The Katyn massacre is a famous war crime committed by the USSR. 22,000 Polish officers were killed. Among those killed was a woman.
The daughter of a Polish general who fought against the Bolsheviks
On April 22, 1908, in Kharkov (present-day Ukraine), a girl was born into a Polish family: Janina Antonina Dowbor-Muśnicka, daughter of Józef Dowbor-Muśnicki and Agnieszka Korsuńska. By then, Poland had not yet reappeared on the maps. The country was still divided between Russia, Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and many Poles were divided between these three powers and their respective armies. Janina’s father was a Polish officer in the Russian Army. A month and a half before the birth of his daughter, he had been assigned to the 10th Army Corps, whose headquarters were in Kharkov.
Janina had two brothers, Giedymin and Olgierd, and a younger sister, Agnieszka. Patriotism, respect for traditions, love for music – the fruit of the influence of her mother, who had great musical talent – and a markedly military discipline were cultivated in her home. The family was marked by Józef’s military career. In 1914 he was immersed in the World War I, and after the Russian Revolution in 1917, he joined the Polish Supreme Military Committee in Petrograd, and participated in combats against the Red Army in 1918. In the summer of that year, the family was He settled in Lusów, and the following year, already after the independence of Poland, Józef joined the Uprising of Greater Poland and participated in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1921.
From a passion for music to a passion for aviation
In August 1920, when Janina was 12 years old, her mother died of tuberculosis. By then she had already managed to convey to her daughter her passion for music. She studied at a conservatory and learned singing on her own, and upon finishing her studies she wanted to be a singer. Two reasons led her to withdraw from that world: the first was her poor singing ability, which did not allow her to succeed on stage, and the second was the disapproval of her father, who did not see with good eyes that the daughter of a high command of the Polish Army (at that time Józef was already a lieutenant general) was a singer. For this reason, Janina began working as a telegrapher at the municipal post office.
As a young girl, when she was studying high school, Janina began to be interested in aviation, seeing the planes of the 3rd Air Regiment that was based in Poznań. Her older brother, Olgierd, an officer in that Regiment, also influenced her fondness for airplanes, which she was happily accepted by her father, as this definitely encouraged her to abandon music.
Janina started with the gliders. She became a member of the Poznań Aero Club and later graduated as a glider pilot in Rzadków and in Bezniechowa, and later as a radio operator. It was the beginning of a career dedicated to aviation, which would end up making her a pioneer woman for her time. When she was 20 years old, Janina became the first woman in Europe to parachute to a height of 5,000 meters.
The passing of his father and his second brother
In 1934, Janina’s father reunited his children in Lusów, to make a will. He bequeathed the Lusów family home to her little sister, Agnieska, with Janina’s approval, that she was not interested in managing the house and was more focused on aviation.
Driven by her passion for flying, Janina took aviation courses in Dęblin and Lviv. In 1935 she started flying RWD-8 single engines at the Aero Club in Poznań. In 1936 she graduated from the Poznań Higher Pilot School, did a complementary training in Lviv and a radiotelegraphy course in Dęblin, doing another complementary radiotelegraphy course in Lviv in 1937. On October 26, 1937 her father died in Batorowo. Her brother Giedymin, had emigrated to France in the 1920s (she died there in 1966, being buried in Toulouse). Her second brother, Olgierd, committed suicide in Poznań in 1938.
Her meeting with Mieczysław Lewandowski and their wedding
Janina was tall and athletic, brave and independent. She was an unusual woman in her time, and not only because of her fondness for flying, but also because she combined her professional work with more typically feminine tasks. She designed and sewed her own clothes many times, she liked to cook, and she was fond of gardening and sports. She liked horseback riding, swimming, and skiing in winter.
Significantly, the love of her life came from the hand of aviation. In 1936, during a glider exhibition in Tęgoborz, she met a flight instructor, Mieczysław Lewandowski, a native of Krakow and 10 years her senior. It was the beginning of a friendship that led them to marry civilly on June 10, 1939 in Poznań, the Church wedding being held in Tęgoborz. She adopted the married name Janina Lewandowska.
World War II and Janina’s enlistment
After the death of her parents and one of her brothers, it seemed that this could be the beginning of a happy life for Janina, but the happiness did not last long. On September 1, 1939, Germany and Slovakia invaded Poland. Janina, a reserve officer like many other Polish civilian pilots, volunteered with the 3rd Military Aviation Regiment in Poznań, the same unit whose aircraft had given her a passion for flying as a young woman. Poznań was at that time in the western part of Poland.
On September 3, Janina and her fellow Regiment were evacuated by train to the east. The aviator wore a uniform with the rank of second lieutenant and carried two pistols that had belonged to her father. The train stopped due to damage to the tracks, and Janina and her companions had to continue on foot to Września, hiding in the woods during the day and marching at night. They managed to catch another train that took them to Lublin on September 8, and later to Trawniki, Buczacz and finally to Kopiczyńce. Then they continued on foot south. When the Red Army crossed the eastern borders of the Republic of Poland on September 17, Janina’s unit was ordered to head towards the Romanian border, in order to leave the country to continue the fight in France.
Several friends encouraged Janina to flee to Hungary and even offered her a seat in a captured vehicle, but she declined. Part of the personnel of the 3rd Air Regiment managed to reach Hungary and Romania. Its members continued the fight in Polish squadrons of the RAF in the United Kingdom. On September 22, Janina was captured by the Soviets in Husiatyn. Since Janina was a second lieutenant, she was taken away from the rest of the prisoners along with the other Polish officers aboard a Polish ambulance captured by the Soviets. The USSR had not signed the 1927 Geneva Convention, so the Polish prisoners were left in charge of the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police and equivalent of the German Gestapo.
A brave woman in the Kozielsk prison camp
Janina was sent first to Ostashkov and then to Kozielsk. One of the prisoners from the latter camp noted in his diary on February 7, 1940: “There is an aviator in the camp. A brave woman. For the fourth month, she has been enduring all the difficulties and inconveniences of captivity with us.” Before her Soviet captors he gave a false date of birth, concealed his marriage and changed his father’s name, since he had been a famous military man who had fought against the Bolsheviks and Janina knew that if the NKVD found out, they would assassinate her immediately.
In Kozielsk, Janina had a small room separate from the rest of the prisoners. They ironically called it “Bristol” and it was basically a closet under some stairs. Her courage and perseverance earned him the respect of her comrades. Likewise, in the prison camp, Janina helped the chaplain to bake hosts for the secret religious services officiated for the Polish officers, services that were persecuted by the NKVD. Dressed in a male aviator’s uniform, she helped organize the religious life of the camp, which was ultimately a way to boost the morale of her fellow captives.
Katyn’s massacre and her last birthday
The deportations from the Kozielsk camp began on April 3, 1940. Like many other officers of the Polish Army, Janina was loaded onto a truck on April 20, 1940. Her name is on the prison list number 0401 of the Kozielsk camp sent to Katyn Forest. She is number 53 on that “death list.” The Soviets killed her with a shot in the neck on April 22, 1940, the same day she was 32 years old. She was the only woman killed in the Katyn massacre.
In 1943, the Germans discovered his body among the others killed in that massacre and reported it to the journalists who came to the scene. However, finding a woman in a military uniform turned out to be an uncomfortable event for them, as they could not explain what she was doing there and they feared that this could have a negative effect on the spread of the massacre, so Janina was omitted from the lists of murdered in Katyn published by the Germans, so that for more than half a century she was legally considered a missing person.
During the exhumation, Janina’s skull was removed by Gerhard Buchtz along with the skulls of other Polish officials. The skull of the only woman killed in Katyn was marked with the reference V-13 and was seen in the Smolensk laboratory in 1943 by Dr. Marian Wodzyński, a member of the Polish Red Cross delegation. The skulls arrived at the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Wrocław in 1943, where they served as reference material for students. After the war, the Security Office of the communist dictatorship tried to remove all traces of the Katyn massacre, but the skulls were hidden in the Department of Forensic Medicine until 2003.
Identifying the remains of Janina Lewandowska
After the war, Professor Bolesław Popielski knew perfectly well the origin of these skulls, as they had entry holes corresponding to 7.65 caliber bullets used by the NKVD in 1940. Janina’s skull was identified in May 2005, and the November 4 of that year, he was buried with military honors in a special urn in the Dowbor-Muśnicki family grave in the Lusów cemetery.
In 2007, the General Józef Dowbór-Muścicki Memorial Society in Lusów sent an application to the Minister of National Defense, Bogdan Klich, for the posthumous award of the rank of lieutenant to Janina Lewandowska. The request was supported and that same year, during the celebration of Independence Day in Warsaw, the then president of Poland, Lech Kaczyński, read the promotion of the fallen in Katyn, including the only woman: Janina Lewandowska.
Janina’s husband died without knowing what had happened to his wife
Janina’s husband, Mieczysław, had the rank of colonel when the war started. On September 3, 1939 he arrived in Poznań to take his wife away. He almost ran into her. When they got to her house, they told her that he had gone to the train station. When Mieczysław arrived at the station, Janina’s train has just started. That fateful minute separated them forever: he never saw her again.
Mieczysław arrived in France together with other Polish pilots to continue the fight against the Germans. He then arrived in Great Britain, where he participated in the Battle of Britain flying with the 307th Polish Fighter Squadron of the RAF, and later in the 305th Bomber Squadron. After the war, like many other Polish pilots, he was driven into exile and remained in Great Britain. For many years he was looking for his wife. He died in 1964, at the age of 72, without knowing what had happened to Janina, who was then declared missing.
The murder of Janina’s sister at the hands of the Germans
Having been taken prisoner, Janina did not get to know the fate of her younger sister, Agnieszka. Persecuted by the Gestapo, she joined the Polish resistance in 1939 at the age of 20, forming part of the Organizacji Wojskowej “Wilki” (Military Organization “Wolves”). On April 25, 1940, she was taken prisoner by the Germans and taken to a prison camp at Palmiry, where she was murdered on June 21, 1940, two months after the murder of her sister in Katyn. I dedicated this post to Janina and Agnieszka, victims of the two totalitarian regimes that invaded and divided Poland in 1939.
Cześć ich pamięci!
Honor to their memory!
Main photo: Instytut Pamięci Narodowej. Janina Lewandowska in a pilot uniform.
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