By Michael Flynn
A Russian airliner carrying the top levels of Poland’s military and political leadership crashed in a Russian forest last Saturday. Ninety-six people, including Polish president Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria, died a short distance from the site of the Katyn forest massacre. They were traveling to the site for a ceremony commemorating the slaughter of 22,000 Poles at the hands of Soviet secret police, an event that has hurt relations between Russia and Poland for 70 years, according to the Associated Press.
Across Poland, people lowered flags to half-staff and taped black ribbons in their windows. Monks rang the Zygmunt Bell at Krakow’s Wawel Cathedral, which is the burial spot of Polish kings; the tolling is reserved for times of intense grief.
Besides the president and his wife, the national bank president, deputy foreign minister, head of the National Security Office, deputy parliament speaker, Olympic Committee head, civil rights commissioner and at least two presidential aides and three lawmakers were on board, the Polish foreign ministry said.
Some on board were relatives of the officers slain in the Katyn massacre. Another victim was Anna Walentynowicz, whose firing in August 1980 from the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk sparked a workers' strike that spurred the creation of the Solidarity freedom movement. "This is a great tragedy, a great shock to us all," former president and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa said.
"This is unbelievable, this tragic, cursed Katyn," Kaczynski's predecessor, Aleksander Kwasniewski, said on TVN24 news. It is "a cursed place, horrible symbolism," he said. "It's hard to believe. You get chills down your spine." Pilot error in heavy fog is being blamed for the crash, officials said.
A week later on April 18, Kaczynski was buried. After a solemn mass, two gun carriages bore the coffins of Kaczynski and his wife Maria, draped in the red-and-white national flag, through winding streets to their final resting place in Wawel Cathedral high above Poland's ancient capital. Thousands of Poles chanted "Lech Kaczynski, we thank you" and waved flags and banners of the Solidarity movement which the combative nationalist and devout Roman Catholic once helped to build, reported Reuters.
Their coffins were laid to rest in the cathedral's crypt, a hallowed spot for Poles usually reserved for kings, leading poets, and national heroes. They will be made available for public viewing and many of the people gathered in the Krakow's old town for the funeral ceremony started forming a long line to see the crypt.
People gathered by the funeral route were applauding when the Kaczynski family, including the late president's little granddaughter, were moving toward the Wawel hill. Other mourners included the presidents of Russia, Germany, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Georgia.
U.S. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy were among those forced to abandon plans to attend Kaczynski's funeral. They were unable to travel because of the Icelandic volcano ash cloud which grounded most European flights. "President Kaczynski was a patriot and close friend and ally of the United States, as were those who died alongside him, and the American people will never forget the lives they led," Obama said in a statement, noted by the Washington Times.
Michael Flynn is an undergraduate at St. Thomas Aquinas College. He is studying Communications and works at the campus radio station, WSTK, as a DJ and Program Director. He hopes to work in radio after college, but if that doesn’t work out he’ll probably just open up a coffee house somewhere.