The Polish Gadfly: A Lawyer's Quest for Clarity on the Smolensk Plane Crash

By Jan Puhl

The 2010 plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 96 others in Russia remains a traumatizing memory for many Poles. It's also one that won't rest until allegations that bodies were mixed up by Russian authorities are cleared up. A Berlin-based lawyer sees the scandal as a Russian affront to Poland's honor.

Warsaw's Powazki Cemetery is Poland's pantheon, the place where national heroes are buried. The country has produced a number of such figures, most recently on April 10, 2010, the day that the plane carrying then President Lech Kaczynski crashed after it clipped a birch tree while landing in thick fog in Smolensk, Russia. Kaczynski and 96 other dignitaries -- including military, church and political leaders -- died in the accident.

They had been on their way to a memorial service for the 22,000 Polish people murdered by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's secret police at the Katyn Massacre in 1940. This made the tragedy of the plane crash a very Polish catastrophe, and since then many Poles have been unable to come to terms with it.

Stefan Hambura is one of them. The lawyer with both a German and Polish passport, who runs a successful law firm in Berlin, represents a number of the crash victims' relatives. His tenacity is partially to thank for keeping the crash on Poland's agenda -- and for the fact that Prime Minister Donald Tusk has a problem on his hands.

Doubts Among Relatives

Hambura's clients include the relatives of former dissident Stefan Malek, who was laid to rest with much patriotic pomp at the Powaski Cemetery after he was killed in the crash. At least, that's what has been thought until now.

But earthmovers will soon arrive at his gravesite, and the heavy, black marble slabs will be lifted to remove the coffin below. Then a DNA test will reveal who really lies inside. "Doubts arose among the family when they studied the autopsy report from Russia a bit more closely," Hambura says. "It could also be a different corpse."

Malek's isn't the first Smolensk victim's gravesite to be exhumed. In August the lawyer helped determine that Russian investigators had confused the remains of Anna Walentynowicz with those of another woman. Walentynowicz was a union activist at the Gdansk shipyard protests of 1980 and an icon of the protest movement Solidarnosc. And she is just one of nearly a dozen crash victims who have been exhumed so far because relatives fear the bodies they buried may have been the wrong ones. Most recently, the graves of two clerics were opened.

Private Campaign

In Hambura's opinion, the confusion over the bodies is about more than just macabre blunders -- it's an affront to Poland's honor. The country, already scarred by history, has been humiliated by Russia and then abandoned by the rest of Europe, he says. "If Americans or Brits had died, the outcry would have spanned the globe," he adds. "Think of Lockerbie." Instead, he points to the fact that after the crash, Brussels declined to appoint an international commission to investigate the Smolensk tragedy.

Hambura is a rather short man with a moustache and quirky designer glasses who likes to meet at the upscale Borchardt Restaurant in central Berlin. Those who eat here want to prove that they belong to the capital's political elite. Michel Friedman, who resigned as a conservative politician and head of the European Jewish Congress after a drugs and prostitution scandal in 2003, is sitting at the neighboring table.

The issue of belonging has cropped up elsewhere in Hamburas' life. Born in Gliwice, Poland in 1961, he and his parents moved to Germany in 1979. "In communist Poland, we faced discrimination as members of the German minority," he says. "Then in Germany I was suddenly the Pole who had to face the question, 'What are you doing here?'"

Now, as a lawyer, Hambura steps up when Poles feel they've been done wrong by Germans. He also engages in personal campaigns, as he's doing now in his defense of a Polish import company in Rostock against German customs officials.

"The Germans know nothing about their immediate neighbors, and err on the side of feeling superior to them," Hambura says with a subtle Polish accent, adding that eight years of Polish EU membership hasn't changed this.

A 'Germanization Policy'

In Germany, Hambura has developed a reputation as the legal champion of conservative Polish nationalists, who are led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the twin brother of the late President Lech Kaczynski, who died in Smolensk. Humbura is helping to establish a "Polish Trust" to rival the Prussian Trust, a German organization devoted to claiming compensation for the descendants of those ethnic Germans expelled from present-day Poland and elsewhere after World War II.

He has also represented Polish parents who felt discriminated against by youth services after they divorced their German spouses. Kaczynski's conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) is convinced that German authorities practice "Germanization policies" in such matters, granting only the German parents custody rights.

For years, Hambura has been trying to gain recognition as a "national minority" for the some 1.1 million people of Polish origin living in Germany. His last big idea was to create a political party in Germany for Poles, but the project is on hold due to a lack of supporters.

Furthermore, the Smolensk cases are keeping Hambura busy, particularly since two investigative committees concluded that a long list of mistakes by the Polish pilots and Russian air traffic controllers led to the accident. For their part, Kaczynski and his supporters are convinced that it was an attack by Russia.

'Miserable Disaster Management'

Hambura, however, is smart enough not to subscribe to conspiracy theories. "I just ask questions," he says. About why the black box from the airplane's wreckage still remains in Russian hands, for example. And why the military prosecutors in Warsaw first denied reports that TNT traces were found in the wreckage, only to confirm it just weeks later. Or, how the victims bodies could have been mixed up.

One thing is certain for him, though. "The disaster management of the government in Warsaw was miserable," he says. The fact that polls now show that a majority of Poles would agree is in part due to his efforts, in addition to the fact that Prime Minister Tusk, a supporter of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is losing popularity.

"Many Poles believe that Tusk failed in Smolensk," Hambura says. "They are now wondering how he is supposed to master the economic crisis, which is now making itself felt" in Poland too, he says, adding that the next government in Warsaw will hopefully be a different one. "And probably much more conservative and critical of Germany."

As to the question of whether he feels more German or Polish, Hambura thinks for a while. "I am sitting on the fence," he answers in Polish. "And that can sometimes hurt quite a bit."

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