Still fighting: WWII Warsaw Uprising veteran defends EU

·4 min read

Wearing a military beret and a Polish wartime resistance armband, 94-year-old Wanda Traczyk-Stawska stunned the crowd at a pro-EU rally when she thundered "Be quiet, stupid boy! You lousy bastard" at a member of a far-right group attempting to disrupt the gathering over a loudspeaker.

Despite her advancing years and tiny stature, the Warsaw Uprising veteran has lost none of her fighting spirit when it comes to defending Poland's presence in the European Union and migrant rights.

Tens of thousands of people had turned out in October in support of Poland's EU membership after the Constitutional Court contested the primacy of EU law, in what experts saw as a step towards a "Polexit" given the nationalist ruling party's euroscepticism.

"I'm a soldier, I tell it like it is," Traczyk-Stawska told AFP, smiling coyly as she took a sip of tea at her home in Warsaw filled with Polish and EU flags.

- 'Doughnut' -

Traczyk-Stawska was a 12-year-old girl guide when the German army invaded Poland. She joined the resistance movement and went on to carry out acts of sabotage under the sweet pseudonym of "Doughnut".

At the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising on August 1, 1944, she was one of 50,000 fighters to revolt against the Nazis -- as well as a rare girl with a machine gun, an assignment usually reserved for men at the time.

Over the course of 63 days of battle, nearly 200,000 civilians and fighters died and the city was reduced to a pile of rubble.

Traczyk-Stawska later passed through four German prisoner-of-war camps, before Polish forces operating in the Netherlands and Germany freed her from a camp in Oberlangen, northwest Germany, in 1945. Once back home, she worked as a teacher at a centre for handicapped children.

The last order she received, her life's mission, has been to watch over the cemetery bearing the remains of nearly half of the wartime dead found in the ruins of the Polish capital.

- 'A fly against an elephant' -

Remaining in the EU "is a question of national security... Were we to quit the union, where would that leave us?" Traczyk-Stawska asked.

"We already know what 1939 was like," when Poland found itself alone in the face of a two-front invasion by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

"It's our greatest danger... We'd end up like a fly up against an elephant," she added, her robust voice contrasting with her fragile frame.

She said she was "furious" at the rally when she chose to call out the far right, who have received funding from the state and plan to go ahead with a march through Warsaw on Thursday, Poland's Independence Day.

The controversial march, which has drawn upwards of 10,000 people in past years and has often turned violent, has been the subject of intense legal wrangling.

"I got up on stage to speak of the Poland of our dreams, us veterans of the uprising... a Poland that is kind and tolerant," Traczyk-Stawska added.

She soon received death threats.

- Death at the border -

Traczyk-Stawska also expressed concern over how migrants and refugees trying to cross the Belarus border into Poland have been treated. Most are repeatedly sent back and forth by the two countries, left to wander around the cold and humid woods.

At least 10 migrants have already died, including seven on Polish territory, according to the Gazeta Wyborcza daily.

The EU accuses Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko of orchestrating the unprecedented influx in retaliation for the bloc's sanctions over a brutal crackdown by the regime on the opposition.

The Polish government has adopted a hardline approach, imposing a state of emergency that bans journalists and charity workers from the immediate border zone.

It has also reinforced the area with thousands of troops and legalised pushbacks, even in the case of women and children.

- 'Shameful' -

"I am invested in the case of the children at the border. If we don't change our attitude towards these children, they will die," Traczyk-Stawska said.

"You can't abandon a child in danger. It's shameful to treat the border children that way," she added, recalling the days when as a 12-year-old she witnessed Nazis "entertaining themselves by firing at babies".

Speaking of the veterans of the uprising, Traczyk-Stawska observed that "we are all very old, on the verge of death. For us, this situation is a disgrace."

"We no longer have the strength to take a stand. All we can do is weep. Well, not everyone. Me, I'm not used to crying. I was a soldier," she said.

"But I regret that I'm so old and frail."

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