By Joseph Alexiou
At 4 o’clock this past Saturday morning, the Rev. Marek Sobczak received a text message from a family member in Poland reading, “President Kaczynski and his wife are dead.” Normally a light sleeper, Sobczak was roused by the chime of his phone, and immediately turned on the Polish news channel he receives by satellite.
Hit by the news of the 96 people killed in a plane crash outside of Katyn, Russia — including the head of Polish national security, a deputy parliament speaker and the national bank president — Sobczak fell into a state of shock. It has continued over three memorial services held at the St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, 607 Humboldt St. in Greenpoint, a center of religious life for Little Poland’s predominantly Roman Catholic population.
The timing of the accident is especially bitter because the delegation was traveling to Katyn for a historic purpose: commemorating the infamous massacre of more than 20,000 Polish citizens in the area by Soviet secret police in 1940. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is the first Russian leader to participate in the ceremony, according to a recent article in The New York Times.
“To me it is like a bad dream,” Sobczak said Monday morning, sitting in a conference room outside his office in the rectory of his church. “I hope I wake up one day and the dream would be gone. Every time I see the pictures from Poland, my eyes are filling with tears. I believe that it’s what all Poles feel. It’s not only an airplane crash, but the most prominent elite people in Poland.”
Describing what was to be a historic moment in Polish history, Sobczak said that for many years the massacre “was unspoken, without apologies.” Without blinking, he looked distantly out a window, visibly anguished. “It is a feeling of, of not being able to do anything about it. It’s some kind of helplessness, but then you feel a great loss, and all you want to do is spend time with God.”
Immediately after news of the crash, Sobczak held an impromptu memorial service at 11 a.m. Saturday, repeating it again in the evening and on Sunday as well. For the most recent service, the church was overflowing with community members of all ages, some clad in vests embroidered with bright colors, traditional bonnets or hats and a red sash—representative of traditional Polish clothing. Others wore national uniforms, including that of the Polish scouts. Sobczak said the Polish population in Greenpoint was especially religious and patriotic, and the death of the President Lech Kaczynski had devastated the community. Along with the first lady, Maria Kaczynska, the president visited the community twice since 2007, visiting St. Stanislaus on both occasions to pray.
Along the thoroughfares of Nassau and Manhattan avenues dozens of Polish flags, flanked by strips of symbolic black cloth, fluttered in the wind.. Polish-owned businesses displayed the flags in their windows. On a board on the outside of the Polish and Slavic Center at 176 Java St., two Polish flags were mounted with the black strip, and in between a list of all 96 of the accident victims, beginning with Kaczynski and his wife.
Bozena Kaminski, executive director of the Polish and Slavic Center and vice president of Polish Affairs of the Polish American Congress, has been receiving condolence phone calls from members of the city government, local police precinct and other Polish organizations across the country.
“We are a religious people, and of course, the Masses the churches, we are all praying together,” said Kaminski, a blond middle-aged woman dressed in a grey wool business suit. Surrounding her blue eyes was the red puffiness of emotional distress.
Kaminski then mentioned that she had been friendly with, or had a working relationship with several people who had been on the plane. She had also met Kaczynski and his wife several times. Discussing their names, like Krystyna Bochenek, deputy speaker of the Polish Senate, and Maciej Plazynski, president of the Polish Community Association (linking Poland with the members of the international Polish community, known as Polonia), Kaminski began to tear up.
“I would say a few days ago I spoke with two of them,” she said. “I was planning on going to Poland next week.” Kaminski paused and blinked slowly before continuing. “There was a concert planned in the Warsaw castle, and instead I will plan to attend a funeral.”