CHICAGO – CHICAGO (AP) — One of Wojciech Seweryn's main passions in life was reminding people of the Katyn massacre, a 1940 slaughter that killed thousands of Polish military officials, including his own father.
It was that passion that ultimately led to the 70-year-old Chicago sculptor's death.
The group of political, military and church leaders was heading to commemorative events for the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre. Seweryn had been chosen to accompany the group because of his love of history and a memorial sculpture he helped create, according to Tadeusz "Ted" Czajkowski, president of the Alliance of Polish Clubs in the United States of America.
It became Seweryn's "last wish" to honor his father, he said.
Czajkowski said Seweryn's father was among those slain by the Soviet secret police in Russia's Katyn forest. "He was about a year old when that happened," he said.
The Polish-born artist, who immigrated to Chicago in the mid-1970s, was the driving force behind a memorial to the massacre at the largely Polish St. Adalbert Cemetery in suburban Niles, Czajkowski said.
Seweryn designed the sculpture that depicts the Virgin Mary holding a wounded officer. The sculpture was dedicated last year in Niles, about 14 miles northwest of Chicago.
"He had that obsession about reminding people about Katyn," said Jan Lorys, director of the Polish Museum of America in Chicago. "That's why he was flying with them. It was part of his thing that the memory of Katyn in the West was kept on."
On Saturday, mourners covered Seweryn's sculpture with flowers, Polish flags and candles.
The artist, who once worked in a Chicago-area auto body shop to make ends meet, was remembered as a loving family man. He was also known for helping several churches design sculptures and displays.
He is survived by a wife and two daughters, one of whom lives in the Chicago area. She couldn't immediately be reached for comment. Czajkowski, a friend of the family, said Seweryn's wife and other daughter were in Poland.
Chicagoan Wojcech Dudzinski, 47, who emigrated from Poland to the U.S. when he was 18, learned of the crash online. He spent Saturday morning at the Niles cemetery and lit candles for Seweryn.
"I read it twice, the article," he said. "I tried to somehow pay respect."
News of the crash hit particularly hard in the Chicago area, which has the largest concentration of people of Polish descent outside Poland. Experts estimate at least 900,000 Polish nationals and Polish-Americans live in Chicago and its surrounding suburbs.
Kaczynski had been scheduled to visit Chicago next month for the city's Polish Constitution Day parade.
"President Kaczynski was a committed leader who worked to promote cultural ties between Chicago and Poland," Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said in a statement.
Near the Polish Triangle on Chicago's North Side — once the heart of the city's Polish population — the day started with a moment of silence.
Nearly 200 students from Polish schools across the city toured the Polish Museum, but they first stopped to pray for those killed.
"It's a very, very dramatic situation for us," said Malgorzata Kot, a librarian at the museum. "We lost friends."
(This version CORRECTS crash death toll to 97.)