By Robert Strybel, "The Polish Answer Man"

At least 34 dead, 55 injured in six separate incidents

Poland’s “black Sunday”

By Robert Strybel, Our Warsaw Correspondent

WARSAW– President Lech Kaczyński rushed to the site of the worst Polish road accident ever to occur abroad, where he was joined by his sympathetic French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy. He said a prayer and lit a votive lamp near the flame-gutted wreckage of a tour bus, in which 27 Polish pilgrims had lost their lives, before visiting the accident’s hospitalized survivors in the nearby city of Grenoble. Upon returning to Poland, the president declared three days of national mourning, and the government announced that families whose loved ones had been killed or maimed in the tragedy would each receive a $36,000 cash bereavement benefit. A special plane was also arranged to fly relatives of the crash victims to Grenoble free of charge.

     The unsuspecting 50 Poles from the Szczecin area of northwestern Poland, including two drivers and three priests, had been on their way to the well-known Marian shrine of Notre-Dame de La Salette, when a brake failure suddenly prevented their speeding bus from negotiating a curve. The vehicle rammed through the roadside barrier, plunged down a 120-foot ravine, landed on a bank of the River Romanche and burst into flame. Provided by a Polish travel bureau, it lacked the special authorization the French authorities require of trucks and buses traveling that particularly steep and treacherous stretch of winding mountain roads in the French Alps.

     “Hold onto your seats – the brakes are gone!” was all the driver managed to shout, according to 22-year-old pilgrim, Karolina Wachowiak. The Stargard Szczeciński resident, managed to crawl out of the flaming wreckage with only a broken leg, fractured collarbone and head injuries. A dazed and injured young priest managed to contact his Church superiors in Poland with a borrowed cell phone (he had lost his own in the crash), but was so shaken he could hardly speak and began to cry.

     On what the Polish media would soon be calling “czarna niedziela” (“black Sunday”), a short while later, all five passengers of a small Piper airplane were killed when it crashed in a wooded area not far the southeastern town of Lesko near Rzeszów. By the time fire-fighters managed to douse the flaming wreckage, the bodies had become charred beyond recognition, making identification difficult. “The pilot had originally intended to land at the airfield in Weremień, but for no explainable reason suddenly changed his mind and told the air controller he would continue flying over Lake Solińskie,” police spokesman Mariusz Skiba told this reporter. “The plane apparently went out of control and crashed after failing to clear hillside treetops.”

     Some 175 to the west, an inter-country en route from Germany to Ukraine bus was rammed by a large truck as it was having a tire changed at the roadside in the southern region of Œlšsk (Silesia). A 71-year-old Israeli citizen, who had stepped out to have a smoke, was killed, and his wife and son were among the half dozen injured. The passengers included Poles and Ukrainians and Poles returning from jobs in Germany as well as German tourists headed for the Black Sea resort of Crimea.

     Later the same day, 26 passengers of another bus were injured when it veered off the motorway near the western city of Poznań and flipped over. And the media reported that one of three Polish mountain-climbers plunged some 600 feet to his death after climbing the Italo-Swiss Alps 15,000-tall Matterhorn which had claimed three Polish lives earlier this year. Back in Poland, the bodies of two Polish fishermen were fished out of Lake Czorsztyńskie in the Tatra Mountains after their boat capsized. If we add the tornados that had ravaged the countryside around Częstochowa and Piotrków in south-central Poland a day earlier, it may even not be too far off base to speak of this summer’s “black weekend”.

    Poland not giving up on Mazur extradition

By Robert Strybel, Our Warsaw Correspondent

WARSAW–The Polish authorities do not intend to drop their efforts to bring 62-year-old Polish-born Chicago businessman to justice, despite the ruling of an Afro-American judge who recently denied their extradition request. Chicago Federal Judge Arlander Keys cited faulty evidence and witnesses who lacked credibility as grounds for rejecting the appeal to return Mazur to his native land, where he is wanted in connection with the 1998 gang-land style killing of former National Police Commandant Marek Papała.

     Papała, who had taken a hard line against Poland’s criminal underworld, was shot dead while sitting in his car in front of his Warsaw home. In 2002, Mazur was held for questioning in the case but later released by Poland’s then ruling post-communist authorities with whom he was said to have a special relationship. But the crime- and graft-fighting government led by the twin Kaczyński brothers Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwoœć = PiS) party has thrown its weight behind the case against Mazur, after underworld witnesses testified he had offered them $40,000 for the commandant’s assassination.

     The millionaire businessman, who holds both Polish and US citizenship, has lived in America for the past 44 years and has engineered various business deals with Poland for major American corporations. In Poland he has been accused of being an informer for the communist-era secret services and is also suspected of links with organized crime. Mazur was arrested in late 2006 by the US authorities in response to a Polish extradition request. Led into Judge Keys’ courtroom in leg irons and an orange prison jump suit, he wept with joy after hearing he could leave a free man after spending nine months in an American jail pending extradition proceedings.

     Asked outside his palatial residence in the posh Chicago suburb of Glenview how he would react to Poland’s attempts to pursue the case, Mazur replied: “Next question, please!” Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro admitted there had been shortcomings in the Mazur case documents prepared under the preceding post-communist government, but said Poland would file a motion to have the case re-examined by a different American court. He reiterated his earlier charges that ex-communist Leszek Miller, Poland’s prime minister from 2001 to 2004, had gone to the scene of the Papała killing to destroy evidence and later obstructed the investigation. Miller has threatened to take Ziobro him to court over the charges.

     According to Justice Ministry spokeswoman Anna Adamiak-Derendarz, a major stumbling block in coordinating extradition efforts with the US authorities had stemmed from conflicting Polish and American legal practices. “Much of the time we had to keep explaining how the Polish legal system worked and what criteria were used under different cirucmstances,” she told a news conference. But the spokeswoman added that Poland was working closely with the US Justice Department in the matter. A hopeful sign was the fact that Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. Federal Attorney in Chicago, disagreed with Judge Keys’ 69-page ruling and said Justice Department lawyers would evaluate the document to consider possible options.

     However things develop, one thing seems certain: the Mazur case is likely to remain open and continue generating news, interest and controversy for some time to come. At this point, it is anybody’ guess how it will all end.

EDITOR: If your organization, mail-order dept or newspaper is interested in offering this book for sale, please contact: Abbye Simkowitz, (646) 307-5554    e-mail: [email protected]       

A great Pol-Am birthday, anniversary or Christmas gift

The Last Mazurka: A Polish 20th-century saga

The Last Mazurka
By Andrew Tarnowski
Publication Date: August 9, 2007
St. Martin’s Press; Hardcover; $24.95; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0-312-36740-4

     Andrew Tarnowski’s The Last Mazurka is a gripping, emotional tale of one of Poland’s illustrious aristocratic clans grappling with their own ambitions, passions and failures amid the turbulent tides of the last century. Shortly before the outbreak of world War I in 1914, the author’s sexually inexperienced grandfather, Count Hieronim Tarnowski, attempted suicide by shooting himself in the chest on his wedding night, having failed to do justice to his newly wedded bride, the beautiful and worldly-wise Wanda Zamoyska. Although he survived and went on to sire several children, that act of desperation in a sense presaged the 20th-century rise and fall of both the ancient, once-powerful Tarnowski clan and of Poland itself – a land ravaged by invasions and crushed by tyranny.

     For Polish-American readers, most of whom have Polish peasant or working-class roots, this memoir provides a unique insight into a world with which they have had little contact and one that exists no more. During the two decades of independent Poland (1918-1939), the Tarnowskis and their fellow-aristocrats enjoyed a life of privilege. They lived at their posh country estates and big-city townhouses, waited on hand and foot by maids and butlers. French governesses tutored and raised their children, allowing parents to attend glittery balls and go on many-day-long wolf, boar and deer hunts in the vast woodlands they called their own.

     But some Pol-Ams may find a common ground with the book’s author, because behind all the aristocratic exoticism is the true story of a child robbed of his Polish heritage by events over which he had no control. Multiculturalism may be a trendy concept in America these days, but many Polonians remember a time when they and/or their immigrant ancestors were pressured or ridiculed into abandoning or playing down their ethnic roots, urged to anglicize their names or forced to listen to idiotic “Pollack” jokes. And like Pol-Ams and people of every nationality and station, the Tarnowskis certainly had their share, even more than their share of setbacks and failures. All the affluence and glamour were often clouded by unhappy marriages, feuds and personal tragedy. But the worst was yet to come.

     The author of The Last Mazurka, Andrew Tarnowski, was born in Geneva, Switzerland, shortly after his father Staœ (Stanisław) and Mother Zofia (nicknamed Chouquette after a French pastry crescent) fled the 1939 German-Soviet invasion of Poland. He was carried in a basket over border after another and shuffled across Europe, down through Egypt and South Africa. In fact, little Andrew was a war refugee for the first seven years of his life before settling into Scotland and England, where he was raised as an Englishman and educated at good private schools and Oxford University.

      This book is essentially the story of his quest for the ancestral legacy, of which he had been deprived by Poland’s stormy history and his family’s disordered lives. His unfaithful parents, known for their numerous extramarital misadventures, had divorced and remarried, and his mother eventually committed suicide. Only many years later was Andrew able to fill in the missing pieces of the Tarnowski family mosaic. But his memoir indicates that he has never fully come to terms with his loss.

     “After Chouquette remarried,” he tells his readers, “my childhood and youth were spent in Scotland and England, cut off from my Polish heritage. Even as I was being raised as a Briton, I was drawn by echoes of my parents’ pre-war lives in Poland and their wartime adventures. By the time Staœ was eighty, I had long been delving into my unknown Polish past (and) felt I was finding my own family, my own lost identity.”

      Staœ had always been a hard-drinking, brawling, bed-hopping rogue, but during the war when duty called he joined the thousands of displaced Poles ready to fight “for your freedom and fours”. In the absence of a stable father figure, little Andrew direly needed and admired that Staœ about whom his commander had said: “Corporal Cadet Tarnowski was one of the bravest soldiers of the Carpathian Artillery Regiment. He twice distinguished himself in battle – at Tobruk and at the battle for Bardia – and he was decorated with the Cross of Valor.”

      The author first visited Poland in 1967, to which his dad Staœ had returned after remarrying several years earlier. It was a poor, gray, war-ravaged country ruled by a Soviet-controlled puppet regime which had confiscated all the Tarnowski estates. Andrew’s chats with his dad and other family members over the years enabled him to bring together the threads that had eluded him for so long. Especially when he spent four years in his ancestral homeland as Reuters Warsaw Bureau chief. After retiring, he and Lebanese-born wife Wafa’ have frequently visited their new summer home in Poland’s forested Mazurian Lake District, and he also finally found time to put together this memoir.

     Over the years, I have reviewed a goodly number of Polish-themed books in English, but in some ways The Last Mazurka is unique. Not only because I had the good fortune to work under its author at Reuters during the heady years of free Poland’s re-emergence (1988-1992). Above all, this incisive, richly descriptive and deeply emotional pilgrimage through one family’s 20th-century travails makes for a book that is at once thought-provoking, heart-warming and hard to put down. It should make a welcome addition to any Pol-Am family library as well as a great gift for that special someone.

     Reviewed by: Robert Strybel, Our Polish/Polonian Affairs Writer