Chicago area Polish community mourns plane crash losses

April 11, 2010 9:19:21 PM PDT
The bodies of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife were on their way back to Poland Sunday morning as authorities in Russia and Poland investigate what may have caused Saturday's deadly crash. Early indications point to pilot error in heavy fog as a factor. Both black boxes have been found. The plane hit the treetops as it was making its approach to the airport in poor visibility. The crash happened in western Russia, close to the location where about 22,000 Polish officers were killed by Soviet authorities 70 years ago.

In Warsaw, flowers and candles continued to pile up outside the presidential palace. A nationwide two-minute silence was held Sunday morning for Kaczynski and the 96 other people who died in the crash. The two minutes of silence were preceded by the thundering pealing of church bells and of emergency sirens for nearly a minute before everything faded away.

Polish Americans in Chicago were eagerly anticipating a visit from the Polish president this month.

And one of those killed in the crash was an icon in Chicago's Polish community.

Expressions of grief were evident all over Chicago Sunday.

Polish-Americans in the Chicago area had been eagerly anticipating a visit from President Kaczynski within the next month.

Many of them were remembering the Polish president Sunday, his wife and the other dignitaries killed in the crash at a number of memorial services.

Mourners in Chicago's Polish community who gathered for Sunday services were still in shock over the deaths.

"We can't even talk. Our hearts are shaking. It's very, very upsetting," said Stanley Cyrwus, a St. Ladislaus church parishioner.

Sunday morning, prayers for healing were offered by the largest Polish community outside Warsaw, just a day after the 96-person delegation was killed in a plane crash.

"It hits us so hard, close to home. It's just sad," said parishioner Melissa Cyrwus.

Many touched by the tragedy displayed the Polish flag Sunday with black bunting as a way to show their ethic pride and solidarity with the Polish president and his wife who were scheduled to come to Chicago next month for the Polish Constitution Day Parade.

"This parade should be very, very attractive because the first person from Poland should be here, but the situation is different now," said the Polish Soldier Society's Wieslaw Wisniewski.

Well-known sculptor Wojcierch Seweryn was among the passengers headed to a ceremony for the 70th anniversary of the Katyn Massacre. Seweryn spent his life commemorating the event because his father was one of the nearly 22,000 Polish officers and others murdered by the Soviets in 1940.

Some mourners saw Saturday's tragedy as another Katyn.

"The relationship between Poland and Russia was never good because of the history of communism and the Soviet Union. Now, I believe that it could have an impact, " said journalist Ivo Widlak.

Some of the grief-stricken marched to St. Hyacinth Basilica where there was a symbolic funeral Mass to pay tribute to the sons and daughters of Poland who perished.

"It's a spontaneous thing that everyone in the community knew had to happen as something grave and profound," said Daniel Pogorzelski of the Polish Cultural Institute.

In suburban Lombard, worshippers gathered Sunday morning at Divine Mercy Polish Mission. The church is a place where immigrants who want to hold on to their national traditions can do so. During one service over the weekend, parishioners were urged to stay together as a nation, as people, as Catholics and Christians to face the tragedy together.

Other memorial services were expected at St. Constance Church, Holy Trinity Polish Church and St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish.

In Niles, hundreds arrived at a largely Polish suburban Chicago cemetery to honor the victims. St. Adalbert Cemetery is home to a memorial by sculptor Wojciech Seweryn. The display honors the Katyn massacre.

The sculpture was covered Sunday with hundreds of candles, flowers and Polish flags. Two journals at the base of the sculpture were filled with entries reflecting regrets and sorrow. One read simply: "Never Forgotten."

The loss of President Lech Kaczynski is a personal one in the Chicago area. The city boasts the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw. And so, from a flag flown at half staff over the consulate on Lake Shore Drive to the service at St. Hyacinth Basilica where the names of the dead were read one by one, people found comfort in each other and in exchanging stories, not just of the president, who had visited Chicago twice since taking office, but of one of their own who had gotten the special privilege of flying with the president.

Chicago sculptor Wojciech Seweryn of Mt. Prospect was on his way to a remembrance at the site of the Katyn massacre that killed his father. It was a lifelong dream to go on this trip, the seeds of which were planted when Seweryn met President Kaczynski in Chicago in 2006.

"He was so happy because he didn't know he would go with the president on the same plane," said Rev. Michael Osuch, St. Hyacinth Basilica. "He said what a pleasure, he was so happy the president invited him to go to Katyn."

Seweryn's daughter said she takes comfort in knowing her father died paying tribute to his father.

"I was proud that my grandfather fought for freedom, and I couldn't say it loud," said daughter Anna Wojitowicz. "And my father got in trouble so many times when he was a child, and that's why he chose to get away from there."

President Kaczinski would have been the first Polish president to participate in the city's Polish Constitution Day Parade.

Poland's deputy foreign minister and undersecretary also 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.

"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.

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.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)