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 Kaczynski when he was Warsaw’s mayor. Kaczynski 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.
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 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.
(David Harris is executive director of the American Jewish Committee.)