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The message of Wanda Traczyk-Stawska

The idea of creating a Hall of Remembrance at the Warsaw Insurgents Cemetery came from Wanda Traczyk-Stawska, aka “Pączek”, “Atma”. Born on 7 April 1927 in Warsaw, a psychologist and social activist, soldier of the Home Army and member of Szare Szeregi [Eng: ‘Grey Ranks’, Polish Scouting Association], participant of the Warsaw Uprising, Ms Traczyk-Stawska is the head of the Warsaw Insurgents Cemetery Social Committee. She says:

“I was given an order: I was to find my fellow soldiers, make sure their names were there, and their burial place was worthy of their struggle and their death.”

Her experiences from the Uprising, as well as her motivation behind her long-time struggle for recalling the memory of the victims of the Uprising are revealed in the excerpts from an extended interview titled Błyskawica. Historia Wandy Traczyk-Stawskiej, żołnierza Powstania Warszawskiego [A Flash of Lightning. The Story of Wanda Traczyk-Stawska, Soldier of the Warsaw Uprising, W.A.B. Publishing House, Warsaw 2022] conducted by Michał Wójcik, the Hall of Remembrance curator.

Wanda Traczyk-Stawska, fot. Tomasz Kaczor

Ms Wanda, how do we get to the truth about the Uprising? Where do we look for it?

I apologize for what I’m about to say. I’m old now, so I hope you’ll forgive me. I’ll say this: the truth is at the cemetery. And no, not at beautiful Powązki, where you can take a stroll amidst even rows of birch crosses. I mean the Warsaw Insurgents Cemetery in the Wola district where 105,000 people are buried. Tons of human ashes—civilians and soldiers alike—sunk into oblivion, an utter and complete oblivion! You should go there, you’ll see for yourself. You’ll feel it.

Do you have any idea how many of these over 100,000 individuals had their own plaques with first name and surname no more than ten years ago? 3,300 people. What percentage is that? Three percent. What about the rest? The rest have remained nameless for years and years. And they did die for a reason. They died for a cause. They didn’t die of old age, because their time had come. They didn’t die surrounded by their children and grandchildren, in their own homes. They were dragged out of their houses and murdered. Others died amidst the rubble.

For the first several decades following the end of the war, nobody made an effort to determine who they were, who is buried there. What were their names? Where did they live? Over twenty tons of human ashes—Germans burnt the corpses of the people they had murdered, and twice as many with no personal data. This is the dreadful truth about the Uprising. Dreadful!

Unspeakable! Luckily, today we know the majority of these victims. Their memory has been restored.

You have once said that you still have one mission to fulfil. And this mission refers to the cemetery.

This is my last mission. The Cemetery in Wola and the Hall of Remembrance of the Victims of the Warsaw Uprising located there. The Hall is under construction. It needs to stir people’s conscience, to restore the rightful significance to this place. I have been battling for the Hall for years now, and I’m doing it for future generations. Yes, this is my mission. Do you remember our conversation about Antigone? I read it during the occupation. I was in an ambush with the book in my hand, they pulled me out of a tram. Today, I feel like a protagonist of a Greek tragedy myself. This is precisely my mission—the mission of good old Antigone. To bury the nameless anew. To mourn them one more time. And then, to keep them in memory, and to preserve this memory for future generations.

Mythical Creon did not want a funeral for the victims of war. He didn’t want to bury Antigone’s brother. Yet there is a cemetery in Wola. It exists. This is quite significant!

How many times have I heard that it wasn’t the real insurgents’ necropolis, that Powązki Military Cemetery serves as one, and this should suffice. Why multiply something that already exists? I was asked these questions even by the staff of the Museum of Warsaw Rising. They said: there are no soldiers buried in Wola, no insurgents who fought and died with arms in their hands. There are only civilian victims there, they would say. Now, this is not exactly true, on many levels. Firstly, fellow-soldiers from my unit are buried there. They perished in combat. Aside from them, there are between 8,000 and 10,000 insurgents buried there! Secondly, and this is particularly important, the vast majority are graves that hold ashes and remains of civilians. This comes up to about 90,000 people. They were all murdered!

This is the largest military cemetery in Poland which doesn’t function as a national remembrance site! It doesn’t because it has been established that civilian victims don’t fit the cult of war. And this is indeed a crime committed on memory!

For years now I have been striving to restore the place to its rightful rank, so that the memory of the victims does not sink into oblivion. Not only should their death not be forgotten—it should also teach us something. This is my mission, the last one.  

The last order. That’s what you have once admitted.

I have been repeating it at every opportunity, and I shall repeat it again. My mission began right after the war. In 1947, my commander “Steb” gave me and Andrzej Korycki an order: to locate all our fallen fellow-soldiers from the Shielding Unit. To find a worthy place for their eternal rest, and to preserve their memory. I didn’t imagine back then this was going to be that hard.

The action to obliterate memory began soon after the war had ended. The Home army – this mean, spiteful creature – had no right to live on in history. It didn’t even have the right to its own graves.

I’m nearing the end of my journey… But this very fight for this place that I have been waging for the past 75 years already is my toughest battle. I’ll tell you how it all happened, step by step. We must continue to talk about it. To carve this history in stone. Perhaps then people will finally understand what happened there, in Wola, after the war. The war ended! After we had surrendered, we were taken captive and the residents were driven out of the city. After the liberation, the city was no more. It was a desert covered by snow. Here and there, there were crosses sticking out from under the snow. There were also piles of unburied corpses everywhere. Mounds were created out of human ashes.

When the snow and ice melted, in the spring of 1945, the city was on the verge of an epidemic. That is when the ghastly idea arose to collect these human remains and burn them again. Just like the Germans had done before. It was immoral! Fortunately, Jadwiga Boryta-Nowakowska of the Polish Red Cross suggested people should collect as many corpses and ashes as possible and bury them in makeshift graves, in the specially assigned quarters of the city. The existing cemeteries could not possibly accommodate that many corpses. An Information Bureau of the Polish Red Cross [PCK] started its operation, and then—years later—the PCK Search Archive. The aim was to collect information about the identified corpses. It was a Benedictine effort—by the end of the 1950s, life stories of merely few thousand residents had been established. All in all, approximately 104, 105 people—it’s only now that we know it!—ended up at the Wolski cemetery. Today, we know 70,000 names! We also know that between 8,000 and 10,000 people buried here were soldiers, the rest were all civilians. I’m sure there were also German soldiers buried here. And some Soviet soldiers. That is how the Berling’s soldiers who had perished in Czerniaków.

Why so many unidentified bodies?

Not all of the victims had little bottles with their names in them. Even if they did, the paper was damp and the letters were smudged and hard to decipher. When the bodies were moved, name tags would fall off. Soldiers from “Zośka”, “Miotła” and “Parasol” searched for their dead by themselves. Despite the troubles, reluctance of the authorities and fear—after all, Communist terror had already begun—they managed to bury a good number of Home Army soldiers at the Powązki Military Cemetery. This place was agreed upon with Rev. Zemralski from St. Joseph Church. Already in mid-February 1945, my friends from “Zośka” buried Andrzej Romocki aka “Morro” there; there are also graves of “Rudy”, “Zośka” and “Alek”. In total, eleven insurgent quarters were delineated at the Powązki Military Cemetery.

Meanwhile, the cemetery in Wola began to operate only in November 1945. The most shocking funeral took place there a year later, on 6 August, on the anniversary of the Wola Massacre. There were 117 coffins, solely ashes of the thousands of murdered and burned victims: in Wola, in the vicinity of the Pawiak prison, at the Gestapo headquarters on Szucha Street, and in the ruins of the pre-war Chief Inspectorate of the Armed Forces on Ujazdowskie Avenues. Later, over the course of many months, human remains were brought in here from other places. Today, fifty tons of human ashes rest in the burial mound.

With the onset of the Stalinist era, the process of obliterating memory of the Uprising began. The authorities wanted the history of us, of the Home Army and the underground state, to fade into oblivion. The battle with memory also took place at cemeteries. In 1947, the second stage of exhumation began. Mass graves were open in various districts of Warsaw. That is when the Society of Fighters for Freedom and Democracy [ZBOWiD] decided, with no further consideration, which corpse belonged to a civilian and which to an insurgent, which are anonymous and which would be buried in a grave with a name plaque. It was a major scandal! Many thousands of victims were desecrated in this way. Data was lost on purpose, traces were removed, memory was obliterated, some of the documentation was burned. On purpose! Even today, when I talk about it, I tremble with anger. The biggest scandal happened during the exhumation in the Krasiński Garden. There, mostly Home Army soldiers and some People’s Army [AL] soldiers who had fought in the Old Town were buried. And yet, now they were all buried as communists in the People’s Army quarters.

Do you have any idea what it must have meant to the families of those victims?

In the end the authorities of Powązki Military Cemetery refused to bury any more victims of the Uprising, so from April 1947 all the burials took place in Wola—all in nameless graves. The families who managed to locate their relatives were harassed by the Security Service. Whoever protested was immediately intimidated. Fallen soldiers of the Home Army were not entered in the cemetery register. They were all entered as “names unknown”. When I arrived in Poland, I was in despair. All our fallen boys and girls from the Shielding Unit disappeared. They were exhumed and transferred to Wola, where they were buried in nameless graves or in the People’s Army quarters. I remember looking for “Jastrzębiec”. Boys teased him and called him “Ordynat” [Eng. Lord of the Estate].

Andrzej Taczanowski, you mentioned him before.

A wonderful boy. Modest, nice, truly a prince in his family, hence the nickname. He was severely injured on Warecka Street, he died on Koszykowa Street. Boys buried him on Chopina Street. After the war, his father wanted to exhume his body and bury it in a family grave. When he got to the spot, it turned out that the body had already been moved to the garden of the Institute of the Deaf and Mute. Makeshift graves had been dug there. Before the necessary permission could be arranged, “Ordynat’s” body was moved to Wola and buried in a nameless grave. His father couldn’t do anything about it—after all, such was the authorities’ policy. Years later his grave was located and now we do know where he is buried.

Yes, we were given the order by “Steb”. First, we collected information secretly and illegally. In the 1980s, I got the scouts from the 145th Troop in Międzylesie involved. After “Sokół” Korycki passed away, Krysia Zbyszewska “Zbyszek” helped me. I knew her from Oberlangen, her sister was buried in Wola. In the 1990s, an informal committee for the cemetery affairs was established. It became official in 2004. Krysia passed away in 2012. I was left alone, growing increasingly weak. By that time, we had established burial places of 14 of our fellow-soldiers. Alas, all our efforts to put their names on plaques were unsuccessful. The officials wouldn’t issue a permission. I don’t even want to begin talking about destroying tombstones at the cemetery, pulling out crosses or attacks by unidentified perpetrators. Someone will write about it, someday.

That is when I thought I couldn’t go on. I wouldn’t be able to fulfil my commander’s order. This would be my debacle. And then it dawned on me. There is a provision in the military regulations that if a soldier is not able to carry out an order, he must report it to his superior. And the superior at that time was the head of the armed forces, namely the President. I wrote a letter to Bronisław Komorowski. I got no answer. But someone conveyed our request to him personally. I was invited to Belweder and there I said that after years of fruitless efforts I had to give up, which I hereby reported. It did work. The President became a patron of our action. We were joined by more wonderful people: Wiesław Sikorski from the Chancellery, writer Andrzej Osęka, Barbara Siedlicka from the University of Warsaw. And it did work, I managed to fulfil “Steb’s” order. There is an appropriate plaque in the 81st lodge, a mark of the two of our girls, ten boys and two scouts. Three of them have nicknames, we never knew their real names. But the impossible became possible! We restored their memory.

There is one more thing that we succeeded in, and I am overjoyed about it. Mostly civilians are buried at the Warsaw Insurgents Cemetery. Their ashes are mixed with the ashes of the insurgents. Thanks to our efforts, the cemetery became a resting place for all the victims of the Uprising. And today this has been officially acknowledged.

You always stress that this cemetery is a phenomenon of sorts: a military necropolis of the civilians.

They died because of the Uprising, there is no other reason. They died during armed combat, and then, when we were retreating from one district after another, we left them alone and helpless. The Germans took their revenge on them. Their retaliation for the sixty-three days of resistance was massive and cruel. It is all in my head and in my heart, I cannot forget about it. I simply couldn’t. We must keep repeating it: if it hadn’t been for the civilians, the Uprising would have fallen on the second or third day. That is why stripping civilian victims of the Uprising of the honour of being among its heroes is quite simply wrong.

Over the course of these long years of fighting the system, you fought yet another battle—a battle for a certain young insurgent. His nickname was “Waluś”.

– Tadeusz. My Tadzio.

Your brother. He died on 16 September 1944.

39 years of incessant effort! That is how long it took me to find him, to make sure that his name and nickname, date of death and military association are written on a plaque in the right quarter. To write that he is buried here! It breaks my heart that our dad didn’t live to see that. He did ask me to complete this mission, for it was him to begin the search for Tadzio.

Initially, we knew from the Red Cross that Tadzio was shot dead as a civilian. Dad was even given his ID stained with blood. A true miracle! But I knew Tadzio was a soldier, a sworn soldier. He fought in the “Kryska” Unit in Powiśle. I knew his friends and, ultimately, I did manage to locate the spot where he perished. I wrote to the National Council but the officials sent me back to the Red Cross. It took years, all the going back and forth. Letters, responses, refusals. In 1986, I called the Mayor of the Wola district and told him that I’m in the possession of an official information that my brother had been buried at the cemetery in Wola. It was a trick, but I had no other choice. The Mayor confirmed—he wrote Tadzio had been buried in the sector 34, row I.

I submitted a request to the Deputy Minister of Spatial Planning and Construction to put my brother’s name on the plaque, so that he was no more buried in a nameless grave. Another miracle—he agreed! Oh, we were refused so many times, so many tears we shed! The Deputy Minister wrote back that Tadzio died on 16 September 1944 at 2 Okrąg Street. Afterwards, I tried to determine how he had died. I failed. Most likely, he died under the ruins of a tenement house. There was a hospital there, perhaps he was a patient himself, injured for the second time.

When I got this information, I was able to formally apply for an appropriate caption. And the name did appear, only in an adjacent alley. It was yet another mistake, but I decided to let it go. I had no energy left to go through these god-awful procedures one more time.

I feel satisfied, nonetheless. Maria Comer-Cetys aka „Szympans”, the most famous liaison of the Uprising, is buried in the neighbouring grave. When she was taken captive, and a German officer asked her: ”Bist du Banditin?” she responded with pride: “I am a soldier of the Home Army”. That is when he shot her dead. Now Tadeusz is buried right next to her. What matters is that he has his own grave. I know where to light a candle for him. And so do my grandchildren.

Antigone is feeling fulfilled.

It hurts less, that’s all.