Deadly crash stuns Chicago Polish community

April 10, 2010 8:11:18 PM PDT
The deadly plane crash in Russia that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and other military and civilian leaders has stunned many people in Chicago's Polish community.

Poland's deputy foreign minister and undersecretary died in the crash. Both of them were close friends of Poland's Consulate General Zygmunt Matynia.

"Those people, that whole delegation, it was the creme de la creme," said Matynia.

The group was heading to a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, in which the Soviet Red Army killed more than 20,000 Polish officers after the Soviets invaded Poland.

Although Russia has never formally apologized for the killings, this event was seen as proof of improving Polish-Russian relations, at least until the plane crash.

"We'll have to take time to heal," said Barbara Chalko, whose grandfather was murdered in the massacre. " I don't know how soon we'll get back to this point again."

Barbara Maczek traveled from northwest suburban Schaumburg to the Polish consulate to sign a condolence book after hearing the news.

"It was very tragic news because so many died," said Maczek.

Poland's flag was at half-staff Saturday outside of the Polish Consulate on N. Lake Shore Dr. in Chicago. A flower tribute could be found at the base of the flagpole.

Polish radio dedicated itself all day to helping the healing of a nation and a people.

"Right now, we feel altogether something like the American people feel after 9-11 or something very similar - huge tragedy," said Mark Rzepkowski, radio show host at WNVR 1030 AM, a Polish radio station.

The speaker of Poland's parliament declared a week of national mourning in the wake of the crash.

President Kaczynski was expected to appear in this year's Polish Constitution Day Parade in Chicago - a day that one parade official said will be more somber than usual this year because of the crash.

"Whether we were here third generation or whether we emigrated to here, the leadership of Poland understands the value and the contributions of Chicago's Polonia," said Anna Zolkowski Sobor of the Polish Constitution Day Parade Committee.

Chicago has the largest Polish and Polish-American population in the United States, and the largest Polish community in the world outside of Warsaw.