WARSAW, Poland — The leader of Poland’s government in exile while the nation was under Soviet-backed rule. The shipyard worker whose firing helped ignite the labor uprising that ultimately toppled communism here. A banking head who helped keep the country stable while the rest of the European Union plunged into recession.
When Poland lost its president and top military brass Saturday in a plane crash that killed 96, it also lost much of its living history and other elite members of society.
It is a supreme bitterness that they died near, of all places, Russia’s Katyn forest, where thousands of Polish officers were slain by Soviet forces in World War II in an attempt to eliminate some of the country’s brightest.
“This is so very much like Katyn, where our head was cut off,” former President Lech Walesa said.
Killed with President Lech Kaczynski in the plane crash near Smolensk, western Russia, were his wife, Maria Kaczynska, his closest aides, lawmakers, army commanders, church figures, historic figures, plane crew and relatives of the victims of the 1940 massacre of Polish officers in Katyn and in other places. They had been traveling to Katyn to mark the 70th anniversary.
The Soviet secret police killed thousands of Polish military leaders and intellectuals at Katyn and other places at the start of World War II. It was part of a strategy to subdue the country, whose eastern half it occupied starting in 1939, and better control it.
Among the victims Saturday was a former president in exile, Ryszard Kaczorowski, 90, the last leader of Poland’s exiled government in London. The exile leadership was established during the Nazi occupation of Poland and continued to declare itself the rightful government during the decades of communism, until Walesa became Poland’s first popularly elected president in 1990.
The crash also took an icon of Poland’s Solidarity freedom movement, 80-year-old Anna Walentynowicz. Workers at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk went on strike when Walentynowicz was fired from her job as a crane operator in August 1980 for her opposition activity. That injustice sparked strikes that spread like wildfire to other plants across the nation, giving rise to Solidarity, the movement that helped bring about the demise of communism in Poland nine years later.
Poland also lost one of the architects of its economic stability during the recent global crisis, the head of the National Bank of Poland, Slawomir Skrzypek, 46, a close Kaczynski associate.
Skrzypek’s nomination in 2007 was highly criticized because he was perceived as inexperienced and Kaczynski’s critics claimed cronyism. Yet his decisions defending the value of the zloty and the bank’s security helped Poland emerge as the European Union’s only economy to avoid recession amid the global downturn last year.
“It was one of the truly brilliant careers recently in Poland,” said political analyst Rafal Chwedoruk from Warsaw University. “He took his positions among heated disputes and he came out victorious. Even his critics were saying under his leadership the bank was playing its role well.”
Several of Poland’s top military officers were killed in the crash, including the army chief of staff, Gen. Franciszek Gagor, 58; the navy’s Vice Admiral Andrzej Karweta, 51; Gen. Andrzej Blasik, 47, from the air force; and the top commander of the ground forces, Gen. Tadeusz Buk, 49.
In Kabul, the American who leads allied forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Gen. David Petraeus, offered his condolences. He was in Poland days earlier to meet with its military leaders.
“Almost everybody who was sitting on the other side of the table at my meeting with the general staff is no longer with us,” Petraeus said.
Government spokesman Pawel Gras said the officers’ first deputies had taken over and Poland’s armed forces and state offices were operating normally despite the devastating losses.
Also killed was Janusz Kochanowski, 69, the state official in charge of protecting citizens’ rights. He was often in the news this past winter because he waged a strong rebuke against the government for refusing to provide swine flu vaccines to the public amid a global panic, casting the decision as a violation of basic rights.
Another prominent figure to perish was Janusz Kurtyka, 49, a historian and researcher who headed the state-run National Remembrance Institute that oversees Nazi and communist-era files. Some files document collaboration of public figures with the communist secret police – ace cards that have been used in political infighting in past years. His decisions to let information seep out made him a controversial figure.
Yet “Kochanowski and Kurtyka were men of learning and their death means a great loss to the intellectual life,” Chwedoruk said.
“We are dealing with a loss of some of the elite: trained politicians, intellectuals, scholars. There is no measure for that,” he said.
Some of Kaczynski’s closest advisers, men who studied abroad, were also on board. They include Wladyslaw Stasiak, 44, head of the presidential office; Aleksander Szczyglo, 46, chief of the National Security Office; and advisers Mariusz Handzlik, 44 and Pawel Wypych, 42. They all met Kaczynski at various stages of his political carrer and won his personal trust.
The nation also lost a much-loved first lady, Maria Kaczynska, 66, an economist and translator with a gracious manner who put her career aside to support her husband. She had devoted herself in recent years to charity work.
The tragedy also shocked the Polish community in Chicago, which lost sculptor Wojciech Seweryn in the crash. Seweryn, 70, designed a memorial to the victims of Katyn, in the St. Adalbert cemetery in Niles, Illinois. Seweryn had made the trip to honor his father, who perished at Katyn 70 years before.