In March of 1940, Joseph Stalin ordered the execution of approximately five thousand Polish prisoners of war, setting off a chain of events leading to the Katyń Massacre. Buried in seven mass graves, these soldiers’ bodies remained undisturbed until German forces unearthed them several years later. Even more shocking to the Polish nation than this discovery was the revelation that one of the victims was a female military officer: Second Lieutenant in the Polish Air Force, Janina Lewandowska. Indeed, the presence of her body was at the center of a fifty-year cover-up.
Exploring the life of Janina Lewandowska offers more than an expanded biography for a Polish woman, it allows for an in-depth examination of these components in Polish society during the interwar period. Studies of women’s involvement in the early stages of the war, specifically their contributions to the September 1939 Polish defense, are virtually nonexistent. An examination of Janina Lewandowska’s life contributes to filling this gap, revealing some boundaries women faced entering the military service before respected Polish generals, such as Wladyslaw Anders, sanctioned it. In risking her life and social standing, Lewandowska reinterpreted the traditional ideal of the Matka Polka, choosing to serve her country militarily. Though she adopted some of these maternal approaches when nurturing Polish patriotism while in the Kozielsk camp, she preempted this aspect of her identity with the decision to pursue military service before motherhood. She may not be representative of all women who made similar decisions, but her life makes a unique contribution to understanding social expectations of women as one of the first Polish women to involve herself in active service during World War II.
Internalization of traditional feminine responsibilities and a strong sense of national pride led Janina Lewandowska to serve her country as a member of the Polish Air Force at the outbreak of the Second World War. Although her capture by Soviet forces in late September of 1939 put an end to active military service, it did not stop the young officer from serving her country through other means. In the graves at Katyń, one finds the body of a female fighter pilot, as well as the story of a growing nation seeking to define itself, one woman’s devotion to both her faith and fellow soldiers, and the supersession of country over the self.
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