Praised and vilified both at home and abroad, Władysław Gomułka had a tumultuous political career that twice saw him rise to the pinnacle of power in Communist Poland.
Born in 1905 in Krosno, Poland to working class parents, he embraced socialism during his teens. His personal textbooks were the writings of Marx and Lenin. Working as a locksmith from age fourteen, young Władysław was soon organizing communist labor groups. He joined the Polish Socialist Party at sixteen, soon after the Communist Party, and studied at the Lenin Institute in Moscow in 1934. Gomułka was jailed for his communist activities in Poland in 1926, 1932 and 1936. Upon the outbreak of World War II in 1939, he was released to help in the defense of Poland. As his country was overwhelmed by the German invasion, Gomułka fled east to the USSR. There, he met with Soviet dictator Stalin and made part of the nascent Polish communist government, set to take over Poland as Soviet forces pushed the Germans out.
Gomułka was named secretary general of the Polish Communist Party in 1944 and also made deputy premier of Poland by the Soviets. The West recognized this government in 1945, making him the first official leader of post-war communist Poland. However, by 1948 Gomułka was removed from these posts, accused of ideological crimes by party rivals, and imprisoned from 1951-54. He had offended Stalinist hard-liners by espousing a "Polish road to socialism." Though communist to the core, Gomułka was also a proud Pole. But communism the Polish way was anathema to the Soviets, who believed in an international brand of the ideology, of course controlled by Moscow.
After the Poznań worker riots of 1956, the hard-liners in charge grew scared. They turned to Gomułka for help. And he was returned to his position as head of the Communist Party. His return was welcomed by the Polish people, even anti-communists. If Poland had to be ruled by a communist, it might as well be by one who remembered that he was a Pole. Western nations, including the U.S., also cheered the events, which created international headlines. Gomułka's return seemed to herald a serious crack in Soviet control of east Europe. He introduced reforms but over time no serious break with Moscow occurred, and freedom and democracy for Poland remained only a dream.
In 1959 U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon stopped in Warsaw following a visit to Moscow. He met with Premier Gomułka and other officials and urged an open exchange of ideas and freer trade. Gomułka countered by criticizing Radio Free Europe and implored the U.S. to recognize his country's post-World War II borders. Nothing substantive was accomplished.
The following year Gomułka attended the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, thus becoming the first leader of Poland to set foot on American soil. Though not an official state visit, he conferred with Secretary of State Christian Herter. President Eisenhower deliberately declined to meet with Gomułka to protest a lack of progress toward freedom in Poland. Gomułka issued a message to Polish Americans, invoking the names of Kościuszko and Pułaski to appeal to them to support friendship between the two governments.
In 1968 Gomułka led a purge against Polish Jews in his government and Polish Jews in general. This was supposedly done because Jews were perceived as supporters of Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, in opposition to the communist government's support of the Arabs. Others speculated that the crackdown was done to distract attention from dire economic problems in Poland, and was blatant anti-Semitism.
Gomułka was removed from power in 1970 after anti-government riots led by Polish shipyard workers in Gdańsk. Gomulka was trying to increase significantly state regulated prices of food, but this caused only the riots. He was replaced by Edward Gierek. He lived in obscurity until his death in 1982.
But Władysław Gomułka's connection with the U.S. went beyond meeting Richard Nixon and visiting the U.N. His sister Józefa lived in Detroit and he met with her during his New York visit. In 1900 his parents, Jan and Kunegunda, had immigrated to America. Jan worked in the Pennsylvania coal mines for a few years, but disillusioned, he took his family back to Poland before Wladysław was born.
Is it possible that Jan Gomułka's dissatisfying experience in capitalist America shaped his son's political and social views and made Władysław the communist that he became? In his 1969 book Gomułka, author Nicholas Bethell states:
" The emigre Gomułkas did not like America...Władysław Gomułka was brought up as a socialist. His father Jan had cause to feel bitter toward the capitalist system after his abortive attempt to make good in the new world, after returning to Krosno and bringing up his children in poverty."
I recommend this book about Polish history written by Adam Zamoyski and entitled: The Polish Way: A Thousand-Year History of the Poles and Their Culture