Life at „Express” speed

Rafał Praga. His biography is filled mostly with lacunas, question marks and blank pages. And it’s unlikely to change. This year marks seven decades since the sudden death of the creator of communist Poland’s most-read daily.

“He was always in a hurry”; “He could never stay put for long”; “I had the impression he was constantly on the move”; “He was a live wire”, “He acted in haste”, “It seemed that he was constantly short of time” – that’s how his colleagues remembered him in the editorial board he headed for seven years. But the thorough posthumous tribute lacks information on the vicissitudes of this initiator and first editor-in-chief of “Express Wieczorny” [“Evening Express”], who died at 36.


Even his DOB is uncertain. Officially: December 29, 1916. But in some documents it is the same day and month, but earlier by 4 years. Everything fits with the place of birth – Łódź, but another problem arises when it comes to the address. Sometimes it’s 3, Pieprzowa St, apt. 12, some sometimes 9, Gubernatorska – without a flat number. Height: average (166 cm), hair colour: flaxen (would that be a euphemism hiding a ginger?), distinctive features: none. Although according to witnesses, stammering would have been one of them.

In the “education” rubric he wrote: “higher – incomplete” (allegedly, he studied at the Academy of Journalism), but we cannot be sure if he at least finished secondary school. Reportedly, he passed his school-leaving examination with delay because he was forced to discontinue education and help his parents struggle with the Great Depression which had just arrived in the town on the Łódka.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE The future editor’s father, Leon, ran a mercer’s shop. In the era of the economic collapse he was forced to dismiss the personnel and to switch to what is now called a family business. Two older sisters of the text’s main character, Eleonora and Lea as well as the mother Judyta, hitherto running the house, were acting shop assistants. “My parents in 1939. My sisters were murdered in Auschwitz, in the autumn of 1944”. Did they get there from the Łódź ghetto? What were their occupations? Were they married? Questions can be multiplied.

In June 1935, Rafael Praga joined the editorial board of “Robotnik” [“The Worker”] and it was probably only then that he began to use the Polonised version of his name – Rafał. He started out as a city reporter but was quickly recognized as a better editor than writer. He apprenticed for several years at the magazine’s secretariat located in a tenement house at Warecka St. The paper was edited by Mieczysław Niedziałkowski, a long-time deputy of the Second Republic of Poland, who was shot in Palmiry, and Zygmunt Zaremba, head of the Journals Team of the Polish Socialist Party [PPS].

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On whose recommendation did the descendant of a Łódź merchant join the central organ of the Polish Socialist Party? Another unknown. He joined this group – as he claimed – at the age of 19, but: “I was already socially conscious at the age of fifteen, because I noticed the universal misery consuming the masses of the proletarian poor of Łódź”. There must have been people who introduced him to the party ranks.Nomina sunt ignota.

Perhaps the accession to the PPS and the subsequent move to the capital resulted from an ideological family quarrel? Maybe even those closest to him renounced him? Whereas he declared: “Although I was raised in the Judaic (progressive) tradition, I have been an atheist since the age of 15”.


The journalistic novice was making progress. He made his debut on the magazine’s editorial board in April 1939, “just after Hitler’s speech in which he unilaterally denounced the German-Polish non-aggression pact”. During his four years of work in Warsaw, his sociability enabled him to meet many journalists. In the pages of magazines with different world views, he dealt with different subjects. Years later, he made use of these acquaintances by putting together the “Express Wieczorny” team.

During the September days of the siege of the capital, he was mainly involved in helping organize the Workers’ Battalions for the Defence of Warsaw (RBOW). He escaped death then. Twice. Thanks to his being late.

When he went to 47, Złota St on September 5, the tenement building there had just been destroyed by Luftwaffe bombs, burying RBOW activist Bolesław Dratwa, among others. Nine days later, the sequence was repeated. This time he went to Oboźna St, where he found a pile of rubble where another RBOW collaborator, Wilhelm Topinek, had died.

At that time, he also met two other figures of this formation: Józef Dzięgielewski and its commander, captain Marian Kenig. Years later, they influenced Praga’s curriculum vitae.

His fate during the first months of the occupation remains a mystery. He probably helped Stanislaw Dubois to organise the PPS conspiracy. Karolina Beylin recalled that he was considered breaking through to the Soviet-occupied territory – to Białystok. The realization of this idea, however, was thwarted by severe pneumonia. Perhaps the disease also weakened the patient’s heart, after all, he died of a massive heart attack. But the later, undiagnosed coronary disease was probably also influenced by other wartime experiences.

When in the autumn of 1940 the Germans created a ghetto in Warsaw, he remained in the so-called Aryan side. Fearing denunciation – after all, many people with different views knew him – he left the rented premises in a tenement house at Wielka St. At first he was housed in Mokotów with his comrade from the PPS, Leszek Raabe. Then in Powiśle, in the apartment of the parents of Maciej Weber – a younger friend from the underground, medical student, participant in the secret football championships of Warsaw, and in the future a valued sports doctor.
He stayed the longest at Ludwik Mikołajewsk’s at 221, Grochowska St. A Kennkarte in the name of Roman Paszkowski was prepared for him by Edward Chądzyński (he stole the relevant forms from the capital’s population records department, operating in the building of the former town hall in the Jabłonowski Palace at Teatralny Sq) and graphic designer Julian Żebrowski.

The “Styl” bar co-run by the latter was frequented by journalists of the interwar press who refused to cooperate with newspapers licensed by the Germans. Going there for the first time, Paszkowski aka Praga made a mistake that could have cost him his life. Through emotions and absent-mindedness, he entered the “Watra” cafe located nearby, at Moniuszko St, frequented by dodgy company, also shmaltsovniks. Fortunately, he realized his mistake on the threshold, as soon as he heard the tones of the piano, on which the pianist was playing cocktail music.

Praga belonged to the Polish People’s Army PAL [not to be confused with the communist People’s Army!] and edited the daily illustrated magazine “Demokrata” during the Warsaw Uprising. After the capitulation, he was imprisoned (as Paszkowski) in the Murnau POW camp in Bavaria. In September 1945, he returned to Poland and joined the Polish Socialist Party, which was authorised by the communists. He even sat on its Supreme Council.

Protective umbrella

Soon he was entrusted with the task of preparing a popular afternoon paper, which was to be the party’s financial base. This was the origin of “Express Wieczorny”. The editorial board was largely made up of people who were bitten by the professional bug in the interwar period. Their new employer turned out to be operative and influential. Moreover, he was able to spread a protective umbrella over the staff. And there were figures associated with anti-communism. Perceived from various positions: National Democracy – Julian Żebrowski and Władysław Zambrzycki, conservative – Edmund Moszyński, Sanation – Juliusz Pollack, Mieczysław Krzepkowski, Karolina Beylin.

From the point of view of the people’s power, others also had “misdemeanours” in their biographies. The head of the sports department, Kazimierz Gryżewski, fought against the Bolsheviks. Just like the flagship columnist Stefan Wiechecki “Wiech”. Karol Hig-Hirschberg took part in the battles of Tobruk and Monte Cassino. Modest Dobrzyński and Helena Weber, as well as youth editors – Ludwika Woyciechowska, Włodzimierz Dzięciołowski and Bohdan Tomaszewski participated in the Warsaw Uprising. Michał Wojewódzki managed the Home Army’ printing houses in Warsaw.

Distinguished by ingenuity and reflexes, “Express” immediately gained the appreciation of Varsovians, quickly destroying the competition – the reader’s “Evening”. “EW” was considered the best-informed newspaper in the capital, reacting the fastest to urban events. It had several mutations. The main one went on sale after 1 PM., when the so-called first shift finished work. First, “Express” was sold by newsboys, with time it found its way to newsstands, in front of which people queued for it. Undoubtedly, he drew patterns from pre-war tabloids [lit. “revolver” papers], focusing on news and sensations.
From month to month, however, the corset of communism more and more hurt both the editors and the readers of the magazine. After the so-called unification congress of the Polish workers’ movement, when the Polish Workers’ Party absorbed the PPS, the paper became increasingly politicised.

Left out

Elected deputy, Praga was already a member of the Polish United Workers’ Party [Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza – PZPR] for most of the parliamentary term. He was in no danger of being re-elected to parliament. Already in 1949, the Security Office took him under the microscope, because his name appeared in the testimonies of Dzięgielewski, an “enemy of the people”, locked in prison. He was also friends with Kenig, who was expelled from the party for the so-called “right-wing deviation”. He maintained acquaintances with ex-PPS activists opposed to the party monolith, Jan Mulak and Strzelecki.

At the beginning of 1953, his days as editor-in-chief of “Express Wieczorny” seemed numbered. The people’s authorities lost their trust in Praga, and some insignificant sinecure was being prepared for him in the bureaucratic state machine. They were just looking for a pretext. Could it have been an affair with a then fledgling journalist (a few years later she became the face of the first TVP talk show, and already in the Third Republic of Poland she was accused of confidential involvement)? Praga’s dismissal, however, was stopped by Joseph Stalin’s death.

Two months later, on May 24, he supervised an outdoor event organized by the editorial board. It was held on the tennis courts of Legia. It was an extremely steamy day. He felt short of breath and returned by the editorial car to the house in Raszyńska St next to Zawiszy Sq, where the editorial office also functioned in the neighbourhood. Somehow he climbed the stairs to the fourth floor (there was no elevator) and, having crossed the threshold of the apartment, he fell on the floor. His wife Joanna – whom he met during the occupation, also from the PPS circle – immediately called an ambulance. It arrived very quickly, but the resuscitation attempt failed – the heart muscle did not resume its work.

As a secular funeral procession accompanied by the sounds of The Internationale escorted the deceased to the grave in the Powązki military cemetery (the coffin was decorated with the Order of the Banner of Work, 2nd Class, awarded by decision of the Council of State “for outstanding merits in the field of press journalism”), the next issue of “EW” was just being printed. With a black masthead.

– Tomasz Zbigniew Zapert

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

I would like to thank Anna Krajkowska, Piotr Pytlakowski and Włodzimierz Wojcieszak for their help in preparing the text.

Edmund Moszyński „Ludzie i czasu Czasu”
Stanisław Maria Saliński „Longplay warszawski”
Krzysztof Dunin-Wąsowicz „Polski ruch socjalistyczny 1939-1945”
Ryszard Sługocki „W obcej skórze”
Main photo: Rafał Praga reads “Express Wieczorny” in the Sejm buffet in February 1947. At that time, he was the editor-in-chief of this newspaper and a member of the PPS (later PZPR). Photo: PAP / Stanisław Urbanowicz
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