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Ukraine invasion evokes WWII traumas in Poland

Magdalena Gwozdz-Pallokat
April 20, 2022

The war in Ukraine is stirring memories of the horrors of World War II among older Poles — and feelings of solidarity with their neighbors. They tell DW of their experiences.

Members of Polish resistance running through a Warsaw street
Members of the Polish resistance flee a German air raid during the 1944 Warsaw UprisingImage: CAF/dpa/picture alliance

Straight after waking up, Wanda Traczyk-Stawska goes into her living room and switches on the television. She's been doing that every morning since February 24, 2022, as if it were her duty. The 95-year-old wants to know whether the Ukrainians are still fighting against the Russian invaders. She wants to be with them even if only from her sofa.  

Traczyk-Stawska knows only too well what fighting is. During the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, the young woman was 17 and a member of the Polish resistance fighting against German occupiers. In an interview with DW, she tries to bring to mind the sounds, smells and tastes from that dreadful time. Sometimes, she closes her eyes and speaks more slowly as if trying to savor each word.

Wanda Traczyk-Stawska sits at a table with a piano and daffodils in the background
Wanda Traczyk-Stawska was a member of the Polish resistance in 1944Image: M. Gwozdz-Pallokat/DW

"In the first days of the war, I saw the Germans shoot a baby dead," Wanda Traczyk-Stawska tells us and sinks her head. "Before that I could not have imagined that people could be so evil." That was the point when she decided she wanted to be grown-up, so she could fight, too.

"I hate war. It is humanity's biggest folly," stresses Traczyk-Stawska. But for two months now, she has been confronted with its horrors. "I'd rather be dead and not have to go through this, but as I am still alive, I feel duty bound to fight. And I can only do that by appealing to the world: Help Ukraine!"

The skies over Ukraine

Traczyk-Stawska remembers well the feeling of not having any support in the war against the Germans. She is reminded of 1944 by the fact that the skies over Ukraine are still "open," that is, no-fly zones have not been agreed to or established.

"We didn't have any air defense at all back then. And you can't shoot down an aircraft with a machine gun. Defenseless, we had to watch bombs being dropped on our homes. It's our biggest trauma."

Agnieszka Popiel smiles for the camera before a white background
Agnieszka Popiel is a psychotherapist and psychiatrist at SWPS University Image: Privat

"What is happening at the moment represents a tremendous burden for people who survived the Second World War," explains Agnieszka Popiel, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist at SWPS University in Warsaw. The professor co-directs the University Clinic of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and trauma is one of her fields of specialization. Her university has set up a hotline for people who have fled the war in Ukraine — and who still feel they are in danger and may be worried about relatives or have lost someone close.

Nightmares with monsters

Stanislaw Walski also went through horrifying experiences in World War II. He was born in 1933 — the year Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. "The Russian invasion has torn my psyche to bits. After all the atrocities that I experienced in the Second World War, I thought: That can never be permitted to happen again. But, unfortunately, there are sick people every now and then who feel compelled to wage war," he tells DW in a telephone interview.

Nowadays, the 88-year-old lives in Wroclaw. Walski took part in the city's "No More War" initiative at the Depot History Center. It features short films in which people who experienced the Second World War condemn the conflict in Ukraine. In his video, Stanislaw Walski describes being deported to a camp in Neumarkt in der Oberpflaz in Bavaria, Germany, when he was 11 years old. For years he was gripped by the same nightmare. In it, he was floating in the air and monsters were trying to grab him by the legs.

Stanislaw Walski, dressed in a dark gray suit, shirt and tie, stands before a plain background
Stanislaw Walski was deported to a German camp at the age of 11Image: Privat

"I think the psyche of the little boy who I was back then was unable to bear the sight of all the dead bodies. The sight of people who hurled themselves into barbed wire fences," Walski says. He remembers sounds and smells, too — and the all-pervasive hunger. "It was unbearable. If a fly flew into my mouth, I didn't spit it out, but swallowed it."

Age makes old memories more vivid

Psychotherapist Popiel points out that older people often remember what they experienced when they were young much more intensely than they do events from the recent past. "Back then, experiences were strongly embedded into their memory, in later years when their strength wanes, that happens less and less frequently." That is why memories from our youth return more vividly.

Woman lighting candles at a monument commemorating the Warsaw Uprising
The conflict in neighboring Ukraine has brought back memories of the Warsaw UprisingImage: Czarek Sokolowski/AP/picture alliance

The psychologist explains how people unconsciously build up a defense mechanism: Anyone who has experienced something terrible stores concrete stimuli such as sounds, smells or images to prepare the body, so it can protect itself in similar situations in the future.

'The Germans are being too hesitant'

"I often hear people saying that we were an unusual generation. That isn't true. We were just like the people today," says Wanda Traczyk-Stawska. During her interview, she told us a number of times that she would advise Ukrainian women not to stay in Poland, which has become a front-line state, but to flee further west.

"I know that these women are thinking about their husbands fighting in Ukraine. They want to remain close by them. But that's wrong! For the men who have stayed behind it is important to know that their women and children are in safety."

Infografik Flüchtlingsbewegungen Ukraine (Stand: 19.04.22) EN

The World War II resistance fighter is grateful for the opportunity to address Germans directly. "I want Germany to try to bring about peace in the world. There will be no peace for as long as there is war. The Germans are being too hesitant."

At the end of the interview, Wanda Traczyk-Stawska resolutely declares: "If I were a bit younger, I would be fighting with the Ukrainians now." The Polish veteran emphasizes that the people in neighboring Ukraine should never give up. She is convinced they will win: "Because, just like me, people there know what freedom means and what human dignity is."

The article was originally written in German.