This time of mourning

Columns | Vienna Review | May 2010

For an hour, we stood wedged inside the Polish Church on the Rennweg. The rotunda of the church was packed; people stood shoulder to shoulder listening to the priest, offering words of comfort during this time of mourning.

Outside, the overflowing crowd lingered in front of the entryway, standing on tiptoes, craning their necks to get a glimpse inside. Cheeks were wet from falling tears; many lit the red votive candles, placing them beside a memorial of photographs and flowers honoring the Polish officials and others who had died in the crash that killed 97. They were on their way to a memorial service in honor of the c. 22,000 Polish officers slaughtered by the Soviet Union World in War II. It was ironic and heartbreaking.

Stunned by the events of the crash, my friend was in church for the first time in years; like the several hundred who were there, he was devastated.  I wanted to be there. It didn’t matter that I don’t understand a word of Polish.

The news had hit him hard, which in a way was odd, considering his family had emigrated in 1994 when he was seven. But although he had lived most of this life in America, he once told me that his heart had remained in Poland. His best memories were experienced on the green meadows of a farm, which is still his favorite place in the world.

As I stood inside the church, taking in the foreign sound of the Polish hymns, I tried to understand my friend’s deep sense of loss, something I imagine he has subconsciously felt since he was a boy and was forced into a new country, with a strange language and culture. Fully integrated, but still an outsider.

But today it was I who was the outsider. I would never fully understand the meaning of this loss. In this setting, with the strangeness of foreign sounds swirling around me, all I could do was remain silent.

Joanna Castle

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