The plane crash on April 10 at Smolensk, Russia that decimated most of the leadership of Poland including the president, the country’s First Lady and 86 other notables has struck Chicago’s big Polish community as a personal tragedy and almost irreparable loss.
Poles comprise the largest single white ethnic group here: 7.3% of the population.
The dignitaries were en-route to a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the Katyn (pronounced “ka-teen) forest massacre in the USSR of more than 20,000 Polish soldiers and intellectuals by the Soviet army.
Chicago politics played a major role in uncovering the true murderers of the Polish at Katyn (that story comes later in this piece).
The death of the president, Lech Kaczynski, a bold opponent of Russian expansion and a stolid friend of the U.S. was a tragedy for this country, the West and Poland.
Also killed were a good many generals, admirals and diplomats—and one spectacularly historic figure. She was 80-year-old Anna Walentynowicz, the former dock worker whose firing at the Lenin shipyard at Gdansk spurred Lech Walesa to start the Solidarity union which cooperated with the trio of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II to trigger a tsunami in eastern Europe that eventually overthrew the Soviet Union.
There was a Chicago fatality as well—Wojciech Seweryn, 70--a sculptor who designed the famed Katyn forest monument in Niles’ St. Adalbert cemetery and whose father was killed at Katyn. The height of irony was that his age coincided with the number of years since the massacre: 70.
Irony: Crash May Spur Kaczynski’s Party.
Still, there’s an ironic bit of favorable implications involved at the aftermath for the West. His pro-U.S. Law and Justice party was running behind in the polls and was due to be defeated by a more liberal, acccommodationist party to Russia. Now the crash has made Kaczynski a kind of martyr and has invested in him an aura similar to that that came to John F. Kennedy after his Dallas assassination.
Acting president will be an opponent of Kaczynski the speaker of parliament but who must call for new elections within 14 days. The elections must take place within 60 days after being called. Thus there is the expectation that the tragedy surrounding the president’s death will reelect his party which is favorable to the U.S.
Chicago a Thriving Polish City.
Chicago has taken the deaths very hard. As soon as the plane crash was announced, cars bearing the unmistakable Polish flags fluttering from their side windows abounded, the flags consisting of two horizontal stripes of equal width, the upper one white, the lower red—the upper stripe bearing the coat of arms of the Polish nation.
The large Polish population enables Chicago to claim that it holds more Poles than Warsaw, Poland: impressive but slightly exaggerated…yet it is close. Chicago’s Polish population is approximately 1.1 million; Warsaw’s is 1.7 million but when Chicago Poles are touting their strength, it is unwise to challenge them…besides: who’s counting? Of course when you add the Poles who live in “Chicagoland,” the number far exceeds Warsaw’s.
Moreover of all white ethnic nationalities, Chicago’s Polish have the most thriving cultural scene, hosting the Polish film festival every October, Polish stage productions appearing at many venues. There’s the Taste of Polonia Festival at the Copernicus Center in the Jefferson Park sector of the city which has been attended by President George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Tipper Gore—and an event that is a “must” on every state candidate’s calendar. By missing the Polonia Festival a state and congressional candidate signifies he/she has no serious interest in getting elected.
Much of Catholicism here is indissolubly tied to Poles People often date events based on when John Paul II came here, in October. 1979 where he drew a crowd of 1.2 million in Grant Park (my car was stalled by the humanity when I tried to catch a glimpse of him at Jefferson Park). After visiting Hispanic neighborhoods and addressing crowds in Spanish and English, he celebrated Mass in Polish before 20,000 at Five Holy Martyrs church in the Brighton Park neighborhood.
Crowds arrived at Five Holy Martyrs at 4 a.m. on that day—by 5 there were 20,000. At the Grant Park Mass, the Holy Father offered communion to representatives of all the Polish parishes in the city including my own St. John Cantius on the near West Side.
Why Was Everybody Packed into One Plane?
Back to the tragedy: Why all top Polish officials were bundled in the same plane is an imponderable as is why the plane’s crew determinedly tried to land in a dense fog when the Tower warned the pilot not to because of poor visibility. Immediately after the crash there were conspiratorial theories, some saying that Russian Premier Vladimir Putin had arranged it—but the frequent warnings from the Tower that went ignored by the pilots has dispelled this.
In the U.S. no one plane carries both the president and vice president. Travel arrangements are split. Even on State of the Union address-day when most of the cabinet attends the address by the president in the House chamber, at least one cabinet officer and sometimes more remain back in their offices to avoid a governmental wipe-out from a tragedy.
The Story of Katyn.
What was the Katyn forest massacre and why has it held such great significance that required such a huge delegation of officials flying to Russia of all places which carried out the mass murders? Very reluctantly after decades of denial, Russia under Vladimir Putin had owned up to its part in the butchery and the memorial was meant to begin to heal the wounds.
The Katyn forest is located between two villages in Russia about 12 miles west of Smolensk. In September, 1939 the USSR then an ally of Nazi Germany, invaded Poland from the east while Germany thrust in from the west. Poland was divided between Germany and the USSR. The Red Army captured thousands of Polish officers and intellectuals and held them as prisoners of war.
Levrenty Beria, head of the NKVD, the Russian spy bureau, submitted a written proposal to the Soviet Politburo on March 5, 1940 recommending the “liquidation” of all members of the Polish officer corps in order to ease the future “communization” of Poland. The document was approved by every member of the Politburo including Josef Stalin.
Polish law mandated that every university graduate belong to the reserve officer corps so Stalin’s order meant the liquidation of many hundreds of Polish lawyers, physicians, teachers, professors, priests, rabbis and other professionals. The victims were herded into camps from October, 1939 to February, 1940.
Once incarcerated there, they were subjected to lengthy interrogations by Soviet officers. Then came the killings. They were assembly-line methodical. The victims were handcuffed and led to a cell insulated with a felt-lined door. Sounds of the murders were muffled by operation of loud fan machines that ran throughout the night. After being taken to the cell, victims were immediately shot in the back of the head. Their bodies were carried out and laid in waiting trucks. In April, 1940 the Soviet secret police murdered 21,768 Polish military officers, civil servants and intellectuals.
Stalin wanted to be sure that no vestige of military of intellectual capacity would be extant in Poland to threaten the USSR on its western border. Those who died at Katyn included an admiral, two generals, 24 colonels, 79 lieutenant colonels, 238 majors, 654 captains, three landowners, a royal prince, 20 university professors, 300 physicians, 234 lawyers, engineers and teachers and more than 100 pilots. In all the Russians executed about half of the Polish officer corps.
Soviets Almost Got Away with Blaming the Germans.
For decades the USSR gladly spread the story that the Nazis were responsible—and that was believed for a long time. And the U. S., eager not to offend its Soviet ally, played along.
In 1944, under pressure, President Roosevelt assigned a special emissary, Navy Lieutenant Commander George Earle to ascertain responsibility. Earle investigated and in his report correctly blamed the USSR. FDR rejected this conclusion, declaring he was convinced of Nazi Germany’s guilt and ordered that the Earle report be suppressed. Earle protested and asked for permission to publish it privately. This was rejected and Earle was reassigned, spending the remainder of the war in American Samoa.
Other U. S. officials tried valiantly to get out the truth only to be blocked. Then after Roosevelt’s death and the end of World War II when the U.S. was running afoul of the Soviet Union in the Cold War, scattered rumors of the Soviet’s true responsibility began to leak out.
A Chicago Irish Republican Blows the Lid Off.
Disgruntled U.S. state department and military officials who had investigated Katyn, were blocked from releasing their findings—and still blocked under Truman-- began to murmur their discontent. So frustrated were state department and Pentagon officials that they began to explore leaking the findings to Republicans in Congress and others.
In 1950 a 41-year-old dark-haired Irish Catholic Republican named Timothy Patrick Sheehan announced his candidacy for Congress in a hopelessly Democratic 11th district which ran through the heavily Polish Patch on the northwest side of Chicago.
The incumbent was Democrat Cong. Chester Anton Chesney,34, a Polish stalwart who played professional football for the Chicago Bears. Being Polish and a Bears hero seemed an unbeatable electoral combination.
With materials on Katyn smuggled to him by State and Pentagon researchers, Sheehan went to a massive Polish northwest side picnic one day during the summer of 1950. Chesney had already addressed the crowd. Sheehan approached the chairman and asked if he—Republican Tim Sheehan—could address the group. The chairman laughed and said “Sure. Why not? But a guy named Sheehan ain’t going to find any votes at a Polish picnic!”
When short, slim Tim Sheehan took over the microphone he had to introduce himself. The crowd kept bustling to itself and paid no heed. Then he shouted over the public address in his loudest voice:
“How many of you here lost relatives and friends of your families at the Katyn Forest massacre…men who were mowed down in the woods on the 3rd of April, 1940 near the villages of Katyn and Gnezdovo near Smolensk in Russia?”
The crowd stopped gabbing and froze in silence.
“How many of you?” Sheehan repeated.
A forest of upraised arms sprouted up instantly. There was hushed silence. Cong. Chesney who was sipping a brew at the beer tent with friends paused, electrified as Sheehan continued:
“My name is Tim Sheehan. I’m an Irishman not a Pole, a Republican not a Democrat—but I tell you this: You send me to Washington to the Congress and I will lead an investigation into who killed your relatives. And I tell you right now: I think I can prove it was the Soviets not the Germans who did it! Ladies and gentlemen, we will make the Russians own up to the murder of your people! The same people who finagled Yalta are blocking this! I will lead a congressional investigation that will find the Russian murderers or I will not run again! ”
There remained in the crowd the vibrant memory of the so-called “Yalta Sellout” agreement by which FDR gave Poland to the USSR.
Cong. Chesney ran up to the microphone, pushed Sheehan away and shouted: “This man is trying to play politics with the lives of your families! He’s a fraud and a phony!”
Sheehan pushed him away and grabbed the mike:
“Then if I am a fraud and a phony, you’ll soon find out if I go to Washington and don’t deliver. I say again: Send me to Washington. I promise you…I promise myself…I’ll find the Russian murderers!”
Then the picnic chairman brushed Chesney away and said to the crowd “Shall we let this Irishman talk? Do you want to hear more?”
From the crowd that afternoon there arose such a roar of approval “yes!” that it rang across the city, audible to the many thousands of ears in what is known as “the Polish downtown”…and carried from there by emissaries to the network of Polish churches: St. Stanislaus Kostas, Holy Innocents, St. Fidelis, St. Helen’s, St. John Cantius, St. Mary of the Angels—on and on.
Right after that, Sheehan’s Irish mug appearing on posters all over the district was emblazoned with a slogan (many of them in Polish): “Vote Sheehan for Justice for Polish Patriots Murdered at Katyn!”
Timothy Patrick Sheehan won that election over a Polish athlete going away. A signal Republican victory in a solid Squid Democratic district.
Congressional Probe Certifies the Answer: Soviets Did It.
When Sheehan came to Congress, House minority leader Joe Martin (R-Mass.) convinced Speaker Sam Rayburn to set up a special subcommittee to probe the Katyn forest massacre with freshman Sheehan as ranking minority member (the chairman: Democrat Ray Madden of Gary, Ind. Then a heavily Polish district). Well-publicized hearings were held through 1951-52 featuring eyewitnesses to the massacre who appeared in hoods with slits cut for eyes (to prevent their identities from getting back to the USSR).
The congressional committee had no trouble in pinning the blame on the Soviet Union—but an internecine struggle ensued as to the responsibility of the FDR-Truman administrations for the cover-up. Democratic Chairman Madden blocked the committee from issuing a majority report indicting the Democratic administrations…although Sheehan wrote a blistering minority report. But there was bipartisan agreement that the Russians’ responsibility for the massacre—and the FDR-Truman era coverup—was due to Chicago’s Tim Sheehan.
What happened to Tim Sheehan afterward? I was his friend during most of his public life—from his being my congressman to a fellow member of the City Club of Chicago which I headed. He served the heavily Polish district in the House for three terms until 1958 when The Squid finally defeated him with a 39-year-old Democrat who shared Sheehan’s views on the responsibility of Katyn.
After losing reelection, Sheehan ran for mayor of Chicago against Richard J. Daley in 1959 and lost in an avalanche. But he became a multi-millionaire owner of a string of savings and loans and ended up a peerless GOP strategist until his death in 2000 at the age of 91 where his passing was lamented by both parties universally.
Sheehan and Pucinski: Boss and Staffer, Rivals, Friends.
How did an Irishman hero to Chicago Poles ultimately lose his district? This way. Sheehan’s committee needed a chief investigator who knew Polish so Sheehan hired an ex-Chicago newspaperman…political editor of The Sun-Times… with a fine Polish pedigree whose mother ran an all-Polish language radio station. The Polish prober did so well that he became an expert on Katyn—and so as a Democrat, he challenged Sheehan for reelection.
On his second try, the ex-chief investigator made it. And as a congressman he was just as anti-Communist as Sheehan, but much more liberal economically and with a newspaperman’s flare for self-publicity.
Who was he? His name was Roman Pucinski who after election became one of the foremost leaders in Democratic congresses. When Sheehan died at 91, Pucinski, frail and ailing at 81, wept copiously at his funeral Mass at Immaculate Conception church in the Norwood Park neighborhood of the city. He died two years later.
They had become fast friends. But that’s how The Squid is. Some members believe once every generation or so a Democrat goes wrong…and then once a generation you have to elect a Republican to set things right. But after that it’s best to go back to electing Democrats.
I hope it changes, God willing.
*: Pope Leo IX [AD 1002-54]. In those days when Emperors and Popes were close…and Popes were chosen by Emperors… some popes were warriors and this one was a wonder. Born a Brahmin named Bruno, he was not a priest at all but a Deacon; his lineage was royal and his father was a close relative of emperor Conrad II of the Holy Roman Empire. . He was a German, born in Alsace and proficient in German and French, he was spared death after a near-disastrous snake bite at a time when a reptile attack was usually fatal and had prayed to Saint Benedict for a cure. He studied theology at the canonry at St. Stephen’s, Toul. He decided to merge his talents—spirituality and love of military science. When Conrad wanted to put down a rebellion, he was up to the task and led an army that accomplished it brilliantly.
His handling of men gave him a national reputation as a military general although that was undoubtedly to his disadvantage. And so when the bishop of Toule died, he was called back from military service to be “elected” (in those days bishops were elected) as Bishop of Toule. He was enthroned at the Cathedral and made it his business to enforce a strict code of discipline among the clergy following the Rule of Saint Benedict. He served there for 20 years applying military discipline to re-ordering the strict observance to priests and monks including the monastery at Cluny. Then Pope Damascus II died after a reign of only 20 days and he was named…in those days that was the procedure…Pope by Emperor Henry II who was his kinsman.
Quick as lightning, Leo IX began to scour the Augustan stables by cracking down on simony…the purchase of spiritual favors in return for money (which hasn’t really ended yet: consider the favored position of the Kennedys who got their marriages “annulled” because of powerful connections with the archdiocese of Boston. Leo was a dynamo, calling a synod in Rome anathematizing simony, reforming morals in the clergy, emphasizing improvement in sacred chant, condemning doctrines of Berengarius of Tours who had denied Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist. When rebels threatened the temporal powers of the papacy, Leo switched to his military role and led his army against rebellions in southern Italy.
Alas, that didn’t work out so well and he was defeated, captured and held for a time at Civitella. This led to his condemnation by the fearless St. Peter Damian who didn’t mind telling popes and others what he thought. If battles were necessary, said Damian, they should be fought by generals and not the Vicar of Christ. Once freed, Leo negotiated with the patriarch of Constantinople to unify the Church of the West with the Church of the East. He even studied Greek in order to understand first-hand the East’s position on issues. It was Leo who first promulgated the proposal that popes should be elected exclusively by the Roman Cardinals…which became law five years after his death. He was on friendly terms with England’s St. Edward the Confessor whom he authorized to re-found Westminster Abbey and as one of his last acts he received in Rome King Macbeth who visited him in expiation of his crimes dramatized later in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
In his last hours he ordered his sick bed and a coffin be placed side by side in St. Peter’s—and he worked rigorously until the end came. In all a very-very active and productive Pope.