Queens’ Poles stunned by president’s fatal plane crash

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Although Lucas Soklowski has not lived in Poland in nearly 15 years, the Maspeth immigrant said the death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his entourage of top government officials in a plane crash Saturday disheartened him and his fellow nationals.

“It’s crazy. It’s nuts. I got a text from Poland this morning and I still can’t believe it,” said the 28-year-old father of two, who was so shocked by the bad news that he took a day off from work.

Soklowski and other Poles living in Maspeth and Ridgewood spent the weekend mourning the leader’s death with services big and small that not only honored the 60-year-old president, but also reflected on the Eastern European nation’s political future.

At Holy Cross Church at 56th Road in Maspeth, the predominantly Polish-American congregation prayed for Kaczynski and their country with a special novena and mass Sunday afternoon. Richard Koper, a priest at the Roman Catholic church and a Polish immigrant, said the president always put his constituents’ best interests above anything else politically.

“He was a good guy and his personality was nice, warm and friendly,” he said.

Kaczynski, his wife, the head of Poland’s national bank and other top government and military officials were on board the plane that was heading to western Russia to commemorate the anniversary of the Katyn Forest Massacre when more than 20,000 Polish officers, professionals and intellectuals were killed by the Soviet army in 1940.

The plane that was carrying 97 leaders and dignitaries was flying through thick fog and crashed just outside the airport in the town of Smolensk. There were no survivors.

Soklowski said trips like that were common with Kaczynski, who was an expert on Polish history and always made an effort to keep the past alive for future generations.

“He tried to do what was best for Poland,” he said. “He did a lot of good.”

On Saturday, instructors at the church’s weekend Polish education program talked with their students about the deaths and joined them to mourn for their loss. Waldemar Rakowicz, director of the program, helped to drape the Polish flag with a black scarf wrapped around the corner and raised the symbol at half-staff.

The Polish national said, at first, many of his friends and family were concerned because of the social and political ramifications of the plane crash.

“It was a shock to everybody,” he said. “We lost all of our army generals.”

But many immigrants said their fears subsided after knowing their constitution and parliament were strong and prepared to march forward. The government now has two months to hold a special election to replace Kaczynski and until then BronisÅ‚aw Komorowski, the head of the lower house of Poland’s parliament, will assume presidential duties.

“It shouldn’t be bad, but at the same time, it is sad because of all the important people killed,” Joanna Stryjniak of Rego Park said.

Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at ipereira@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4546.

Updated 5:54 pm, October 10, 2011
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