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Zygmunt Witold Nagorski was born in Warsaw and graduated from the University of Krakow in 1935.

At the start of the war, he was a “cadet officer,” an inexperienced soldier in the Polish Army who was put in charge of a tank platoon defending the fortress in Brest, a town in the eastern part of the country. The tanks at his disposal were French World War I castoffs that had been sold cheaply to the Poles; their maximum speed was six miles per hour.

Given the vastly superior firepower of Hitler’s forces, the Poles never had a chance. During intense German shelling, he and his men survived by hiding under their tanks. While his men displayed remarkable courage and embarked on dangerous forays, he said, he was often “paralyzed with fear.” When it looked like the Germans were about to storm the fortress, he fired his tank’s gun blindly. When he heard later that some of his own men were hit from behind, he agonized over whether they were struck by his friendly fire.

Once Stalin’s Soviet Union sealed Poland’s fate by invading from the east on 17 September 1939, a prelude to the carving up of the country under the terms of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, my father and his men knew they were in a hopeless position. They burned their tanks and joined the swelling ranks of soldiers seeking refuge wherever they could. As he trudged back towards Warsaw, he knew that his young bride—my mother—was probably no longer there, but he was determined to find out what had happened to her and the rest of his family.

“Here we are, you should see us,” he wrote to her, not knowing if she would ever read his words. “We are running away from the war. Are we cowards? Maybe. But I would do anything to see you again. Maybe that was why I was hiding under that tank.” Arriving in German-occupied Warsaw, he learned that his wife and parents had fled in the early days of the invasion but, initially, could find out no more than that.

In those chaotic early days, many young men had shed their uniforms and tried to blend back into everyday life. The German High Command quickly ordered former Polish soldiers to report to POW camps, threatening to execute anyone who disobeyed. My father and his army buddies decided to ignore the order.

This was an act of courage, but he never portrayed his decision—or any of his other actions in those perilous times—that way. But observing him when I was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, I felt he was fearless, never backing away from a confrontation. As he aged, that did not change. One late evening in New York when the crime rate was at its height, a young man snatched my mother’s purse and fled into the darkness of Central Park. My father, who was well into his seventies at the time, immediately raced after him; the mugger was so startled that he dropped the purse, and my father brought it back.

“What were you thinking?” I asked him later, pointing out that the man could have been armed. His response: “I wasn’t thinking; I was reacting.” That was typical Zyg, as his friends called him.

Back in 1939 when three German officers showed up at his parents’ house in Warsaw where he was staying, they were impressed by the large library, which included books in German that my grandfather had collected while studying law in Berlin and Zurich before World War I. They helped themselves to several bottles of wine and warned my father to report to the occupation authorities who needed to check out the cover story he had given them. It was a close call, and he decided not to risk another visit.

Along with a friend from his university days, my father—outfitted with false papers that identified him as a timber merchant—boarded a train to Krakow, with the goal of then reaching Hungary, and ultimately France where other Polish Army escapees were regrouping into new units. Mostly on foot and at times by jumping aboard trains, they made it close to the Polish-Hungarian border. By then, they were a group of 26 soldiers.

Local farmers warned them that German patrols with dogs were hunting for men like them—and that, once caught, they were either shot or sent to camps. As they were debating what to do next, a young peasant boy offered to guide them to a point where they could cross the border while eluding the Germans. He asked them for no reward, saying that the only contribution he could make to the war effort was to help men like them rejoin the Polish Army in France.

The boy did so flawlessly, but two months later the underground grapevine reported that he had been caught and shot while guiding another group of soldiers. My father always talked about him as one of “the unsung heroes” of the war, adding him to the list of people he considered to be more courageous than he was, and crediting him with having saved his life.

When he completed his circuitous journey to France, my father donned a Polish uniform again. Miraculously, my mother and his parents had made it there as well, with my grandfather taking up a post in the Polish government-in-exile. Evacuated to Britain when France fell, my father first served in the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade based in Scotland.

By the time his unit made its most dangerous drop into German guns at Arnhem in 1944 and fought to liberate other Dutch cities, he was assigned to temporary civilian duty, writing dispatches for the Polish authorities. “That call probably saved my life,” he explained, pointing out that so many of the paratroopers he trained with were killed. “I survived, and to this day a sense of guilt sits deep down in my throat.”

Not all members of our family survived the war. My mother’s favorite cousin rests in the Polish military cemetery in Normandy; he was part of the Polish forces that fought there after the initial D-Day landings. My grandfather’s brother, an accomplished architect, was caught in a German roundup of civilians in the early days of the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944; all of them were summarily shot.

But compared to most of their countrymen, our family got off easy. Which is another reason why my father never could shed his lingering sense of survivor’s guilt.

After the war, my parents immigrated to the United States in 1948 and my father worked as an editor with a news agency that specialized in foreign coverage of Eastern Europe. He became a U.S. citizen in 1956.

Of his decision to emigrate to the U.S. Zygmunt wrote: “My story jumps across initial parts of going nowhere. The decision to cross the Atlantic was prompted by political developments totally outside of our control. We moved blindly, unprepared, and oblivious of what to expect. A series of jobs, some typical for immigrants, some acquired by pure luck, followed.”

My father became a foreign policy expert and later founded the Center for International Leadership, a training and development group for senior executives.

He served as president of the Washington-based Center for International Leadership from 1986 until he retired in 2004. He hosted leadership development seminars for corporate leaders from the World Bank, BellSouth, Honeywell, Sprint and Volvo North America.

From the mid-1950s, he spent a decade with the U.S. Information Agency and held postings in Cairo, Paris, and Seoul. He then served as a program director with the Council on Foreign Relations, where he helped organize policy discussions with world leaders. From 1980 to 1985, he was a vice president with the Aspen Institute of Humanistic Studies, where he began his work moderating leadership seminars.


Throughout his career, my father wrote opinion pieces focused on Polish affairs. Many were published in The Washington Post and the New York Times. He authored the following books: “Falaise Gap Has Benn Closed”, his autobiography “From Warsaw to Wherever”, and “The Psychology of East-West Trade: Illusions and Opportunities”.

My father died on 26 June 2011 at the Rock Creek retirement home in the District. He was 98 years old.


SOURCE: AND T. Rees Shapiro, Washington Post Obit, published 7 July 2011

Copyright: Nagorski family

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