Just because you imagine something cannot happen doesn’t mean that it will not. Early in the morning of April 10, a plane with 96 Polish passengers on board crashed near Smolensk in Russia, as it attempted to land in deep fog. There were no survivors.
There were some very influential figures among the 96 Poles who died in the crash. Lech Kaczynski, the President of Poland, was one of them. The plane was also carrying many members of the Polish parliament, senior figures in the Polish army, the head of the national bank of Poland, the ombudsman, deputy ministers and top officials from the church hierarchy. The President and the other dignitaries had been travelling to Russia to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the infamous Katyn massacre.
We wondered how the Polish nation was taking these events, given Iceland now has a sizeable Polish community. So we made some calls. On the phone from Poland, a 28-year-old banker from Warsaw called Malgorzata Wolodzko said: “We can all see a very symbolic meaning in this event. The most appalling fact is that the plane crashed so close to Katyn, where during the Second World War around 22 thousand Poles were massacred by the Soviet Army. The victims of this massacre were mostly members of the intelligentsia and the Polish army that had been taken captive by the Soviets. Russians denied their responsibility for this massacre for over 50 years, placing blame on the Nazis. Now, on the 70th anniversary of the massacre, top Polish officials die on Russian soil again.”
In the aftermath, the media’s immediate focus was of course upon the President. Many Poles’ first concern, however, was to find out whether his wife had been with him on the plane. She was actually much more popular than her husband with the Polish people because of her subtlety and her warmth, and she was very well liked. A Dutch tulip company even named a pale yellow tulip after her: “Maria Kaczynska.” It means humble, pale yellow. The deep sadness many felt when it was revealed that she was aboard the plane will always remain.
Poland immediately became a place of mass mourning. Thousands of people spontaneously gathered in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw, bringing candles and flowers. They cried together. Those who were abroad watched whatever news reports they could find and searched the internet incessantly for new information. Condolences came from all over the world to Warsaw, where it was finally decided that the president Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria would be buried in Wawel, where Polish kings were traditionally laid to rest.
Reykjavík Poles React
About the events, Anna Rechlewska, a 27 year-old psychologist from the Polish School in Reykjavik, tells us: “At first, everybody coped with their emotions in their own way. But after a while, many Poles in Reykjavík started to feel a strong urge to gather together and do something. The Polish consulate organised a meeting. There was also a Catholic mass on Saturday and Sunday. This helped a lot, as the church is something that brings Poles in Iceland together. This was acknowledged by local people and the President and Prime Minister of Iceland, who also attended the ceremonies. It was an important sign of support and of honouring those who died.”
Many have asked the same two questions, even though Poles themselves have been reluctant to look for answers yet. Why did the plane crash? Who is responsible for the tragedy in Smolensk? Poles are still in a grieving phase. They think that the answer doesn’t matter, since answers won’t bring back those who have died. But why were they all travelling together? Perhaps when they were on board together, they believed themselves were all too important for something to ever go wrong.
A more practical question for now is how Polish politics will change, especially with the coming presidential election on June 20. Will sympathy for Lech Kaczynski be translated into votes for his party? Will his twin brother Jaroslaw play on people’s sentiments at a time of mourning? And if he does so, is that ethical of him?
Says Anna: “It is easier for us in Iceland to cope with this drama and get back to our normal lives. But I can imagine that in Poland the mourning will continue for quite some time. The media just won’t let things be normal again.”
Only time will tell how Poles vote and how quickly daily routines return. No matter what the investigation reveals about the causes of the crash, there is one simple conclusion for now. If you can’t imagine something happening, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Poles have just learned this to be true. I hope Icelanders won’t be next.