Red and white candles burned bright late last night in Regents Plaza as nearly 100 students and community members gathered to commemorate Saturday’s plane crash that killed 96 Poles, including the country’s president, Lech Kaczynski, and first lady.
The candlelight vigil, hosted by the University’s Polish Club, began with images of the Polish government officials who died in Saturday’s plane crash projected onto a screen flanked by vases of red and white flowers with the Polish flag hanging on the side of the Fleming Administration Building.
Members of the Polish Club and the Polish-American Congress of Ann Arbor (PAC-Ann Arbor) participated in the vigil along with their friends and other members of the community as a way to honor those who died on Saturday’s flight en route to Russia. The passengers were traveling to Russia to commemorate the 20,000 Polish military officers killed by Soviet forces in WWII.
LSA senior Monica Arendt, president of the Polish Club, said more people than the club expected showed up to the vigil, adding that the group ran out of candles to distribute to the attendees.
“There’s a large Polish population in Ann Arbor, Detroit, Sterling Heights and Hamtramck,” Engineering senior Phil Grecki, secretary of the Polish Club, said.
The event featured a recording of the Polish national anthem, and many in the crowd sang along with the words projected onto the screen.
After the national anthem, Arendt invited several leaders in the local Polish community to speak, including Michael Olsizewski, a member of PAC-Ann Arbor.
“These people were very dear to us, but they also had a connection with Ann Arbor and with this community,” Olsizewski said, referencing Kaczynski’s 1999 visit to Ann Arbor.
Kaczynski visited Ann Arbor before he became president of Poland to participate in a conference held by the University’s Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies.
Ewa Malachowska-Pasek, a lecturer in the Slavic Languages and Literature department, spoke after Olsizewski. She described Kaczynski as a “controversial politician” whose death was nonetheless a loss for the European Union as well as for Poland.
Malachowska-Pasek also praised the “solidarity” and “resilience” of all Poles in the wake of their national tragedy.
PAC-Ann Arbor President Wlodek Wielbut discussed the implications of the plane crash, which occurred in Russia’s Katyn forest not far from where the Polish military officials were killed in WWII.
“There’s the layer of irony, the fact that this tragedy happened on the 70th anniversary where over 20,000 Polish officers were murdered by Stalin’s henchmen,” Wielbut said. “So this cursed land once again is soaked in Polish blood.”
Herbert Eagle, associate professor of Slavic languages and literature, discussed Kaczynski’s key role in Poland’s Solidarity movement — a non-communist trade union that came about in the 1980s when Poland was a communist country heavily influenced by the Soviet Union.
“Poland has just lost the flower of its recent civic reawakening,” Eagle said.
But Eagle stressed the importance of maintaining peaceful relations between Poland and Russia, though the countries’ relationship has traditionally been strained.
“To reconcile differences peacefully is the best thing we can do to commemorate those who died,” he said.
Engineering junior Patryk Mastela and LSA sophomore Joanna Smulska, two members of the Polish Club, then read the names of all 96 plane crash victims aloud. A moment of silence followed.
The event ended with a prayer led by Father Dennis Dillon of St. Mary’s Student Parish, and a Polish prayer commonly spoken at funerals.
“It really was a wonderful event,” Malachowska-Pasek said. “Everybody was touched somehow, because it was aimed at all of us — especially the prayer at the end. It was really very touching.”