Yet another Polish tragedy
THE crash of a Polish aircraft near Smolensk, Russia is the greatest tragedy Poland has experienced in the postwar era. It is ironic that the Polish delegation flying to Katyn to commemorate the murder of thousands of Polish officers by the Soviet secret police 70 years ago should themselves end up as victims to this cursed place.
In fact it is the irony of ironies that almost 100 people — the elite of the Polish government, armed forces, church, and state — lost their lives in the very same Katyn forest that an earlier elite of the Polish state were murdered by Stalin’s henchmen so as to minimize the possibility of any opposition on his design for postwar Poland and Eastern Europe.
Such an epochal event can provoke one to profoundly reflect on its significance, but, in spite of all attempts to search for a deeper meaning, it appears this catastrophic event was just an unfortunate accident that left yet another deep wound on the Polish psyche.
One is left then to think about the individuals who lost their lives for Poland, not only on that illfated flight, but the many others who fought for and died to defend freedom and democracy.
I think about President Lech Kaczynski who as a Solidarity leader in the 1980s fought to free his country from communist oppression and to finally become the president of a free and democratic Poland.
I think about Anna Walentynowicz whose courage and tenacity spurred the eventual creation of the Solidarity freedom movement.
I think about the chiefs of the Polish armed forces and their aides who helped to defend Polish sovereignty within NATO.
I think of Slawomir Skrzypek, president of the National Bank of Poland, who fought to ensure that the economy of Poland would become the equal counterpart to its EU partners.
I think of the Polish parliamentarians who tirelessly worked for a stronger Poland within the European Community.
As vice-president of The Polish Combatants Association, Winnipeg Branch, I think about the founders of this organization.
These men and women, in many cases, with their entire families were exiled by Stalin to Siberia into the Soviet gulag system at the onset of the Second World War. In a sense, these people were fortunate in that they survived the gulags, unlike their brethren who were mercilessly murdered in Katyn. In their case, however, the term fortunate is relative because in many instances, even though they survived, many of their immediate family did not.
I particularly think of Stefan Olbrecht (also a vice president of the Polish Combatant Association) who indeed survived but lost his entire family in the gulags.
These men and women, on their release in 1941, thanks to an agreement between the Soviets and Allies, found their way to the Middle East where they formed the Polish corps and joined the English Eighth Army to fight against the Nazis.
This Polish corps fought in the North African campaigns against Rommel’s armies and then up the boot of Italy, concluding in the defining battle of Monte Casino. The capture of Monte Casino by the Poles (with a huge loss of life) opened the road to Rome and eventual surrender of the city to the Allies.
When I think of these events, I think about my late father-in-law, Boleslaw Kurylo, who passed away just a few weeks ago. He survived the gulags, the battles in North Africa and Italy, and the storming of Monte Casino.
Under murderous German fire from the heights of Monte Casino, my father-in-law, with thousands of other Poles, managed to capture the abbey at the top and pave the way for Allied victory in Italy. He so often proudly stated that he fought for his and our freedom.
Finally, I think about my father, Stanislaw Sytkowski, who fought against Nazi oppression in his homeland with the Polish Underground Home Army.
His passion for a free Poland culminated in his participation in the epic battle of the Warsaw Uprising. This was not only titanic struggle to oust the Nazis from occupied Warsaw but also to establish a free and democratic government in advance of the approaching Soviet armies in the summer and fall of 1944.
The battle against the Nazis continued for two months as the Soviets looked on from across the Vistula River and provided no assistance to the fighters in Warsaw. With no assistance from the east and very little help from the west, The Home Army had no choice but to capitulate.
Warsaw was completely devastated and several hundred thousand lay dead on its street. My father and many of the surviving fighters were shipped to concentration camps or sent to slave labour camps in Germany.
Such people embody the human face of the Polish tragedy. My father’s commanding officer, in his book The Fanatics of Freedom, eloquently wrote that the Warsaw Uprising consumed the very best of Poland’s youth. They fought and died for a free and democratic country. As a proud Canadian, I could only hope that I could be at least half the man these people were and if called upon, step into such gigantic shoes and defend the freedom and democracy of Canada.
A man walks past the graves of those killed during the Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis in August 1944.