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Jerzy Urban, acerbic communist turned free-speech hero, dies at 89

After serving as the mouthpiece for the Polish communist government, Mr. Urban became a sharp-elbowed publisher of an acid-tongued newspaper.ALIK KEPLICZ/Associated Press

Jerzy Urban, a pugnacious press secretary for Poland’s communist leadership whose acerbic wit turned his weekly news conferences into must-see TV during the 1980s, and who later became an unlikely free-speech hero when his tabloid ran afoul of prime ministers and the pope, died Monday at his home in Konstancin-Jeziorna, a suburb of Warsaw. He was 89.

Michal Marszal, an editor at Nie, the newspaper Mr. Urban founded in 1990, confirmed the death.

As the most visible face of the Polish communist regime, Mr. Urban sprinkled a rare dash of humor and candor over a society where the leadership otherwise offered very little of either.

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Between 1981 and 1989, he strode every Tuesday at noon to a dais in front of domestic and foreign correspondents and took on all comers, responding with the sarcasm of an ace insult comic. The sessions were broadcast later that night and printed in the next day’s newspapers.

“On the one hand, he can be nasty and incomplete,” The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl said in 1987, when he worked at the Warsaw bureau. “On the other hand, Urban really helps you get an interview and an answer.”

Mr. Urban was known for flipping the script on reporters, calling them propagandists and even outright liars.

“What is written by the major wires and dailies is subordinated to a preset propaganda line,” he said in 1983. “The political discipline is really impressive.”

Still, he was one of the few communist-bloc officials to receive uniformly glowing profiles from Western reporters, who in person found him warm and self-deprecating, happy to share a quiet drink in his office after loudly lashing them in public.

Mr. Urban used the news media for his geopolitical goals. In 1986, he told Bob Woodward and Michael Dobbs of the Post that a mole inside the Polish government in 1981 had told the US government about a coming crackdown against pro-democracy activists, a warning that was kept secret from the movement.

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Mr. Urban was especially scornful of the pro-reform Solidarity movement and its leader, Lech Walesa, whom he dismissed as “that electrician from Gdansk.” In response to a pro-democracy hunger march, he scoffed, “The authorities will always eat their fill.”

He was the man Poles loved to hate. Passersby spit on his car when he stopped at intersections, and state-run stores sold ceramic pigs shaped in his likeness. He relished the opprobrium, collecting caricatures and parodies of himself.

Mr. Urban was “the sort of man who ostentatiously and deliberately breaks wind in living rooms and watches the reaction of other guests,” Daniel Passent, a Polish political columnist, wrote in 1985.

But there was method to his meanness. The public aimed so many insults at him that there were few left over for the country’s faltering leadership. At the same time, his staunch position helped hard-line communists accept the fact that he was pushing Poland toward greater press freedoms.

Mr. Urban was not above pranks. After the United States offered to send powdered milk to replace milk tainted by the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, he offered to send blankets and sleeping bags to New York City to help with its homelessness crisis. Mayor Ed Koch declined the donation.

He leveled some of his best lines at himself, joining those who mocked his short stature, wide girth, and large ears. “When I watch myself on television, I just see rolls of fat murmuring into a microphone,” he told the St. Petersburg Times in 1988.

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He quit his post in 1989, less than a year before the Polish United Workers’ Party dissolved. He drew on his wealth of insider knowledge to write a book, “Urban’s Alphabet” (1990), in which he skewered political and cultural leaders. The book sold 600,000 copies, and Mr. Urban used the profits to launch Nie (Polish for “No”).

The publication, a cross between Spy and Screw, was scatological, irreverent, anti-Catholic, and pro-abortion rights. Full-frontal, full-color nude drawings often ran on the back page.

Mr. Urban was charged in 1991 with distributing pornography after publishing a guide to avoiding pregnancy. He won and later published a guide to the brothels of Poland. It was great publicity: Within a year, Nie had 500,000 subscribers, making it one of the largest-circulation weeklies in the country.

Mr. Urban reserved his harshest material for the Catholic Church, in particular Pope John Paul II, who, as the bishop of Krakow, Poland, had played a role in the nation’s opposition movement. Mr. Urban called the pope a sadomasochist and the “Vatican’s Brezhnev,” a reference to the ailing Soviet leader who died in 1982.

Those comments once more landed him in court. He was convicted of insulting the pope and forced to pay a fine.

In both careers, Mr. Urban was a master manipulator of public opinion. He was, he liked to say, “a man who makes a living by being talked about.”

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Jerzy Urbach was born to Jewish parents in Lodz, Poland, on Aug. 3, 1933, the year Adolf Hitler was named chancellor of Germany. His father, Jan, owned the city’s second-largest newspaper, and his mother, Maria Urbach, was a homemaker.

When the Germans and Soviets invaded Poland in 1939, the Urbachs took their chances with the latter, fleeing east to Lviv. As they crossed into Soviet territory, a soldier recorded their surname incorrectly, as Urban — a Catholic-sounding name and a clerical error that Mr. Urban later said saved their lives.

After the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the family fled again into the countryside, moving around frequently until the end of the war, when they returned to Lodz.

He studied journalism at the University of Warsaw from 1951-54 but left before receiving a degree. He went on to work for the magazine Nowa Wies and then to the weekly Po Prostu.

Both publications were tightly controlled by the government, and he quickly ran afoul of authorities. He was barred from writing under his own name before he was rehabilitated in 1961 and went to work as an editor at Polityka, a weekly newsmagazine.

He married Wieslaw Grochul in 1957. The marriage ended in divorce, as did his second, to Karyna Andrzejwska. He leaves his third wife, journalist Małgorzata Daniszewska; a daughter from his second marriage, Aleksandra Magdalena Grzesiak; and two grandchildren.

His ascendancy in the political establishment was a strange one: He was known as a reform advocate, and his application to join the Communist Party was rejected multiple times. And as press secretary, he continued to write novels and political commentary under a pseudonym, Jan Rem.

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Mr. Urban’s later turn as a media entrepreneur made him one of Poland’s wealthiest business figures. Although he never loosened his commitment to communism, he relished in the luxuries that capitalist success afforded, like his-and-hers Jaguars, a mansion with an indoor pool, and a squad of bodyguards.

He had come full circle in another way as well: The most reviled man in Poland during the 1980s had become, a decade later, one of its post-communist heroes. At his pornography trial in 1991, fans showed up with his face emblazoned on T-shirts, holding copies of Nie for him to autograph.