The Remarkable Life & Death of Janina Lewandowska: Or, 22,891 men and 1 woman
Updated: Sep 8
Soon after embarking on my novel about British women pilots in world war two, I began to consider adding a Polish strand to the story and as part of my research I read about the Katyn massacres. In the spring of 1940 the Soviet Union was holding thousands of Polish military officers as prisoners of war when, for reasons that are still unclear, an order was made for their mass execution. In the resulting massacres that were carried out around Katyn in western Russia, the official death toll is now put at 22 892. Most of these officers were part of the Poland’s small but growing sector of middle-class professionals. By killing them, the Soviets deprived the country of exactly the people who could make it function as a modern state. All of the victims of this genocide were men, except, remarkably, for one woman. And when I discovered that this woman, Janina Lewandowska, was a pilot, I knew that the Polish experience would become the heart of my novel When We Fall.
Janina was the daughter of Józef Dowbor-Muśnicki a war hero and founder, in 1919, of the Republic of Poland. Janina grew up on the family estate near Poznańand like many girls of her generation, she developed a passion for the new field of aviation. At the Aeroklub in Poznań, she learned to fly gliders and, becoming ever more daring, to skydive. In her early twenties, Janina held the women’s world record for a 5km parachute jump. After getting her pilot’s licence, she joined the Polish Air Force reservists and as war approached, was drafted as a Second Lieutenant. She also married her gliding instructor, Mieczysław Lewandowski but shortly after the wedding, bride and groom were posted to different areas and they never saw each other again.
In September 1939, during the vicious outbreak of war in Poland, Janina’s plane was shot down near the Russian front. With her parachuting skills, she managed to bale out safely, but jumped straight into the hands of the Red Army. Like most of the other Polish officers captured by the Soviets, Janina was taken to a prison camp in Russia and kept there over the winter. Eye-witnesses in the fortified citadel at Kozielsk describe her being imprisoned in almost solitary confinement away from her male comrades. But as the thaw set in, Janina was taken along with the men, on trains and buses to the forest of Katyn. Here, probably on 22ndApril 1940, her 32ndbirthday, she was executed by a single bullet to the back of the head.
Later in the war, when German forces for a while had control of this area, they excavated the shallow mass graves of Polish military personnel. Amongst the thousands of bodies unearthed, they found one that was definitely female, but for some reason, perhaps uncertainty on the Germans’ part about the find’s propaganda value, Janina’s remains were simply labelled ‘corpse of a pilot officer.’
During the rest of the second world war and for decades afterwards, the Katyn massacres were regarded throughout the world as a Nazi war crime. This was despite the weight of evidence which the Germans had amassed, for their own political purposes, to prove Soviet guilt for the atrocity. But as a result of the delicate and disingenuous politics of the Cold War, it suited the powers on both sides of the iron curtain to label Germany the culprit. In Soviet dominated Poland, the thousands of relatives of Katyn victims were treated as second-class citizens if they so much as mentioned the place where their loved ones had died.
During the 1990s, the truth of what had happened during the second world war began to be revealed but there was still much that was left unspoken about the war. So it was fortunate that as one of his final acts, a dying professor at the University of Wrocław, admitted that he knew the identity of the skull in a specimen box labelled ‘corpse of a pilot officer.’ It was Janina Lewandowska.
Eventually, historians and journalists uncovered more of the truth. They brought into the public domain directives from the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB) that had ordered the slaughter of the Polish prisoners of war. By 2010 the stage was set for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to attend a formal act of reconciliation at a ceremony of remembrance in Katyn that also marked the 70thanniversary of the massacres. Then, horrifically, the airliner bringing Poland’s top dignitaries to the ceremony crashed on landing killing everyone on board. This crash was a seismic event that continues to reverberate through Poland’s national consciousness. Theories about its cause and the possible involvement of Russia have dictated the course of Polish politics in the decade since.
Janina’s remains were finally laid to rest in the family plot at Lusowo near Poznan in 2005. There also, were the recently interred remains of her younger sister Agnieszka. At the start of the war, Agnieszka had continued the family tradition of Polish insurgency by joining the anti-Nazi resistance the Armia Krajowa or AK. But it was not long before she was arrested by the Gestapo. In June 1940, a few months after Janina’s death, Agnieszka was also executed. Both sisters were killed by a single shot to the back of the head and buried in shallow graves; Agnieszka at the hands of the Germans, Janina by their then allies, the Soviets. What exactly happened to either woman in her last days will of course, never be known. And it is those gaps that allow the novelist to use their imagination as I have done in When We Fall. The story I tell is fiction, but it is one that I could not have begun to imagine without the remarkable life and death of Janina Lewandowska.
Janina was a champion parachutist.
A commemorative 10 zloty coin issued by the Polish government in 2020
to mark 80 years since the deaths of Janina and her sister Agnieszka.