Facing up to history: the story behind the woman who provided the face to Warsaw’s mermaid statue by the river

The mermaid statue is one of the most famous in Warsaw. Kalbar/TFN

It’s an emblem of Warsaw and one of the most famous statues in the city, but the story of the woman behind the face of the mermaid that stands by the River Vistula in Warsaw remains little known.

Inspired by legend, the mermaid is the symbol of the Polish capital, portrayed on its coat of arms and on monuments and carvings around the city.

The face behind the mermaid. Krahelska was a 23-year-old student when she provided the face for the statue.Archive/PAP

Created by Polish sculptor Ludwika Nitschowa, the mermaid by the river was the last statue in Warsaw to be unveiled before the outbreak of the Second World War. It had been proposed in 1936 by the city’s mayor Stefan Starzyński.

Made of bronze, the mermaid faces north along the river, a sword held high above her head. In her other hand, she holds a shield with an eagle and the city’s name on it. But the woman provided her face remains little known.

Nitschowa explained that she “monumentalised” the face so that the young woman would not be recognised so easily, as that might have embarrassed her.Kalbar/TFN

The face came from a 23-year-old student, Krystyna Krahelska – who was born on this day 105 years ago.

Krahelska was born in 1914 in what is now Belarus. Active in Poland’s scouting movement, she went on to study ethnography at the University of Warsaw.

Starzyński noticed her at the studio of Nitschowa, a friend of her aunt’s, and suggested that she pose for the statue. Although the face is modelled on Krahelska, Nitschowa explained that she “monumentalised” it so that the young woman would not be recognised so easily, as that might have embarrassed her.

Krahelska served as a nurse during the Warsaw Uprising and died in the fighting.Kalbar/TFN

After the outbreak of the Second World War, she stayed in Warsaw, before moving on to eastern Poland. She served as a nurse in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, with “Danuta” as her pseudonym. After being wounded, she died on 2 August, and is buried in a cemetery in southern Warsaw. 

In addition to posing for the mermaid statue, Krahelska is remembered for her poetry and song lyrics, which she started writing in 1928. She is best known for her song ‘Hej chłopcy, bagnet na broń’ (Hey boys, bayonet on a rifle), which went on to become the most popular song of the Warsaw Uprising.

The face was provided by Krystyna Krahelska.Kalbar/TFN

Written for Polish soldiers in early 1943, it urges troops to keep marching through dark, difficult times towards the dawn, where the wind will “spread the song above us like a rainbow”.