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Chicago's Polish Community Mourns Victims of Plane Crash


Chicago is home to the largest Polish community outside of Warsaw. Poles in that Midwestern city are mourning the loss of Poland's President and other national leaders who died in a plane crash near the Russian city of Smolensk over the weekend.

For several months, the Polish American community here had been planning for President Lech Kaczynski's visit to the Windy City at the end of April.

But excitement for his visit has turned to sorrow in the wake of Saturday's plane crash. Ninety-seven people, including the Polish president and first lady, and many senior members of the Warsaw government died when the presidential plane crashed in thick fog outside Smolensk.

An over capacity crowd gathered at St. Hyacinth's Basilica in Chicago for a Roman Catholic mass to mourn those who perished in the crash.

"Almost everyone in Chicago does have family in Poland, so the news spread immediately, mostly from Poland. We got many calls," Zigmunt Matynia said. Matynia is Poland's Consul General in Chicago.

He says a wave of patriotism has descended on Chicago's Polish community in the wake of the tragedy. "As you can see right now, Chicago looks like a Polish city. Every car has a flag. Many Poles come -- not only Poles, but people who feel that it was a great tragedy comes to the Polish consulate."

Sebastian Rotiarski was one of the hundreds of mourners to visit the Polish consulate on Chicago's Lake Shore Drive.

"It's a sad an ironic day in the sense that we've lost so many great people, so many influential people, so many good people, that it's in every Polish person's heart today and yesterday, and for years to come, it's going to be a very painful and very memorable day. So I just wanted to share the experience with others," he said.

Some mourners came to the consulate to lay flowers or wreaths at the base of a flagpole in the consulate's front yard. The Polish flag above them flew at half-staff.

An activist and artist in Chicago's Polish community was among those who died in the crash. Wojciech Seweryn created a monument in the Chicago suburbs to the victims of the 1940 Katyn massacre.

The plane carrying Seweryn and 96 others, including President Kaczynski, was en route to a ceremony in Russia to mark the 70th anniversary of the massacre, in which Soviet forces killed some 22,000 Polish military officers and civilians leaders.

"Poland survived many difficult moments in history. So this is another tragic moment. But we will be stronger. But this is the message I would like to spread through the community," Matynia said.

Matynia says she hopes the Polish Constitution Day Parade, scheduled for May 3 in Chicago's Grant Park, will be held as a sign of healing in a community that coming to terms with the loss of its home country's beloved leader.

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