From the World Affairs Journal, April 14, 2010
Of the 97 victims of the crash of the Polish presidential airplane outside Smolensk, there were many officials of very high rank, but I would bet that there was not a finer human being among them than Mariusz Handzlik, undersecretary of state in the office of the president.
I first met Mariusz in 1993 when he came to the United States as a participant in a program run by James Denton of the National Forum Foundation, later merged into Freedom House. (Denton is now publisher of World Affairs.) The program aimed to help train a new post-Communist elite for the nations of east and central Europe liberated from Soviet occupation. Promising young professionals in their twenties and thirties spent three months working in U.S. governmental, media, and business offices, learning how things are run in “normal” countries.
Mariusz stood out for his sparkling personality, and after I gave some briefings to the participants, he and I became friends. We shared a sense of anger at the evil madness of Communism. Mariusz explained to me proudly that the Catholic University of Lublin, where he had studied, stalwartly maintained its independence even through the most repressive days of Communism. But his serious side was matched by a fun side, and he took patriotic and boyish pleasure in introducing me to a wider array of Polish vodkas than I had known.
Perhaps a year later, I made a visit to Poland, at the invitation of the Polish embassy in Washington, to see the progress that had been made since the end of Communism. But due to poor planning I found myself in Warsaw without much of a program. When Mariusz, now an advisor to the prime minister, discovered this, he stepped into the breach. Although terribly busy with his new responsibilities, he carved out time he really could not spare to show me things and arrange appointments so that my trip would not be a loss.
Soon after, he was back in Washington, this time as an official of Poland’s embassy. We saw each other both professionally and socially. His son, Jan, was born, following two daughters, Julia and Iwona, and he seemed madly in love with all three children.
His big heart took in more than his children. Mariusz and I had a friend in common, Jan Karski. Karski had been among the most important couriers of the Polish underground. He had kept himself inconspicuous for decades after the war, until Claude Lanzmann made his famous documentary, Shoah, of which Karski was the central figure. Having risked his life repeatedly in bringing the first authoritative accounts of the Holocaust to the West, Karski became a hero to Jews, but above all he was a Polish patriot, whose primary mission was to free his country from the Germans and keep it free from the Russians.
When the second goal failed, he had settled into a painful exile in Washington. He was my teacher at Georgetown University. I am not sure how Mariusz met Karski, but it was a sad time in the life of the older man, now in his eighties, having lost his wife of many years under the most tragic circumstances. Although his duties at the embassy and attentions to his young family left him little extra time, Mariusz nonetheless became Karski’s fast friend, visiting him once a week or more, playing chess together. Mariusz was with him when Karski suffered his last attack of illness and was the one who brought him to the hospital. In his last years, Karski had kept company with a widow and fellow Polish exile, Kaya Mirecka Ploss; and after Karski’s death, Mariusz continued to keep a friendly, solicitous eye on her.
Like Karski, Mariusz took a special interest in the troubled question of relations between Jews and Poles. He believed strongly that a new, modern, democratic Poland needed to be free from all traces of anti-Semitism. I don’t know if it was coincidence or if he sought the position, but for a time his duties at the foreign ministry included relations with the Jewish world. I called on him once when I met an Israeli woman who told me her father had been killed after the war when he returned to Poland to reclaim family property. Such cases distressed Mariusz deeply, and he set to work to have this one investigated; in the end, however, the woman found the whole issue too upsetting to deal with and asked him to drop it.
Had his life not ended at the heartbreakingly-young age of 44, he would have served the country he loved for another 20 years or so, no doubt in positions of ever-greater responsibility. His contributions were large, but would have been larger had they not been cut short. As it is, I will remember him as the finest flower of the new Poland he devoted his life to building. And I will miss him sorely. Rest in peace, my friend.