Now 96, Wanda Traczyk-Stawska survived the Warsaw Uprising 79 years ago and has continued to fight for Poland. This time, however, her battles are for her fellow women.
WARSAW — Earlier this month, Poland marked the 79th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising. The battle aimed to liberate the city from Nazi occupation and regain Polish sovereignty before the impending Soviet invasion. It was the single largest European resistance movement during World War II, and lasted for 63 days with little support from outside forces. The end, however, was catastrophic, with 16,000 fighters pronounced dead, 6,000 badly wounded, and an estimated 150,000–200,000 civilians killed.
Wanda Traczyk-Stawska survived the uprising after being seriously injured and taken as a German prisoner of war for three years. Afterward, she earned a degree in psychology at the University of Warsaw and started a school for children with special needs. Now, at the age of 96, she continues her work as an activist— now speaking out against Poland's current leaders.
Advocating for women’s rights
Traczyk-Stawska has repeatedly criticized Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party’s politics on women’s issues, accusing them of violating the constitution.
“We are a free nation and no one has the right to rule over us and make us feel humiliated,” she said during one of the commemorative ceremonies of the uprising. “I’m speaking about women,” she added. “We are equal to men.”
Poland has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.
Rather than simply criticizing the current government, however, Traczyk-Stawska called for its removal in the upcoming parliamentary elections, which are set to take place this fall. “We have to completely change the government, which seems to not remember that women have their rights guaranteed by the constitution.”
Her statements follow years of controversial actions and statements by Poland's ruling party and its leadership when it comes to women and gender equality.
On Friday, June 30, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński came under fire following a speech at a campaign event in the village of Połajewo, where he declared that “someone has to have our children”, addressing the women in the crowd, stating “this is the greatest gift that you could give to Poland”. In May, the party announced that it was increasing its monthly stipends of 500 PLN (about €112), known as “500 plus” to €800 PLN (about €180) in an effort to encourage women to have more children.
At a campaign event last November, Kaczyński also accused women of not having children because of excessive alcohol consumption, stating that “there will be no children” if women in their twenties continue to consume alcohol in excess. Kaczyński also continued by claiming that while men take 20 years of drinking to become alcoholics, women succumb to alcoholism after only two years of drinking.
Poland notably has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, with the procedure only being allowed in the cases of rape or incest, or when the life of the mother is at risk. Since a measure introduced in 2020 – which sparked mass protests – women pregnant with children who suffer from severe fetal deformities are unable to obtain abortions. In 2022, only 161 legal abortions took place in Poland.
Wanda Traczyk-Stawska during the protests Stay in the EU in 2021.
Platforma Obywatelska RP via Wikimedia Commons
Traczyk-Stawska also referred personally to a member of prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki's government — education minister Przemysław Czarnek. “There must be a lesson in civic education in schools. Let him see how it is necessary to talk to young people and children. Let him first learn, and then be wise.”
She also emphasized the importance of Warsaw specifically in Polish history and in the context of Polish sovereignty, stating that "the city of Warsaw is the most important hero". “We were just their army, and the inhabitants decided. Without their consent, we would not have started the uprising.”
I am a soldier who remembers how blood flowed, how my colleagues died.
But Traczyk-Stawska’s words did not only address domestic politics. She went on to address the ongoing war in Ukraine. “The Warsaw uprising’s goals were not only freeing the city, but also to create a fight against the Germans throughout the entire country.”
In spite of her personal fight against Nazi Germany during the War, however, Traczyk-Stawska does not agree with anti-German sentiment and accusations of Poland’s “Germanization”, which often come from the Polish far right. “Right now, the Germans are our best neighbors,” she said. “In view of what is happening to Ukraine now... we must now stand together with the Germans,” pointing out that “two neighbors are better than one”.
Annalena Baerbock, German Foreign Minister, visits the cemetery for the Warsaw rioters with survivor Wanda Traczyk Stawska, Warsaw, Poland.
Imago via ZUMA
A history of activism
This is not the first time Traczyk-Stawska has commented on Polish politics. She has previously criticized the right-wing ruling coalition, which has been in power since 2015.
In October 2021, speaking at Zamkowy Square during a protest in defense of Poland's presence in the European Union, she stood in solidarity with the movement, stating that “nobody will ever take us out of my homeland, which is Poland, but also from Europe, because Europe is also my mother.”
At that time, Traczyk-Stawska's speech was drowned out by a far-right counter-demonstration taking place near the square. Rather than ending her speech there, or ignoring the sounds, she addressed far-right leader Robert Bąkiewicz directly, stating “I am a soldier who remembers how blood flowed, how my colleagues died. I am here to call on their behalf.”
A long-time special education teacher, Traczyk-Stawska also supported protests of caretakers for people with disabilities, which took place in front of the Polish Parliament in May 2018. At the time, she was not allowed into the parliament building.
Most recently, the celebrated veteran has also appeared in a video in which she appealed for help for refugees on Poland's eastern border. She protested against the inhumane treatment of migrants being pushed back into dangerous regions between Poland and Belarus. “Taking and pushing extremely exhausted and starved people abroad is a crime. In the forests, families with children from unstable regions of the world are waiting for help. We must save them, not condemn them to death!”