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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn Kirby

The real Janina

Janina and Mieczysław's wedding, and the couple at Poznan Aero Club (centre) in the 1930s

Almost all of the characters in When We Fall are fictional, but at novel’s heart is one very real person, Janina Lewandowska (1908 – 1940), a pioneering aviator and the only female victim of the notorious 1940 Katyn massacres of Polish POW’s by the Soviet Union. Her tragic fate provided the key to constructing my WW2 story around women pilots and Polish resistance fighters, but I wrote When We Fall knowing little about Janina’s personal circumstances or her family. So I was amazed, shortly after the novel’s publication in 2020, to be contacted by two young people, Jo Dowbor-Muśnicka and Jack Lewandowski, who were unknown to each other but both related to Janina.

I had, of course, seen the charming wedding photograph showing Janina Dowbor-Muśnicka, daughter of the famous Polish general, marrying her gliding instructor Mieczysław Lewandowski beside one of the gliders they both loved to fly. The date of this photo is poignant. It was taken in the summer of 1939, just a few months before the outbreak of war when the newlyweds, both Polish Air Force reservists, would be called up to their respective squadrons and never see each other again. They had, of course, no children.

Janina’s story moved me deeply when I was researching When We Fall, as did many of the heroic, often tragic wartime lives that inspired the novel. But I fictionalised Janina as I would any historical figure (for instance, recently, Bonnie Prince Charlie) who plays a part in my books. And given that she died eighty years ago, Janina seemed almost as remote from today’s world as an 18th century prince.

But all of that changed the moment I saw a Goodreads message from Jack Lewandowski saying that Janina had been married to his grandad. This was a spine-tingling moment. And in that instant, Janina came distinctly to life, not as someone I’d read about in history books but as a 32 year old bride, with an exciting life ahead of her who was murdered in the most terrifying and brutal of circumstances less than a year after her wedding. This feeling was disquieting, not only because Janina’s fate felt suddenly much more real, but also because I wondered how her living relatives would view the way that I had fictionalised her and used her fate as part of my imagined plot. Not long afterwards, my excitement as well as my trepidation increased when Janina’s blood relative, Jo Dowbor-Muśnicka, then a student in Paris, also got in touch.

This was 2020 and face to face meetings were impossible due to Coronavirus travel restrictions. But over the course of our lockdown year, I got to know Jack and Jo via social media. Both of them generously shared with me many documents and details about Janina’s life and the aftermath of her death, as well as their families’ remarkable stories as part of the post-war Polish diaspora.

Jack is the grandson of Mieczysław Lewandowski, the dapper bridegroom in Janina’s wedding photo. The couple met in the late 1930’s at Poznań Aero Club where Mieczysław was the instructor who taught Janina to fly gliders. Mieczysław was a few years younger than Janina. Tall and athletic, he was a champion ski jumper as well as an expert pilot. Janina had enjoyed a privileged upbringing as the daughter of a hero of the Polish Republic and she lived in the mansion just outside Poznań that was bought for her family by a grateful nation. Poignant snapshots from the Poznań Aeroklub archive show Janina and Mieczysław having a marvellous time amongst the energetic fun-loving young people who learnt to fly there in the last days of Poland’s independence before the outbreak of catastrophic war.

Once war was imminent, Janina and Mieczysław were both called up to active service in the Air Force. Fighting was fierce against the Germans invading from the west but once Stalin’s Soviet Union also invaded from the east, Poland was overwhelmed. Janina was taken prisoner by the Red Army (probably following the shooting down of her reconnaissance plane) and imprisoned in Russia before being shot six months later alongside thousands of her countrymen in the forest of Katyn.

Meanwhile Mieczysław escaped Poland and made it to Britain where he joined the RAF and served as a pilot in 307 Squadron, a night-fighter unit which carried out some of the most dangerous and technically challenging flying of the second world war. Definitive proof of Janina’s death in the Katyn massacres was only received in 2005 when her remains, found in a cupboard in Wrocław University, were identified. But soon after the war, Mieczysław received firm enough news of his young wife’s fate to leave him devastated.

Like many Polish ex-servicemen, Mieczysław was unable to return to his homeland and after the war he settled in Blackpool which had been a hub for Polish RAF personnel. There he found work as a lorry-driver and met his second wife Millie. Together they raised a family and lived on the Lancashire coast until Mieczysław’s death in 1997.

Janina’s blood relatives enjoyed privileged social circumstances but wartime trauma also cast a long shadow across the family. Jo is the granddaughter of Janina’s cousin Konstantyn or ‘Kot’ Dowbor-Muśnicki. He, like Mieczysław, was a pilot who fled occupied Poland for Britain early in the war never returned to his homeland. But Kot went even further afield, emigrating to Argentina with his English wife Rosemary, an heiress of a Manchester mill-owning family who grew up in a stately home, Compton Verney in Warwickshire. They and their children lived in Buenos Aires but kept close links with Britain.

The stories of Kot and Mieczysław provide a strangely similar parallel to my imagined RAF airman Stefan Bergel in When We Fall. Stefan is a version of the Polish RAF pilot archetype. He is a fearless fighter; handsome, funny and charming but also moody and driven to do what he feels to be right regardless of the cost to those closest to him. This fictional character seems oddly echoed by words written about Kot Dowbor-Muśnicki by his son; “…he was somewhat of a dandy and enjoyed women…but he was also a troubled man, a pessimist. Probably he felt the need to be fun-loving to forget the tragic circumstances of his mother's last years, of childhood friends who died during WW2, of the suffering of his country.”

It seems that Mieczysław may have kept in touch with Kot (his cousin-in-law) when they were both serving in the RAF during the war and then afterwards when Kot lived in Argentina. But the known details of their contact are sketchy. What is certain is that 80 years after the Katyn massacre, Jack and Jo, two people with the closest remaining connections to Janina, knew nothing of each other. Both in their early twenties, they each have a distinct physical resemblance to their wartime forebears, Jack to his grandad, Mieczysław, and Jo, remarkably given the fairly distant blood tie, to Janina.

It was such a privilege to have access to the family memorabilia and stories which Jack and Jo shared with me. Jo told me about how, in 2005, her family members had attended the moving ceremony in which Janina was finally laid to rest in the family grave near Poznań. Heart-rending details were added to Janina and Mieczysław’s story; how they had rented and furnished a flat after their wedding but the war meant that they never moved in; how Mieczysław’s daughter was named Nina, perhaps in memory of his first wife. The 1939 wedding photograph which had before seemed poignant, soon became almost unbearably sad.

It was a privilege for me too, after a year of correspondence enforced by Covid, to finally meet up with Jack in his native Manchester and with Jo at magical Compton Verney where her grandmother, Kot’s wife Rose, had grown up. Although both Jack and Jo were born more than fifty years after the second world war, it was sobering to understand how the long tail of Poland’s wartime trauma continued to impact both of their families well after the end of the war.

Perhaps the greatest privilege for me was to hear Jo and Jack’s kind words about When We Fall, and especially to know that the imagined world of my novel had brought them closer to the reality experienced by their grandparents’ generation. Now that Covid travel restrictions are easing, I hope that it won’t be long before Jack and Jo can finally meet each other and so reunite the two branches of Janina’s family once again.

With Jack Lewandowski in Manchester and Jo Dowbor-Muśnicka at Compton Verney, summer 2021

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