Reports of the crash of a Polish government aircraft and the loss of so many eminent Polish citizens have brought back memories of my youthful connection with this much abused nation.
For about five years in my early teens, my family lived next door to a Polish couple. They were refugees from internment, and Steve wore a tattooed "P" on his forearm. He never spoke of his wartime experiences, and whilst a tolerant and forgiving man, he had no time for anything German or Russian. I discovered this when I showed him my first car bought at age 18 when I was at Teachers' College. It was a 1956 Volkswagen Beetle. He took one look at it, spat in its general direction, and refused to have anything more to do with it.
They were devout Catholics, and we got to know them well through our local church. When my mother went back to full-time teaching, Mrs K (as we knew her) was employed to mind my youngest brother during school hours. They also had a pretty daughter about my age, but we never did get together. It was difficult for us to get any unchaperoned time, as Steve kept a very close eye on proceedings. I went off to study in Brisbane. She got a job locally, and finished up marrying an Anglican clergyman, which must have caused family ructions.
I had a mate at college who was going out with a nurse, and just before I embarked, he set me up on a blind date with his girlfriend's best pal who turned out also to be Polish. We hit it off, and when I arrived in Vietnam, I started writing to her. After three letters with no response, I gave up.
Years later, when we were both school principals in Toowoomba, he told me that her dad intercepted and burnt my letters, as he wanted her to marry someone of Polish heritage. She did, but it didn't last, and divorce followed, although apparently arranged marriages are generally more enduring statistically than the conventional kind.
There was a Polish bloke in my section in Vietnam. I got to know him fairly well, but we lost contact on RTA. In 1991, I was shocked to hear that he had been shot and killed by a Police Special Operations Group in a seige of his farmhouse in isolated rural Tasmania.
This incident was the subject of two formal inquiries that eventually found police justified in the way the seige ended, despite the less than ethical behaviour of some involved. The whole episode was tragic and avoidable.
All of these memories flooded back when I read of this crash. There is a deep irony in the fact that the VIPs involved were on their way to a commemoration of the Katyn massacre in 1940 in which the Russians executed over 20000 of Poland's best and brightest.
According to Wikipaedia, those who were killed in cold blood at Katyn included an admiral, two generals, 24 colonels, 79 lieutenant colonels, 258 majors, 654 captains, 17 naval captains, 3,420 NCOs, seven chaplains, three landowners, a prince, 43 officials, 85 privates, and 131 refugees. Also among the dead were 20 university professors, 300 physicians; several hundred lawyers, engineers, and teachers; and more than 100 writers and journalists as well as about 200 pilots.
Those aboard the doomed aircraft were on their way to a ceremony close to where the original atrocity occurred, and many military, political and institutional leaders (again the best and brightest) were lost.
History has come back to haunt Poland, a nation which has seen more than its fair share of tragedy in the last two centuries.