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Poland's Tragedy is Our Tragedy

Poland's Tragedy is Our Tragedy

I lost friends in the crash that killed key leaders from the Polish government, economy, and military.


When the plane carrying Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, and dozens of other officials crashed in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, Russia on Saturday, this immense disaster was also a personal tragedy.

I lost friends in the crash that killed key leaders from the Polish government, economy, and military.

These friends represented democratic Poland, the country that emerged after a decade of struggle led by Solidarity and KOR activists. And of all places for Polish leaders to meet their maker, why did it have to be Katyn, Poles ask, the site of the 1940 Soviet massacre of more than 20,000 Polish officers?

Let me share brief recollections of three of them.

I first met Lech Kaczynski when he was Warsaw's mayor. He was eager for the renewal of Jewish life in Poland. He felt a kinship to Jews, whom he saw as an integral part of Poland's fabric. He said it was impossible to understand Poland without comprehending the Jewish role in its life. That's why he was supportive of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and why he was instrumental in launching it.

I later met him many times as president, most recently in February. A man of passion and principle, he seldom minced words. He knew where he stood and he didn't try to mask his views from others.

President Kaczynski was a friend of the United States. He wasn't always so certain, however, that the friendship was reciprocated. Indeed, he feared that at times Poland's loyalty was taken for granted. But he saw the United States as the only real guarantor of global security -- if, he said, Washington wouldn't succumb to Russia's siren song or Europe's equivocation.

The president was a friend of Israel. He liked and understood it. He instinctively grasped its security predicaments because he could personally relate to a vulnerable country in a tough neighborhood. And he chastised those quick to judge Israel in order to curry favor with others, again seeing a parallel with Poland, whose own interests were sacrificed more than once on the altar of global power politics.

Rejecting Iran's nuclear ambitions was a no-brainer for President Kaczynski. Like many Poles, he and his family had witnessed man's capacity for evil. In our meetings, he'd get right to the point: Isn't it obvious what Iran is doing? Iran's leaders can't be trusted with a bomb. The world needs to get tougher with Tehran.

Mariusz Handzlik was another friend on the plane. A diplomat whom I first met in Washington years ago, he was serving as undersecretary of state in the office of Poland's president.

Mariusz and I shared a deep admiration for Jan Karski, the Polish wartime hero who later joined the faculty of Georgetown University. While serving in the United States, Mariusz befriended Karski, becoming his regular chess partner. They were playing chess when Karski suddenly felt ill and died shortly afterward. Together, Mariusz and I cried for this man who, at repeated risk to his own life, had tried to alert a largely deaf world to the Nazi's Final Solution.

And when Mariusz was assigned to the Polish Mission to the United Nations, he proudly told me that now he would be in a position, together with his colleagues, to help Israel in the world body. He wanted the Israelis to know they had friends at the United Nations, which largely was seen as hostile territory for Israel.

Andrzej Przewoźnik was secretary-general of the Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites.

I first met him when the Polish government and the American Jewish Committee joined together to demarcate, protect, and memorialize the site of the Nazi death camp in Belzec, located in southeastern Poland. In less than a year, more than 500,000 Jews were killed in an area barely the size of a few football fields. Only two Jews survived.

In June 2004, after years of planning and construction, the site was inaugurated. As the late Miles Lerman said at that solemn ceremony, "No place of martyrdom anywhere is today as well protected and memorialized as Belzec."

That could not have occurred without Andrzej's pivotal role. He helped make it happen, overcoming the multiple hurdles along the way. By doing so, he ensured that what took place at Belzec, long neglected by the Communists, would never be forgotten.

May the memories of Lech Kaczynski, Mariusz Handzlik, Andrzej Przewoźnik — and their fellow passengers — forever be for a blessing, as those of us privileged to have known them were ourselves blessed.

April 13, 2010

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Visitor Comments: 30

(30) Kola, May 12, 2010 5:05 PM

The Soviet & Russian Shadow Designs Still Deadly Paths

Thanks for very interesting article about this new Polish Tragedy. Being a Jew, born in Poland, I know how painful this is for the entire Polish nation. And how this Old Wound again became a fresh one again. Katyn as a name is a horrifying sound in each poles ears. If New Russia nowadays will be able to heal this repeating tragedy for the Poles, is still impossible to pedict or to define with certain security. Looking at Russia and her still old policy thinking and making, and if to put Israel in fron of her face, no doubt that Russia is following old tradition, no friendly to Jewish nation of Israel as it rather is too quite opposite to any of her old subjects. There seems to be hanging a heavely Bad Soviet and todays New Russian Shadow with Drastic Deadly Consequencies when it encircle old subjects with a new so-called friendship... As mother Russia she act now, giving her mighty breasts to anyone hungry for oil and gas, for the very heavy price she takes... Time will show, preaty soon, if Katyn, Polish bad nighmare, may be repeated on others, and iif so, will it be the enemies of the West or the opposite again, as before... I fell and cry with the Poles the tragedy refreshed by the soviet place called Katyn...

(29) anna, May 10, 2010 6:55 PM

It is polish tragedy to loss a leader of Pland and many others significant govermant people.

WW II begin at September 1,1939 German attack Poland from West side and September 17,1939 Russion atack Poland from East . When iI was in school in Poland duringa Cominism timenobody teach me about Katyn, Russina camp, on Syberia, Everthynig was greman folt.My parents taking about the war when we children went to sleep.My father suffered from trauma since WII,He was segregated by germa soldiers to be kill ,he was standing next to wal when neighboor speaks German come to him and speak and explain them that he does not did antything against the war rools.he was hidding family under grand because of bombing close o the house. My unct was 14 years old and she was taken to German y without parents o the camp.I am catholic and my family too but my family suffered during the war II.They sufered beacuse of German occuapncy and suffered beacause of Russian Sowiet "fredom " from nazim occupancy .Smolensk is only one part of the dark russian history.I live far away from Poland now but still love my home land and mourning for my friend, young doctor who was president doctor.

(28) Anonymous, April 26, 2010 11:59 PM

Too little too late

Every death is one which Hashem feels pained by, even the drowning of the mitsrim was not something to rejoice over, per our holy Torah. Polish leaders are politically correct to abhor what happened during the shoa, but were not so when needed to be during WW11, when they were either silent or agreeing with the murder of Crist killers ( as Jews were depicted).We now honor as righteous in our those who were helping Jews. More were murdered in Poland ( 3 million) than anywhere else. Perhaps more were saved, but it was a drop in teh bloody bucket. In Germany now, a swastica is not permitted.Polish Jews were trusting and naive and we were told they were to take showers , until the gas was turned on instaed of water. I am suspiscious of any person raised in Poland when these atrocities occured. I am happy Mr. Harris and others can move right along and trust the words coming from their mouth , but I do not think they come from their heart and will ever be fearful of how quickly people will turn on others for money and greed. It does not take much to have your neighbors turn on you. A bad economy is enough. A tragedy occured, but the Poles were not victims of Nazis and their PR is all about denying their complicity. Were Germans victims too? They claim they lost many in the war and many were maimed. More were killed in Poland than anywhere and these leaders are descendants of Polish people who turned a blind eye. I take all they said with a huge grain of kosher salt. Sorry that I have to. That too is a scar I have now, being the child of Holocaust survivors. And you know what? My parents would have said what David Harris said. They were loving all humanity and not bitter about others, in spite of proof otherwise. Mourning is in order and approriate when humans die.. But we should not forget what happened on Polish soil. Hate is again lifting its ugly head for Jews. In France and elsewhere. Hashem have mercy on us.

(27) Janice Urbach, April 16, 2010 7:25 AM

Thank you for your article. My husband was a Holocaust survivor from Poland and would have wept at this tragic accident, an unprecedented loss for all of us who uphold the ideals of democracy and religious freedom.

(26) Ben S., April 16, 2010 2:41 AM

Interesting point you don't see on the news...

Thank you for the article. Honestly, I wasn't sure how to feel when I heard about the tragedy - I am in school and the world is having problems daily (Earthqukes, mine explosions, volcanic eruptions, wars, terrorism) so when I heard that this happened I felt it was a tough blow, but did not realize the effects. This actually made me realize how little I really know about things...Thanks

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