The tallest sculpture in Baltimore was to be dedicated Sept. 10 - but it was unable to make its own coming-out party.
For more than a decade, a group of local Polish-Americans has scrimped and sweated to fund the construction of a 44-foot-high bronze statue commemorating a massacre of thousands of Polish officers in World War II.
But the 12-ton work is on the other side of the Atlantic, its ocean journey from Poland delayed by bad weather and labor troubles.
After a last-gasp effort to persuade NATO to airlift the statue failed during the weekend, a dozen supporters of the project met yesterday in a storefront office on South Broadway and decided to scrap the planned festivities.
"I've had an upset stomach for the last three days. I can operate, but I'm sick all over," said Alfred B. Wisniewski, the 77-year-old chairman of the project. "This was a 12-year effort [leading to] a grand day. To have it go up in smoke, it doesn't make anybody feel any good."
The ship carrying it will not reach Baltimore until Sept. 12 or 13 at the earliest, after what was supposed to be a long weekend of celebration. The scotching of banquet reservations, concert hall rentals and other preparations will cost at least $50,000, organizers said.
They left open the possibility that the celebration will be rescheduled after the statue arrives.
"It's a cancellation of everything we've planned, until we determine a date to go forward," said William F. Krol, 63. "Essentially we're starting from scratch."
What makes this mishap especially painful for the project's supporters is the fact that the statue commemorates a wartime tragedy that until recently has been suppressed and largely ignored.
In September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland from the west. The Soviet Union, which had signed a nonaggression pact with Adolf Hitler, attacked Poland from the east.
During their invasion, the Soviets captured 15,400 Polish officers, transferring them to camps inside the USSR.
The officers disappeared in 1940. Three years later, more than four thousand bodies were found in mass graves in the Soviet Union's Katyn Forest. The victims had been shot in the back of the head; sawdust had been stuffed in their mouths to keep them quiet as they were led to their deaths.
For decades, Moscow blamed the massacre on the Nazis, but in 1990, the Soviet Union acknowledged that its forces had carried out the killings.
"I'm hoping that one of these days, justice will prevail and the people responsible for this will be punished in some way," said another leader of the National Katyn Memorial project, Edward B. Rybczynski, 70, a Fells Point attorney. "Not one Soviet has ever been charged formally with these murders. Not one."
The statue, by New Jersey-based Polish-American sculptor Andrzej Pitynski, depicts a stylized, gold-leaf-covered flame rising from a granite base. Amid tongues of the flame, sculpted figures represent the doomed officers and Polish military heroes from previous centuries. When the monument is installed, fountains in its base will cascade water.
The sculpture is designed to create the silhouette of an eagle, the symbol of Poland. Rybczynski said the piece is intended to "represent a nation emerging out of the ashes of destruction."
For now, however, the massive work is stuck mid-voyage. The statue was completed in mid-July at a foundry in the Polish town of Gliwice. It was to be picked up by the Belgian merchant ship Edisongraf on Aug. 6 at the port of Gdansk.
On its way to Poland, the Edisongraf stopped in Finland to pick up cargo. Heavy storms and a temporary stevedore work stoppage delayed the ship, which did not reach Gdansk until this past Wednesday.
To Rybczynski, the events of the last few weeks have been a painful coda to the group's remarkable fund-raising successes.
"For six or seven years, everything moved like a clock. Now, in this last month or so, everything reversed itself," he said. "Now everything seems to be going backwards for us. But we will persevere."
At Aliceanna and President streets, in a round plaza in front of the yet-to-be-opened Marriott Baltimore Waterfront hotel, the National Katyn Memorial site is being readied for the statue. The base is shiny black granite, as are the nearby tablets where the names of the project's supporters are etched.
Last week, workers were touching up the statue's base.
The site's construction supervisor is Charles Wright, a lean man who wore a white cowboy hat, impenetrably dark sunglasses and blue jeans.
"I'd never heard anything about Katyn Forest before I worked on the statue," Wright said in a gentle drawl. "It kind of reminded me of the Holocaust, just senseless murder."
The center tablet is inscribed with a brief history of the massacre and concludes with a quotation by poet Adam Mickiewicz: "Should I forget them, may God in heaven forget me."
Nodding in the direction of the tablet before walking away, Wright said, "They won't be forgotten when this memorial's here. That's for sure."