L.A.'s Polish community remembers dignitaries killed in plane crash

Within hours of the state funeral for Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife in Krakow, members of Los Angeles’ Polish community gathered for a memorial Mass to honor Polish dignitaries killed in the April 10 plane crash in Russia.

Polish scouts -- girls in gray uniforms with green scarves knotted at the neck and boys in khaki shirts with yellow ties -- silently lined the walkways leading to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels downtown. Inside, more than 400 Angelenos of Polish descent, including members of Polish parishes in West Adams and Yorba Linda, filled pews near the altar, many holding red-and-white Polish flags.

“We wanted to be part of the Los Angeles community rather than being at the Polish parish,” said Chris Garas, 40, of Glendale. With so many Poles spread out across the city, he said, the tragedy “brought us closer.”

During a traditional Mass that began with a Polish hymn, Cardinal Roger Mahony led prayers honoring the victims of the plane crash, as well as the more than 20,000 Polish officers and prisoners who were killed in 1940 by Soviet secret police and buried in unmarked graves in Russia’s Katyn Forest.

Kaczynski and 95 members of a presidential delegation died when their plane went down in fog on the way to a memorial commemorating the deaths at Katyn. The massacre was long denied by the Soviet Union, fueling resentment between the two nations.

Inside the lily-filled Cathedral in Los Angeles, Mahony described the faith of the Polish people as an example to Catholics all over the world.

“Today as we are in solidarity with our Polish brothers and sisters, we are actually inspired by that deep spirit that no secular government has been able to diminish or to quench,” he said.

Many attendees at the service, which was organized in part by the Polish Consulate in Los Angeles, said they have spent the last week watching Polish television from L.A. and were still reeling from the loss of so many leaders at one time.

Iwona Gwizdak, 39, of Long Beach said she and her parents attended the service to honor her grandfather, a career officer in the Polish Army who was killed at Katyn.

She tearfully described the crash, which coincided with the 70th anniversary of the Katyn deaths, as “an absolutely terrible irony” but added that the events had shown “the resilience of the Polish people.”

“You can beat us down as much as you want to, but we are going to get back up and keep on fighting,” she said.