In April of 1944, Stanislaus Orlemanski, a priest from Springfield, Mass., was called on to travel to Russia to square off with Joseph Stalin over the fate of Poland. In a frosty airfield in Great Falls, Montana, the 54-yer-old priest prepared for his first plane flight ever – a military transport that would hop and skip him all the way to Moscow.
Concerned about the priest, who had no training in diplomacy, an Army major demonstrated to Orlemanski how to don and activate a parachute – required training for military air travel in those days. And as the plane prepared to take off, he cautioned him: If he used the parachute it was OK to pray. But do so only after counting to ten and pulling the ripcord.
Stanislaus Orlemanski was in this odd position because, in preparing to subsume Poland into the U.S.S.R., Soviet Premier Stalin was looking for support among the Polish diaspora, which had spread across the world during World War II. Stalin suggested that Orlemanski was perhaps a good candidate for a cabinet post in a new post-war Polish government.
The implications of the offer were obvious: Stalin proposed setting up his own government in Poland. That meant the country’s government-in-exile – driven from power by the Nazis – were to remain in exile. While this notion shocked Polish-Americans, it was not in reality a new development. World powers had already agreed in 1943 to Russian control of Poland at the war’s end.
In question, was what would happen to Roman Catholics in Poland. The Nazi’s had brutally persecuted the Roman Catholics. But Russian history was not much better, having tried to repress all religion.
In Springfield, Father Orlemanski was fielding questions from the troubled parishioners in his flock of 3,000, most of whom were Polish Americans.
Perhaps naively, he wrote a letter to Stalin seeking answers. Orlemanski was American born, but as a leader in the Polish American community he was concerned about affairs in Poland. Following the Nazi occupation, the Polish government had fled. The country’s army had no support. Orlemanski was active in forming the Kosciusko League, which funneled money and weapons to the remnants of the Polish Army, which fought with the Russian Army throughout the war.
He was now concerned about what a post-war Poland would look like, and how Roman Catholics would be treated. Russia, and Stalin, did not have a good track record when it came to relations with Roman Catholics. The government seized church property, demanded priests swear allegiance to the state and, in many cases, arrested and tried them and sent them to Siberian gulags.
When invited to visit Moscow, Orlemanski saw a chance to get answers and even, he hoped, bring about a rapprochement between Moscow and the Vatican. His bishop had directed him not to accept the invitation. The State Department and War Department didn’t like the idea, but would not refuse it. So, with proper visas and paperwork, Orlemanski requested a vacation from his duties at the church – his first in 30 years – and packed his bags for Russia.
Orlemanski’s meeting with Stalin was uneventful. The priest spoke bluntly about his concerns and criticisms, but Stalin discussed the situation persuasively. He encouraged Orlemanski to visit with the Polish soldiers he had aided from afar and with Polish citizens.
Orlemanski was pleased with what he discovered. In contrast to Nazi persecution and the worst fears that Polish Americans had, he found that Roman Catholics were reasonably well treated by Russia. The mistreatment of religious leaders that had broken out following the Russian revolution was all in the past, he was assured.
The meeting strengthened Orlemanski’s view that the new Poland should seek greater cooperation with the new Soviet Union. Russia, he reported, was not only committed to building a free, self-governing Poland. He also predicted relations between the Soviet Union and the Vatican would soon improve.
Orlemanski first reported his findings in a radio address to Poland and continued spreading the message back in the U.S. The concept of working with the Soviets was greeted with outrage by the government-in-exile, but Orlemanski’s perceptions were received with some interest in Washington.
Officials charitably viewed the priest as naïve, but well-meaning. And Franklin Roosevelt even discussed with the Russians how the Soviets might embrace religion. Would it be possible, he and his Russian ambassadors mused, for a merger of the Catholic and Orthodox churches to bring about a religious renaissance within the Soviet Union.
In hindsight, the Orlemanski trip and its fallout seems the stuff of fantasy. The Springfield priest was removed from his position and only allowed to return when he promised to speak no more about the Russian trip.
His silence allowed his critics to sometimes mischaracterize Orlemanski as a Soviet communist sympathizer, which he was not. Most Polish-Americans simply wrote him off as a naïve pawn in a Stalin publicity stunt. They would wait for Stalin to begin releasing priests from prison before believing anything had changed.
Orlemanski disappeared from the news and returned to work at his Springfield Church. His reflection on the Moscow Mission: “Stalin tried to use me and I tried to use him, for the good of my Church. He won and I lost.”