Chicago's Polish Community Reels From Plane Crash

Correction April 12, 2010

Early audio versions of this story incorrectly identified a song as the Polish national anthem. The song is a Polish hymn.

As Poland tries to come to grips with the death of its president and many other officials in a plane crash over the weekend, Chicago's Polish community is reeling too. Chicago is home to more Poles than any other city outside of Warsaw. To compound the shock and sorrow for Polish-Chicagoans, one of their own was on the plane that crashed.

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As Poland tries to come to grips with the death of its president and other top officials in a plane crash over the weekend, Chicago's Polish community is mourning, too. Chicago is home to more Poles than any other city outside of Warsaw. To compound the shock and sorrow for Polish-Chicagoans, one of their own was on the plane. NPR's David Schaper reports from Chicago.

DAVID SCHAPER: Hundreds of Chicago area Poles stood silently at a memorial service at Saint Adalbert´┐ŻCemetery in Niles, a heavily Polish suburb on the northwest border of the city. Many brought candles and laid big bouquets of red and white flowers at the base of a monument here that honors the thousands of Poles killed by Soviet soldiers in Katyn Forest in 1940.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

SCHAPER: Some mourners wiped away tears as they listened to a reading of the names of all 96 Polish dignitaries who died when President Lech Kaczynski's plane crashed Saturday near Katyn on their way to commemorate the massacre 70 years ago. And the mourners paused at the reading of one name in particular.

Unidentified Woman: Wojciech Seweryn.

SCHAPER: Wojciech Seweryn was the Polish-born Chicago artist who designed this powerful Katyn memorial. Friends say the 70-year-old dedicated much of the last decade to getting it built because Seweryn's father was among those massacred at Katyn. Casey Alaskey(ph) notes the poignancy of his friend Seweryn dying so close to where his father died.

Mr. CASEY ALASKEY: He was thinking always about his father. That's all. He built this monument for him - not only for him, for everybody. But his memory of his father, he wants it to do that.

Mr. MARK ZORITSKY(ph): We're all shocked.

SCHAPER: A visibly shaken Mark Zoritsky of Chicago holds a candle he's about to light and place at the base of the Katyn monument.

Mr. ZORITSKY: It hurts to lose that many people 70 years ago. It hurts to lose that many people two days ago.

SCHAPER: In the minds of many Poles in Chicago and elsewhere, this latest tragedy reopens the wounds of the 1940 Katyn massacre, which even in Poland was rarely discussed publicly until after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But Zoritsky, who calls Chicago almost a second capital city to Poles, says tragedies like this have a way of pulling the Polish community together.

Mr. ZORITSKY: So regardless where we are in the world, we feel united with our country, along with our people.

SCHAPER: But Patricia Meitga(ph) of Chicago worries what this loss of many of Poland's elite - the political, military and civic leadership - will mean for her homeland.

Ms. PATRICIA MEITGA: It's extremely sad. They were extremely important. They were, I think, one of the best people that live in Poland right now, and it will be extremely hard to find others to replace them. I don't even think that they can be replaced in any way.

SCHAPER: All around Chicago, small red and white Polish flags flap in the wind from the windows of cars. The Catholic churches in the several neighborhood parishes that celebrate Polish-language masses were packed and overflowing, while flowers and candles piled up in front of the Polish consulate here.

Organizers of Chicago's big Polish Constitution Day parade, scheduled for May 3rd, say it will go on despite the fact that President Kaczynski himself was scheduled to lead it as honorary grand marshal.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

(Soundbite of music)

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