Polish Plane Crash: What Happened in the Cockpit?

Katyn Massacre Still Weighs Heavily Among Poles

Saturday's crash of a plane carrying Poland's President Lech Kaczynski, first lady, and dozens of the country's political and military leaders to a Katyn memorial near the western Russian city of Smolensk has torn open a wound that had only just begun to heal.

"Instead of trying to consign the Katyn saga to the history books whenever Katyn is mentioned in [the] future we will be reminded of the plane crash that claimed the lives of our president and his entourage," says Kuba Suszczewski, an artist from Warsaw, Poland.

"This tragic, cursed Katyn," former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski told reporters Saturday. "It sent shivers down my spine.

"First the flower of the Second Polish Republic is murdered in the forests around Smolensk," Kwasniewski said. "Now the intellectual elite of the Third Polish Republic die in this tragic plane crash when approaching Smolensk airport."

Former Polish President Lech Walesa described the crash as the "second disaster after Katyn."

"They wanted to cut off our head there, and here the flower of our nation has also perished," said Walesa, who, along with Lech Kaczynski, the president killed in the air crash, led Poland to independence from the Soviet Union.

The symbolism of the tragedy to many Poles is almost unbearable.

In 1943, General Wladyslaw Sikorski, the leader of the Polish wartime government, died in a plane crash in Gibraltar. No foul play was proved there, but many Poles believe that he was murdered because of his resolute determination to expose the Katyn massacre -- which the Soviet Union blamed on the Germans.

Now another Polish president, closely involved in the same issue, has died in an all-too similar manner.

History Recalled 70 Years After Katyn Massacre

In April 1940, when Soviet secret police took Polish officers, professors, priests, doctors and writers and shot them, leaving some 22,000 from the top level of society in mass graves, they blighted Poland's history and its immediate future.

The massacre has been a thorn in Polish-Soviet relations for decades.

For 50 years, the Soviets attempted to cover up the crime, blaming it on the Nazis, and the authorities in Moscow did not accept responsibility until 1990, when President Mikhail Gorbachev said the Soviet Union carried out the killings.

On Wednesday, April 7, 2010, Putin stood shoulder to shoulder with Tusk and became the first Russian or Soviet leader to attend a memorial for the massacre.

Putin said, "We bow our heads to those who bravely met death here," and admitted that the Katyn victims were "burnt in the fire of the Stalinist repression."

Tusk said to the Russian PM, "Prime Minister Putin, the eye sockets of those killed here by a shot to the back of the head are looking at us today and waiting to see whether we are ready to turn this lie into reconciliation."

President Kaczynski, whose policies often clashed with Russian officials, was not invited to participate. Instead, he was leading a separate memorial on Saturday to mark the 70th anniversary.

But unlike Tusk's visit, which had a lot of coverage in Russian media, Kaczynski's plans to attend Saturday's commemoration were all but unmentioned. A few weeks ago, the Russian foreign ministry publicly griped that Kaczynski had not sent official word of his planned visit. The ministry had heard of his arrival from press reports, officials said.

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