'You can’t be honest with the Bolsheviks'
Rochester serves as a witness to the communist after effects of World War II.
Over the course of a few days in the spring of 1950, Rochester heard first-hand reports from a Europe that was dealing with the aftermath of World War II, which had ended five years earlier.
The horror inflicted by Nazi Germany during the war had been replaced by the totalitarian communism of the Soviet Union, especially in eastern European countries.
Poland, for example, which had been invaded by Germany in 1939, was also invaded and occupied by the USSR. After the war, the free elections that were promised never took place, and instead the Russians installed in Warsaw what amounted to a puppet regime.
“Before the elections were held, I noticed strange things,” Dr. Mitrofan Smorszczok, a refugee Polish physician, told the Four-County Medical Auxiliary on May 10, 1950, in Rochester.
There was a heavier police presence, roads and bridges were guarded, and prominent Polish citizens began to disappear, he said. The election supposedly resulted in a 99.2% vote for the communist party — the only party on the ballot.
Smorszczok recalled being assigned to work alongside an older physician at a railroad station in Poland. One day, the older doctor told a patient it was easier to obtain pictures of Russian leader Josef Stalin than needed medications. The next day, the doctor failed to show up for work. “I went that evening to find out if he was ill,” Smorszczok said. “The doctor’s wife said he had been taken away by two armed men at midnight.”
Smorszczok managed to leave Poland, and eventually made it to the United States along with his wife and daughter. In January 1949, while studying for licensure as a physician in Minnesota, he was hired as a painter at a St. Cloud orphanage.
Also speaking in Rochester that week was Paulette Weil Oppert, a former French resistance fighter, who was making a presentation on behalf of the United Jewish Appeal.
Oppert had managed to escape Nazi persecution during the war by fleeing to an unoccupied region of France. Her husband, who was in the French army, had been captured and tortured to death. During the war, Oppert, who was Jewish, helped save the lives of Jewish children living in occupied France. After the war, she organized operations to smuggle Jewish refugees into what was still British-occupied Palestine.
Oppert told an audience at Mayo Civic Auditorium that hundreds of thousands of Jews were being held in displaced persons camps in northern Africa, awaiting passage to the new state of Israel. She described the camps as “one vast ghetto.”
Oppert, by the way, would eventually meet and marry a Minneapolis man, and would live in Minnesota until her death in 2005.
On the same day Oppert gave her talk in Rochester, a refugee couple from Latvia were featured in a Post-Bulletin story about their escape from their Soviet-occupied homeland. Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Leise (in the style of the day, Mrs. Leise’s first name was not given in the article), had come to the U.S. from a displaced persons camp in March 1950, and were now living with a Rochester family.
Mrs. Leise said the United States was not being forceful enough in its dealing with the Soviet Union. “Americans are too honest,” she said. “You can’t be honest with the Bolsheviks, who tell nothing but lies.”
It was through these speakers, and others, that the international headlines were brought home to Rochester.
Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.