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Wanda Traczyk-Stawska a.k.a. "Pączek" (Little Flower Bud) - born in 1927. She was a scout before the war, then a member of the Grey Ranks, a Home Army soldier, a shooter and a liaison officer in the Warsaw Uprising. After the Uprising surrendered, she was taken prisoner by the Germans. At the first meeting of the former insurgent unit after the war, the commander ordered her to find the burial places of her fallen comrades, bury them with dignity and mark their graves. She has been carrying out this order steadfastly ever since. She worked as a teacher in special needs schools for 30 years. She has two children, four grandchildren and one great-grandson.

Magdalena Karst-Adamczyk: You once said that for you the war started on September 4, rather than the first.

Wanda Traczyk-Stawska*: A bomb killed my aunt - my dad's sister - and her husband on September 4. Their sons - 12-year-old Romek and 9-year-old Lolek - were seriously injured and ended up in hospital in the Praga district, which was also soon bombarded.

My mother, who was an extremely brave woman, found some wounded boys in anti-aircraft trenches and, despite the ongoing bombardment, she took a carriage from Praga to Mokotów, where we lived. She saved their lives.

I was 12 years old then. It was the end of my childhood.

And then, when a baby was shot dead and its mother seriously injured right in front of my eyes, I felt such anger, such a desire for revenge...

You felt hate?

Yes. I couldn't forgive the Germans for a long time.

For several years, I couldn't say the "Prayer" (of the Grey Ranks). In 1942 this beautiful poem was written by the then 17-year-old Jan Romocki, aka "Bonaventura". I will read it so as not to twist the words.

“From war, from misery and from hunger.

from profanation of the nation's blood,

From tears shed in madness

Protect us, Lord

 

From every night's uncertainty

The desperate impotence of hands,

From fear of is still to come,

Protect us, Lord

 

From bombs, grenades and fire,

And, worse, a fear-filled heart,

From terror as terrible as agony.

Protect us, Lord

 

From giving up when in defeat,

From pride on victory day,

From wrongs as well as seeking vengeance

Protect us, Lord

 

Protect us both from evil and from hate.

May our revenge not come to pass.

To forgive them purely

Give us the power, Christ.”

Those last words - about forgiveness - would stick in my throat.

When did you learn to forgive?

When I saw the suffering of the Germans whom I had to kill while fighting.

It was during the uprising, just after the fall of Powiśle. As I had the best eyes in the platoon, they assigned me to a heavy machine gun positioned in a balcony door at the corner of Chmielna and Nowy Świat (the balcony is still there, today there are beautiful flowers there instead of a gun). I would watch the Germans run from Ordynacka Street to Warecka Street through my binoculars and tell the gunner when to shoot and when to stop. Ammunition was very precious. At one point the Germans started to fire at us using a grenade launcher. A grenade hit the frame of the balcony door. The gunner was wounded in his arm, and a fragment injured my brow ridge. The commanding officer ordered us to leave our post - for a moment - to dress the wounds. Because it was only possible to really leave the post on a stretcher. Although I couldn't see well, I was fully conscious, my arms and legs were fine, so then the commander ordered me to throw grenades at the Germans. When the Germans raised the Red Cross flag, signalling a momentary ceasefire, which we always honoured - because they wanted to collect their dead and wounded - when they were collecting the corpses, I looked out from my post. I wanted to see if I had done a good job of throwing the grenades. And then, when I saw what my grenades were doing to these people, how they ripped their bodies apart, when I saw their terrible suffering, it was the first time I saw the Germans as humans.

Did you ever cry during the fighting?

I hardly ever cry, only when I don't know how to react differently. But when I saw this suffering - yes, I cried. But then I returned to my post, and had to continue throwing grenades because there was no other way. So I kept throwing and there were tears streaming down my face. That's when I realised that war is the cruellest, the most disgusting, the stupidest way to take something from someone or to prove a point.

I have hated war ever since.

How does a Catholic feel about having to kill?

Me and my fellow members of the Grey Ranks had a wonderful chaplain, Father Jan Zieja. He was of great support for us during the uprising. We were extremely concerned about committing a mortal sin and that nothing would wash it away but Father Zieja said: "God is righteous, He knows what is in your heart. He knows that you do what you have to do and that you are not doing it for yourself, but to protect the weak.”

It was only thanks to his support, his reinforcement of our belief that we were doing this to protect others, that we could come out of the uprising and war without the help of psychologists.

What kind of emotions did a female shooter evoke during the Uprising?

I had a very good weapon from the outset, a Błyskawica submachine gun. It didn't belong to me, I was testing it. It aroused jealousy - sometimes soldiers from other units, even officer cadets, who were only equipped with a bottle of petrol because there were not enough guns for them - couldn't stand the fact that a girl had a machine gun and they didn't. Occasionally they tried to bribe me with something or offered to swap. But I wouldn't give up my gun for anything. A gun is a sacred thing for a soldier. My friends in the unit finally told me to dress up as a boy. And I did. I started to wear trousers. I fought as a boy until the end of the uprising.

Did your comrades treat you like a boy or a girl?

They treated me like a baby sister, took care of me, made sure that I was well brought up even in those terrible circumstances. They pacified me quickly when I tried pretending to be a boy outside the military context.

Of course, I would meet soldiers during the uprising who didn't recognise me, they didn't know that I was a girl. This sometimes resulted in tragicomic situations because they were very well-behaved boys who treated girls very nicely, and sometimes, in battle, they would lose their rag. I was quietly amused but when they realised it was me, they were embarrassed, because they had, for instance, cursed in front of me. Young people were like that at the time.

But in reality, it didn't matter whether you were a man or a woman during the uprising when you were faced with death in combat. At the end of the uprising we knew that we were losing, that we could die at any moment. We realised that we could be facing Soviet occupation. As in this poem: "And history will lie to us tomorrow/ Strangers will level our graves/ We die without saying we are sad/ We're not the army, we're boys and girls."

Pani Wanda z Peemkiem, maskotką małpką, którą pod koniec powstania dostała od swoich kolegów powstańców. W 2018 r. Wanda Traczyk-Stawska podarowała maskotkę protestującym w Sejmie osobom z niepełnosprawnościami i ich opiekunomPani Wanda z Peemkiem, maskotką małpką, którą pod koniec powstania dostała od swoich kolegów powstańców. W 2018 r. Wanda Traczyk-Stawska podarowała maskotkę protestującym w Sejmie osobom z niepełnosprawnościami i ich opiekunom Fot. archiwum prywatne pani Wandy Traczyk-Stawskiej

Wanda T -S with Peemek, a monkey mascot that she got from her fellow insurgents at the end of the uprising. In 2018, she gave the mascot to disabled people protesting in the Sejm with their carers. Photo from Wanda Traczyk-Stawska's private archive.

You say you don't feel like a hero. In your eyes, the real heroes of the uprising were the nurses because they were the ones who showed courage, rescuing the wounded unarmed.

The nurses' work was the hardest.We sometimes shouted at them when, for instance, they were dressing the wounds of a German, and we were afraid that there were not enough bandages for our soldiers. And they would patiently explain that a wounded enemy was only a suffering human.

I was a soldier, I don't feel proud of having to kill. But every time I think of the nurses, I feel great pride and admiration for everything they did. Because when we were retreating, leaving our wounded behind, they stayed with them, to the death. Sometimes I really regret not being one of them. But back then I couldn't imagine rescuing Germans...

Your story highlights the role of those who were in the background. Polish history has long erased women, diminishing their role in the fight for freedom.

My daughter lives in London. A few years ago, when I was visiting her, she surprised me by taking me to an Arboretum about 300 km from London. It's a place where all the armies of the world fighting in World War Two on the side of the allies are commemorated. There is also a monument commemorating the Polish armies: an airman, a sailor, a ground soldier and a girl - a nurse and a liaison officer from the uprising, who represents the whole Home Army (AK).

Wanda Traczyk-Stawska: The boys valued me for my instinct and trusted me because I guided them safely through the bullets

I was very touched when I saw it. I thought of all my wonderful friends who deserve such a commemoration, although they usually leave this world forgotten. We are only remembered on special occassions, you know, for many years we had no day-to-day help.

We were born in the Second Republic and were brought up to worship the January insurgents. Poland had barely regained its independence in 1918 when Piłsudski ordered that the insurgents of '63 were the army's older brothers and every soldier had to salute them, even the generals. We held the insurgents in very high esteem. We visited them in one of the houses that were created for them, in Floriańska Street. I used to visit them with my father, who was a legionary.

Back in 1944, we used to identify ourselves with the January insurgents. And later, those of us who survived dreamed that our fallen friends would be remembered and we would have the respect of society which would not let us die alone and in poverty. We did not expect anything from the communist regime, we knew that the country was only pretending to be Poland. And then, after 1989, we didn't dare ask for anything, we decided that as soon as the state could afford it, it would surely take care of us. 

And it didn't?

Under communism, the insurgents were repressed. We had no careers, no decent pensions. Many of my colleagues died alone, in poverty.

Paulinka, the most famous nurse and a liaison officer from the " Zośka" battalion, experienced terrible things also after the war. In 1948 or 1949, she gave birth to a child and when the child was two months old she was arrested for five years. Can you imagine that? And what was she arrested for? Things which I had done as well: taking part in searching for the bodies and organising the burials of her fellow insurgents. Paulinka now lives in a veteran's house built during the communist era, mainly for General Berling's soldiers. Her stay is funded by the city. We have had no similar place created for us. It was only the Warsaw mayors, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz and Rafał Trzaskowski, who gave us insurgents our own place - a day centre in Nowolipie Street, where we can not only meet but also receive rehabilitation and have a meal. What's more, they also deliver meals to the homes of my ailing old friends. The mayor is now preparing a 24-hour centre for us. But we are already very old. We may not live to see it.

Wanda Traczyk-Stawska, bohaterka powstania warszawskiegoWanda Traczyk-Stawska, bohaterka powstania warszawskiego Fot. Mateusz Skwarczek / Agencja Gazeta

Wanda Traczyk-Stawska, heroine of the Warsaw Uprising Fot. Mateusz Skwarczek / Agencja Gazeta

 

Is that why you, the Warsaw insurgents, stood by Rafał Trzaskowski during the presidential campaign?

Yes. Rafał Trzaskowski has really looked after us since he took office. But there is another, more important reason, apart from gratitude - common values.

For a long time, you didn't get involved in politics. A few years ago, you said: "I'm not of PiS or of PO, I'm a soldier." The turning point was probably the protest by the carers of disabled adults in the Sejm. And then the teachers' strike. And now - the attack on the LGBT community. Today, you appear and stand up for human dignity wherever people are denied their subjectivity.

I still don't belong to any party.

To this day, I can't even imagine what the young disabled men felt when they watched their mothers being manhandled by Sejm's security. How could such a situation be allowed to occur? After all, these mothers were fighting for their children's dignity. After the war, I was a teacher at a school for disabled children for almost 30 years. Through all these years I saw mothers who, sweaty and pale from exhaustion, brought their children to our school, ensuring their education and place in society. It's a huge effort and sacrifice. But with the support of the state, proper rehabilitation, many of these disabled people could go on to do extraordinary things. Janka Ochojska is a prime example of this.

I just felt it was my duty to take these mothers' side. I don't understand how there can be money for propaganda, and not for the weakest citizens. This is so unfair that I will oppose it as long as I have enough strength.

And I can't stand by and do nothing when teachers are being disrespected. Under the Second Republic, Piłsudski made sure that teachers were well paid but also respected. For my generation, teachers were role models. They raised us along with our parents. It was thanks to them that we had and still have a moral backbone. If we don't take care of our teachers, it's a poor future that awaits us. That's why I strongly resent the First Lady's failure to defend the dignity of her profession. She stood up for her husband so beautifully, why didn't she defend her colleagues at the time? I would like to stand before her one day and ask her about it.

It took the president's wife weeks of reflection and a big stage to stand up for her husband. You and your friends, the other heroines of the uprising, reacted immediately to the president's words about LGBT ideology. You said: "I can't watch what we fought for in the uprising being lost."

Because in the uprising, we fought for human dignity. I can't stand the fact that the Polish president says that people who have other sexual needs are not human. Does he know that these young people become depressed and commit suicide? And what do their parents feel? There have been homosexual people since time immemorial. Among them were the most outstanding painters, sculptors, musicians and scholars of all time. And we deny them humanity in the 21st century? Where are we heading? Soon we'll be breaking people on the wheel.

The uprising was a fight for dignity?

Yes. Our uprising was an outbreak of despair. We were aware of how it could end. And it's not true that it was the Command that put pressure on us.

This I know for sure: without the consent of the civilian population the uprising wouldn't have happened.

The uprising is heavily criticised today. But voices of criticism appeared soon after the war. General Anders called the uprising a crime. Those words really hurt you, the insurgents - because Anders supported you after the war.

I repeat: it was about dignity.

When, on July 27 and 28, 1944, Germans ordered that 100,000 men were to dig fortifications in Warsaw, all of Warsaw's residents understood that no one would be able to save their belongings. Even those who were indifferent - because there are always indifferent people – they existed back then and they exist today - who didn't care what was going on, as long as they had food, were able to survive and get some sleep, even they understood that this time they would not get any sleep. We all understood that two of our deadly enemies were about to fight in Warsaw and that both of them wanted to destroy the city. But this battle would not happen as long as there were people in the city because there could be a soldier hiding in every apartment. That's why the Germans wanted to catch the men so that the AK wouldn't attack them from behind.

Wanda tuż po wojnie w szkole młodych ochotniczek stworzonej w Palestynie przez generała Andersa.Wanda tuż po wojnie w szkole młodych ochotniczek stworzonej w Palestynie przez generała Andersa. Fot. archiwum prywatne pani Wandy Traczyk-Stawskiej

Wanda immediately after the war, at a young volunteer school created in Palestine by General Anders. Wanda Traczyk-Stawska's private archive

You thought it was an ambush?

Yes. That's why the Varsovians agreed to the uprising. Our mothers also agreed to it. They were martyrs throughout the occupation because they were always waiting in fear for their children to come home. But they knew us and knew what we feared most. And what we were afraid of was not that the Germans would catch and torture us. We were most afraid of not knowing how much pain we could endure and that we might betray our friends under torture. And there was nothing worse for us than betraying our loved ones. Our mothers wanted to spare us that. Even though they knew we would die. But they knew that we would die as free men.

I have two sons, eight and ten years old. How should I talk to them about the uprising?

Please tell them that the Warsaw Uprising was proof of how much mothers loved their sons and daughters. They didn't cry when we went into the Uprising, they didn't try and stop us. They knew that our dignity was the most important thing for us. That's why today, when I see that a person is deprived of their dignity, I think about them, but I also think about their mother.

As a mother of boys, I am concerned about the cult of the uprising, which is moving towards an apotheosis of fighting and spilling blood for the homeland.

The Museum of the Warsaw Uprising is a wonderful, modern institution, but it has one fundamental flaw: it does not tell the whole truth. If there are canals there, let there be rats, faeces in them. Children play there, then leave the museum and they all want to fight in the Uprising. For them, it's great fun. That is why I encourage you to take your children to the insurgents' cemetery, where 104 105 people are buried. That' s where the truth about the uprising is. It is the scale that shows the price, the terrible price that had to be paid. We want this cemetery to be a cry across Europe and the whole world to ensure that there will never be a war again.

The cemetery of the insurgents, remembering the dead is a mission to which you devoted many years of your life after the war.

Everything seems to suggest that I won't be able to complete it. Under communism, the subject was pushed aside. After 1989, the first president to become involved in creating this memorial was Bronisław Komorowski. It all happened too late. It's a problem that keeps nagging me.

In a country like Poland, where history becomes an element of politics, people like you or Marian Turski, for instance, on whose lives history has made its mark, should be listened to very carefully. Do you feel listened to?

Do you know who makes me feel listened to? Young people. I was in Pisz a while ago and met with high school students. After the meeting, a boy stayed behind and watched me. I finally asked him why he was looking at me like that, and he answered by asking: "Can I touch you?" Because concrete things are extremely important in the teaching process. And I am such a concrete thing. And I communicate much better with these young people than with the authorities, on either side. Because, inside, the young people are the same as we were then. They have self-esteem, dignity, they are very critical thinkers.

Do they rebel against the term "LGBT ideology"?

Yes, because these are young people who are aware of the importance of every person. They respect others, just as they want to be respected.

If there's any advice I can give you, it would be to raise your sons first and foremost as people who can love. As St. Paul said: love is paramount. And let them respect nature and defend it. For the enemy will not have time to attack us if the lack of fresh air and water defeat us first. And please tell them that it is worth fighting for freedom and dignity, for the weak. But not with weapons - with their heads.

Różaniec w ozdobnym etui i książeczka do nabożeństwa, które Wanda Traczyk-Stawska zabrała z jednego z mieszkań w czasie powstania warszawskiegoRóżaniec w ozdobnym etui i książeczka do nabożeństwa, które Wanda Traczyk-Stawska zabrała z jednego z mieszkań w czasie powstania warszawskiego Fot. Mateusz Skwarczek / Agencja Gazeta

A rosary in a decorative case and a prayer book which Wanda Traczyk-Stawska took from one of the apartments during the Warsaw Uprising Photo. Mateusz Skwarczek / Gazeta Agency

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After the fall of Powiśle, as the insurgents tried to stop the Germans running from Ordynacka Street to Warecka Street, the German soldiers set fire to the building on 1/3 Chmielna Street. Wanda, who was inside, took a rosary in a decorative case and a prayer book from one of the flats while fleeing from the burning building. She hoped that one day she would find the owner. She had the items with her in four German POW camps, after the liberation she took them to Italy and then to Palestine. In 1947, they returned to Poland with her, becoming, next to the "Peemka," her most valuable souvenirs of the uprising. If you know who they might have belonged to, please contact the editorial office

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