Today (the 13th of April) we’re celebrating the 125th anniversary of Wanda Gertz’s birthday and reminiscing the story of how she set a timeless example of female power in the hardest possible period in history.
Wanda Gertz was born on the 13th of April 1896 in Warsaw in Russian Poland. Her father, Jan Gertz von Schliess, fought in the January Uprising of 1863, so Wanda’s childhood was filled with her dad’s stories from the battlefield. This is what sparked her passion for the military – she wrote in her journal that she never had any dolls when she was a little girl, she only had toy soldiers which she would play with while dreaming of becoming a soldier herself one day, however she knew this was not an option for girls.
As soon as World War I broke out in 1914, 18-year-old Wanda joined a national independence advocacy group called Polish Confederation (‘Konfederacja Polska’) and was spreading political leaflets as well as making clothes for war prisoners. In the same year she also joined the 4th Warsaw Battalion due to her continuous desire to be in the military, however in 1915 the Battalion was incorporated into the Polish Legion and women were prohibited from the front line.
Even this did not stop Gertz from reaching her ultimate goal – she cut off her hair, got dressed in male clothes and went to the recruitment office of the Polish Legion introducing herself as ‘Kazimierz Zuchowicz’. She was believable enough for the entire recruitment process to go well, until the medical check-up. The doctor was understanding and did not want to ruin Wanda’s dreams completely, so he helped her become a medical orderly. Although her ‘Kazimierz Zuchowicz’ disguise wasn’t entirely successful, the nickname ‘Kazik’ stayed with Wanda forever. In 1917 Gertz under her ‘Kazik’ pseudonym joined the secret women’s branch of Polish Military Organisation, which she was arrested for later that year and released after paying bail.
In 1919 after the outbreak of the Polish-Soviet war Wanda ‘Kazik’ Gertz became the commander of the 2nd Women’s Volunteer Legion in the Polish army. The legion fought for Vilnius which led to Gertz being awarded the rank of lieutenant as well as the Virtuti Militari medal. She couldn’t enjoy her position for too long though, as in 1922 she lost her lieutenant rank due to the lack of law stating that a woman can be an officer in the Polish army. Afterwards, ‘Kazik’ worked in different fields for 17 years – she worked in an engineering company, in Józef Piłsudski’s office, in the management team of the Belweder Museum etc.
In World War II Gertz created a pseudonym for herself: ‘Lena’, and became one of the first women to join the resistance movement Service for Poland’s Victory. Soon after that, she made history as the first woman to create and command a fully female military unit – ‘DYSK’ unit (Women’s Diversion and Sabotage Unit) as a part of the Polish Home Army. In 1944 she was promoted to the rank of major.
‘Lena’/‘Kazik’ got arrested after the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 and was held as a prisoner of war at a few German camps: Ożarów, Lamsdorf, Mühlberg and Molsdorf. Finally, in May 1945 she was released by American troops. She spent the following year travelling around Europe searching for displaced Polish women; afterwards, she moved to the United Kingdom and worked as an Inspector of Women Soldiers in northern England preparing Polish female soldiers for civilian life in the UK. Gertz spent the rest of her life in England, where she died due to cancer in 1958.
There are differences of opinions whether to call her Kazik, Lena or Major Wanda Gertz, however nobody has doubts about her immense courage and perseverance. She became a symbol of strength and proved that even becoming a female major during a World War is not impossible.
Cover photo: Twitter – Institute of National Remembrance.jpgHistory