NY Polish Community Grieves Loss of President

Country's political, military infrastructure collapses with deaths of elite

By Glenn Zimmerman and Jennifer Millman
|  Sunday, Apr 11, 2010  |  Updated 2:28 PM EDT
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Polish President Lech Kaczynski and Polish officials were heading to the site of a Soviet massacre of Polish military officers in World War II when their plane tried to land in a thick fog on Saturday morning. The news sent shock and grief through Poland and around the world.

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New York's Polish community is waiting for answers and gathering together for comfort as they mourn the loss of their president, Lech Kaczynski, who perished in a tragic plane crash along with his wife and 94 others yesterday.

The Polish community in the city is robust -- and in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, which is sometimes referred to as "Little Poland," the grief and shock is palpable in restaurants, stores and streets.

Storefronts around the neighborhood draped their Polish flags with black ribbons as a mark of respect and sadness.

At St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan tonight, a concert to honor the memory of Pope John Paul II will begin with a prayer the Polish people.  The service is expected to begin at 7 p.m.

"All leaders ... at the same moment lost life," said Dorota Andraka, president of the Polish Supplementary School, which is inside St. Cyril Catholic Church in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Andraka said she tried to explain the catastrophe to a group of students with roots in the European nation earlier in the day, but struggled to communicate her grief, shock, anger and confusion when asked about it later.

"I don't know how to explain ... I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she said.

Meantime Sunday, Russian and Polish investigators began to analyze evidence from the flight recorders in the plane following the Saturday morning crash in western Russia

Russian and Polish officials said there were no survivors on the 26-year-old Tupolev, which was carrying the country's political and military leadership to mark the 70th anniversary of the massacre in Katyn forest of thousands of Polish officers by Soviet secret police during World War II.

Word of the plane crash dominated much of the conversation around Greenpoint.

"I'm in shock," said Elizabeth Wysocka. 

Roman Goik called the devastating crash "a strange coincidence."

The Katyn massacre has a very painful place in Polish history. For years, under Soviet control, it was forbidden to even mention the word "Katyn" in Poland. It wasn't until 1990 that Russia even admitted its responsibility for the murders of more than 20,000 soldiers nearly 70 years ago.

The trip was supposed to build bridges with Russia. But instead of building bridges, it brings back extraordinarily difficult memories -- once again, a group of Polish elite died on Russian soil.
 
"Imagine they fly with the president, your favorite people, and they all die," said Jerzy Swiatkowski. "It’s a big blow.”

A restaurant owner fondly remembered her time with the late Polish president.

"A few months ago I took a picture with him," said Christina Dura, a Polish-American woman.

The picture of her with the late President Kaczynski hangs proudly on the wall of her restaurant. 

"I'm very depressed, what can I say," she said.
 
At the Polish school, an eerie sense of uncertainty accompanies the feelings of personal loss.

"I don’t know what happened," Andraka said. "We lost people who take care of us ... take care of Polish school in America."

Although thousands of miles away, the crash may as well have happened in their backyard.

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