The coffin of Polish President Lech Kaczynski returned to Warsaw Sunday as Russian and Polish investigators struggled to identify the remains of 95 other victims who died in the plane crash that took Kaczynski’s life. The Polish officials were traveling to Russia for the 70th anniversary of the massacre of Polish officers by Soviet secret police in the Katyn forest. Kaczynski’s body will be available for public viewing Tuesday, but his funeral will be delayed until the remains of his wife, Maria, are identified. Polish journalist Magdalena Rittenhouse on how the Katyn forest’s bitter legacy is clouding her country’s view of the tragedy.
The president, top military commanders, and the head of the National Bank—they were all on the same plane? My American friends, who keep calling me to express their sympathy, cannot comprehend it. “How is it possible? Whenever people in my company travel to a conference, they put us on at least two separate flights,” one of them observed in disbelief. Yes, they were on the same plane, and it was an old Soviet-made Tupolev-154. It doesn’t take much to imagine it was rusty, right?
I come from a nation of rebels who braved Nazi tanks with their bare hands or on horseback; my maternal grandfather did just that after the Germans invaded Poland on September 1, 1939; he was captured and sent to a POW camp three days later. Call it pathetic or beautiful, paranoid or courageous, but mine is a nation of countless suicidal uprisings, including one in Warsaw in August 1944, perhaps the most tragic of all.
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I come from a country whose president travels on a plane that quite likely was not checked thoroughly before it took off. And whose pilot saw fit to attempt a landing in dense fog, despite being warned not to do so. Jakoś to będzie, the pilot probably said to himself, before missing the runway and snagging treetops near the Smolensk airport.
I come from a country that hates fire drills—I still cannot get used to the fact that my 6-year-old daughter undergoes at least one a month in her kindergarten—and where we do not like to buy insurance. Jakoś to będzie, a phrase that does not translate well into English, but which comes close to “somehow things will work out,” sounds like a Polish motto.
This weekend, of course, things did not work out.
“In the airline food chain, the Tu-154 is more likely to be found in Africa flying for a non-regulated and nameless carrier on arms-running or drug missions” wrote aviation expert Clive Irving in a Daily Beast story just hours after the accident.
And yet, upon hearing the news Saturday, most Poles found it hard to think about what happened in pragmatic or rational terms. Instead, we saw the forest—bare trees, no leaves—where the plane crashed and thought of the graves that President Lech Kaczynski and those accompanying him were going to visit. Symbolic graves of 22,000 Polish reserve officers—university professors, doctors, lawyers—who were arrested upon the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland in September 1939 and then shot in the back of the head. Their bodies were found in Katyn and several nearby villages by the Germans, after they fell out with Stalin and invaded Russia. It happened in the early spring of 1943, after they noticed paw prints of wolves who were digging up the bones.
The British historian Neal Ascherson wrote in The Observer on Sunday: “A people whose collective memory has relied so much on mystical coincidence, the sense of a providence sometimes loving but often malign, will be tempted for a moment to think that Katyn will never be over, that Lech Kaczynski and his companions are not just part of the tragedy but part of the crime.”
Yes, we cannot help but think of our history and the demons that have been haunting it for centuries. “This is unbelievable; this tragic, cursed Katyn,” Kaczynski’s predecessor, Aleksander Kwasniewski, said on Saturday. “It’s hard to believe. You get chills down your spine.”
I learned about the Polish officers who died at Katyn from my parents. I am not sure how old I was—10 or so—but I clearly remember them instructing me to keep quiet about it in school. For half a century, Russians and the communist government they installed in Poland after Yalta maintained the crime was perpetrated by the Nazis. That was what we read in our history textbooks, and only occasionally a brave teacher would dare to whisper and encourage students not to believe everything we were fed (I was lucky to have had several such teachers in my high school).
It was only under Gorbachev and his perestroika, as the Berlin Wall began to crumble, that the official line crumbled as well. In 1990, 50 years after the fact, Russians for the first time admitted their responsibility—something that by then was obvious to most Polish teenagers. It was in no small part a result of many efforts and struggles undertaken by Lech Kaczynski and his friends in the Solidarity movement. A staunch anti-communist, Kaczynski fell out with many of them in later years. As president, he would put Poland on a collision course with Russia many times, too, trying to prevent it from reasserting its influence over Eastern Europe or attempting to forge stronger ties with NATO and the West, particularly George W. Bush’s America. His demands to open the Katyn archives and conduct a full investigation certainly did not win him many friends in Moscow.
It may only seem like a bitter irony that on Wednesday, three days before Kaczynski’s tragic death, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin became the first Russian leader to join a Polish delegation commemorating the 70th anniversary of Katyn. Putin stopped short of apologizing for what happened or calling it a war crime. Nevertheless, he reached out: “In our country, there has been a clear political, legal, and moral judgment made of the evil acts of this totalitarian regime, and this judgment cannot be revised.”
Kaczynski, who was not invited to the ceremony—instead Poland was represented by Prime Minister Donald Tusk—chose to take part in a separate celebration, on Saturday. He was joined by families of the victims, military commanders, bishops and priests, several ministers and MPs. Also on board the ill-fated plane was Ryszard Kaczorowski, 90, Poland’s last “president-in-exile” during the Soviet years, and Anna Walentynowicz, the shipyard worker whose dismissal in 1980 sparked the Solidarity strike in Gdansk (similarly to Kaczynski, she also later became estranged from many of its leaders). “Back then, they shot our intellectual elites in the back of the head, and now we lost part of our intellectual elite in a plane crash,” Lech Walesa, the legendary Solidarity leader and former president, told Gazeta Wyborcza daily. “It’s Katyn Two.”
Apart from Katyn, another geographical location and another fatal accident is coming to the minds of many Poles. It took place over Gibraltar on July 3, 1943, and it also claimed the life of their leader—General Władysław Sikorski, prime minister of Poland’s government in exile. Just months after the news about Katyn emerged, Sikorski challenged Stalin, demanding an independent investigation. The Allies, who so far had been lending Sikorski their support but who were depending on the Russians in their struggle against Hitler, were not willing to alienate Moscow. Some still voice doubts about whether Sikorski’s death was an accident.
Based on what is known so far, any reasonable person has every reason to believe what happened on April 10, 2010, was indeed a bad accident: dense fog, outdated plane, overconfident pilot. “Poland today is not cursed by destiny but by a brutal share of bad luck,” writes Ascherson. To think otherwise is “a paranoid nonsense which any Pole can be excused for entertaining for an awful moment—but which then blows away in the fresh air.”
I know. I really hope the demons that have been haunting us for centuries will blow away in the fresh air; that our presidents shall travel on safer planes in the future; that we shall learn to buy insurance, run a fire drill once in a while, and peruse a safety manual.
There are many reasons why we should learn from, cherish, and feel proud of our history. But it would be good if it remained confined to the history books—along with the mystical coincidences, phantoms, and demons that keep haunting us.
Magdalena Rittenhouse, a native of Poland, is a freelance writer based in New York. She has worked for several news organizations, including BBC World Service in London and The Associated Press in Warsaw.