Sculptor who died in plane crash that killed Polish leaders honored

Chicago artist created WWII massacre monument

September 23, 2011

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(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
A mourner prays at the Katyn monument Wojciech Seweryn sculpted after the 2010 plane crash that killed him and Polish leaders.

A Chicago area artist who died in the plane crash that killed the Polish president and dozens of other Polish leaders last year is being remembered this weekend. He’s beloved in the Polish community because of a monument he sculpted that stands in a Niles cemetery. It reminds them of a terrible moment they vow to never forget.

Sculptor Wojciech Seweryn was born the first day of World War II and never knew his father. His father was killed by the Soviets, massacred along with 20,000 soldiers and intellectuals in a forest in Katyn, Russia.

Anna Wójtowicz is Seweryn’s daughter.

“All his life he wanted to remember his father he never knew, and fighting for the truth, showing people the massacre in Russia happened, and never forget,” Wójtowicz said.

Seweryn came to the U.S. in 1976 and started sketching his plans for a memorial.

“He always had this plan, this idea that he’s going to build a monument for those soldiers," Wójtowicz said. “But it was really hard, he came here as an immigrant. In the beginning, he didn’t have legal papers. He didn’t know English. He didn’t know people who could help him, but he never gave up.”

Seweryn envisioned a Virgin Mary holding a dying Polish soldier, with an eagle rising to show Poland surviving, but with no head.

Wójtowicz said her father finally found others who shared his dream. They raised money for years, and the monument, looking much like his vision, opened in May of 2009.

"This was his life,” his daughter said. “He very often said that when I will do this I can just step one more time on the Katyn soil, and I can die, and he never realized how those words will be so realistic.”

NPR NEWSCAST: Shock and grief ripped through Poland today….

In a terrible irony, the plane crashed near the site of the massacre. Seweryn and the others were on their way to observe the 70th anniversary of the Katyn tragedy.

The plane crash devastated the Polish community here in Chicago. Thousands immediately flocked to the monument Seweryn created.

Even today, people gather there at the sculpture on occasions both happy and sad.

Niles Trustee Christopher Hanusiak says the memorial plays an essential role.

“Nobody spoke of Katyn, nobody talked about it, for years, even as myself, growing up here in the United States, I was born in Poland also, we never talked about this in schools, we weren’t educated about Katyn,” Hanusiak said.

Until recently, Hanusiak says, the Soviets blamed the Nazis. Information was suppressed.

That’s why Hanusiak thinks Seweryn and his Katyn monument are so important.

“So what he did is besides being a creator, a sculptor, a father, he’s educating the world about this event that happened that we were never allowed to talk about. It means so much to the Polish people that this information was given to the world,” he said.

This weekend, the Polish-American community will honor Seweryn starting with a 9 a.m. mass at St. Hyacinth’s Basilica in Chicago, followed by a noon ceremony at the monument in St. Adalbert Catholic Cemetery in Niles. The ceremony includes the unveiling of a portion of a street named after Seweryn right near the monument, as well as a plaque being presented by a leader from near his Polish hometown.

NOTE: The broadcast about the Polish plane crash is courtesy of National Public Radio.

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