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Chicago-area artist among the dead in Polish presidential plane crash

As Poland mourns the death of 98 people, including President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, in a fatal crash near Smolensk, Russia, the tragedy has hit home for Chicago's Polish community.

According to the Chicago Tribune, local Polish artist Wojciech Seweryn was among the delegation of Poland's political and intellectual elite en route to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn Massacre.

Seweryn, 70, was a sculptor whose works adorn multiple churches on Chicago's Northwest Side. He was also grand marshall of the annual Polish Constitution Day Parade in 2008.

Seweryn's lifelong dedication to honoring Katyn victims

Seweryn himself had a close connection to the Katyn Massacre of 1940 - his father was among the Polish Prisoners-of-War killed in the forests after the Second Polish Republic was dismembered by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

He spearheaded the construction of a monument commemorating the victims of the event at St. Adalbert cemetery in suburban Niles, according to Zygmunt Matynia, the Chicago Consul General of the Republic of Poland. The late president was present at the official unveiling of the monument in 2007 and Seweryn himself was invited by Kaczynski to join Poland's delegation to commemorate Katyn with the leaders of Russia's government as part of recent efforts to mend ties between the two countries.

"It is a damned place. It sends shivers down my spine. First the flower of the Second Polish Republic is murdered in the forests around Smolensk, now the intellectual elite of the Third Polish Republic die in this tragic plane crash when approaching Smolensk airport."-former President of Poland Aleksander Kwasniewski, Polish news

Poles mourn loss of national leaders at mass, hang flags and black ribbons

Chicago-area Poles shared their grief and condolences in special mass at their local community churches, including a gathering of about 500 people in historically-Polish St. Hyacinth Basilica on the Northwest Side.

Many expressed their sorrow and shock at what many inside and outside of Poland call the worst national tragedy to hit Poland since the Second World War. Chicago's Polish community was among the most supportive of constituencies when Kaczynski ran for president in 2005.

Regardless of the politics, however, flags at official buildings and in some residential areas with strong Polish populations are hanging at half-mast or with a black ribbon to mourn the loss of their home country's leader and other major notables.

"He was a patriot," Consul General Matynia said of Seweryn. Others who had the chance to meet him personally echoed the sentiments and their grief at his death.

Local and world leaders offer support and sympathy for Poland

Local Chicago officials also expressed their condolences to the government and people of Poland.

"President Kaczynski was a courageous and dedicated champion of his nation and a defender of freedom. Throughout his life he fought for the working men and women of Poland and served as an inspiration to the Polish-Americans living throughout our country, the state of Illinois and the Chicago-area."-Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, in a statement about the crash

World leaders, including spokesmen for the U.S. State Department, and the President of Russia, have sent their own regards and notes of solidarity to Poland.

It is yet to be seen whether Polish-Russian relations will receive a boost from mutual cooperation and mutual sympathy for the victims of the crash and their circumstances, or if the fragile relationship will collapse in coming days as long-standing suspicions and mistrust on  both sides come to the fore.

"The Polish state must function and will function," Prime Minister says

Regardless of the implications in foreign policy, it is Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who was not on board the plane, who is head of government. Tusk called an emergency Cabinet meeting and declared a week of national mourning within hours, seeking to ensure his devastated countrymen that Poland was not paralyzed without a President

According to the Polish Constitution, should the President die in office, the Speaker of the Parliament would become the Acting President - in this case, that role falls on Bronislaw Komorowski, who was expected to face off against Kaczynski in upcoming presidential elections at the end of 2010.

Komorowski will have to issue a call for an early presidential election within 14 days of the event, and this vote must take place within 60 days of that announcement. The scope of the plane crash and a state of mourning may keep the election campaign muted and relatively civil, in comparison to previous electoral contests between rival parties and competing personalities.

Poland mourns a national tragedy


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