiles; recipient of the Distinguished Service and Founders Award of the American Council of Polish Culture; the cultural award from the Polish Arts and Culture Foundation, San Francisco; the Gold Medal of the World Federation, Polish Veterans of World War II; the Gold Medal and Laurel Leaf of Wspolnota Polska, and the highest honor of Polish-American clubs, the "Pride of Polonia," and many others.
Zachariasiewicz is survived by wife Sandra Rovsek-Crabb Zachariasiewicz, three children from his previous marriage: son Jan of Edgewood, NM; adopted daughter Danuta (Deb) of St. Petersburg, FL; adopted son Robert (Donna) of Rockville, MD, and five grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife of 62 years, Adeline Nowinski Zachariasiewicz, in 2011.