Feature

Poland: An unfathomable loss

When President Lech Kaczynski’s plane crashed in western Russia, Poland lost not only its president but also many of the nation's top leaders.

Poland has been plunged into unimaginable “despair, pain, and sorrow,” said Polish journalist Maciej Zglinicki in Europe’s Presseurop.eu. It’s still hard to believe that much of the “national elite” was lost last week when President Lech Kaczynski’s plane crashed in western Russia. The dead include Kaczynski and his wife; the head of the central bank; the head of national security; several government ministers and deputy ministers; and the entire top brass of the military, including chiefs of the army, navy, air force, and general staff. In a terrible irony, Kaczynski and the others were en route to commemorate the 70th anniversary of an earlier tragedy that also wiped out the country’s elite—the Katyn massacre of 20,000 Polish officers by Soviet forces. The cause of the crash is still being investigated, but authorities suspect human error, as the pilot tried to land the craft in heavy fog. “Tragedies and suffering are part and parcel of Poland’s DNA. Fortunately, they go hand in hand with an ability to surmount the greatest difficulties.” So we must trust that we will respond to this crisis with “compassion, solidarity, dignity, and magnanimity.”

The outpouring of emotion in Poland is “reminiscent of the scenes following the death of Princess Diana,” said Polish journalist Krzysztof Bobinsk in the London Independent. Millions of Poles are weeping, placing wreaths, lighting candles. Yet our grief and shock “isn’t about the president himself.” Kaczynski was “awkward with people” and not particularly popular. But as a champion of Polish nationalism, he was “a symbol of Poland’s regained independence.” That he died at Katyn is all the more poignant, said Pawel Lisicki in Poland’s Rzeczpospolita. More than any other Polish politician, Kaczynski cared about the nation’s history. He led a wave of national appreciation “for all those willing to fight for Poland, the soldiers of the Warsaw Uprising, the partisans, and the Solidarity opposition activists.” His death at that historic site “has laid bare what was at the core of Lech Kaczynski: patriotism.”

We have an unexpected partner in our mourning—our longtime foe, Russia, said Jaroslaw Kurski in Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza. “All across Russia, people are crying with us.” The Polish Embassy in Moscow is “a sea of flowers,” and the country is observing a national day of mourning. Even before the crash, we Poles were seeing “stunning, from our perspective, things happening in Russia.” After decades of blaming the Katyn massacre on the Germans, Russia admitted this year that it was a “Soviet crime,” and Russian television aired a Polish film about the slaughter. “Russia has opened its heart to Poland, but has also opened its heart to itself: to its own history and to the history of Russian Stalinism, which killed millions of Russians and other Soviet citizens.” Perhaps in the wake of this tragedy, our “two Slavic nations may be able to reconcile.”

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