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President's body is returned to Poland; tens of thousands quietly mourn

Packed, hushed crowds watch the coffin pass through the streets of Warsaw. 'This is a very important moment in the history of our nation,' says one onlooker.

April 12, 2010|By Megan K. Stack
  • Mourners strain to catch a glimpse of the hearse carrying the coffin of late Polish President Lech Kaczynski upon its arrival at the Presidential Palace in Warsaw.
Mourners strain to catch a glimpse of the hearse carrying the coffin of late… (Sean Gallup / Getty Images )

Reporting from Warsaw — The body of their president was finishing a long journey home Sunday, and by the tens of thousands, Poles poured into the streets of a paralyzed capital to watch it pass. It seemed as if nobody could bear to sit at home, as if they had to take some physical part in a national tragedy that happened in a place that was braided into the Polish psyche -- and yet lay distant, on the far side of a geographic border and an ideological boundary.

The remains of President Lech Kaczynski were recovered from the site of the plane crash in Russia that killed 96 people Saturday, including many top Polish officials and leading figures from the nation's recent history.

Kaczynski and his delegation were on their way to the forest near the Russian town of Katyn, site of a massacre of Polish prisoners during World War II. The president's plane crashed while the pilot was attempting to land on a perilously foggy morning.

The group was en route to a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the massacre of thousands of Polish prisoners at the hands of Soviet secret police, an atrocity blanked out of Soviet history and treated as taboo until after the collapse of the U.S.S.R.

The Polish officers, intelligentsia and boy scouts who were rounded up and killed by the Soviets never made it home again. Their bodies lie in mass graves in Katyn and other sites in the former Soviet Union.

Except for the president, the remains of the other victims of Saturday's crash were still in Russia, including that of Kaczynski's wife, Maria. Also killed aboard the president's Tupolev-154 were the army chief of staff, the head of the National Security Bureau, the national bank president and other high-ranking officials and members of parliament.

Most of the remains were taken to Moscow to be examined by forensics experts before being returned to Poland.

But Kaczynski's body was returned swiftly with military dignity and public honor. His daughter waited on the tarmac. So did his twin brother, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the former prime minister, who had flown to Russia the night before to identify his body. One by one, they knelt down before the coffin and pressed their foreheads to the wood.

Then soldiers loaded the coffin into a hearse, heaped it with daffodils and roses and set off on a slow and twisting path through the city to the Presidential Palace.

The people of Warsaw lined up as if for a parade. They came early and stayed for hours, waiting. They perched on the edges of planters full of pansies, jostled for a front-row spot on the curb, stretched their cellphones as high into the air as they could to photograph the sweep of the crowd.

"I'm not sure what God was trying to tell us," said Michael Wlodkowski, a 19-year-old student. "But I know this is a very important moment in the history of our nation."

They hunched over special editions of the newspapers, which usually don't come out on Sunday but scrambled after the crash to produce detailed biographies and photographs of the dead.

The crowd was very, very quiet. People spoke under their breath. They stared into space. On many crowded blocks, the only distinctly audible noise was the sound of footfalls on stone.

And so a city that has endured trauma and shame, decimation by bomb and reconstruction by willpower, was filled with the silent communion of its residents.

"This is our tragic history," said Eva Wieczerynska, a 62-year-old retired mechanical engineer. "The Polish elite were killed there in Katyn 70 years ago, and the consequences lasted for decades. Now, in a very awkward way, history has come full circle."

When they got tired of waiting, somebody in the crowd would phone a relative watching television at home and ask where the body was. The news passed in whispers: It had crossed out of Russian airspace, it had landed at the airport, it was in the hearse, it was drawing closer -- and then it was there.

As the hearse pulled up before the Presidential Palace, the crowd broke out into the Polish national anthem.

"Poland has not yet perished," they sang, "as long as we still live."

Behind the public ceremony, Poland was moving, quickly and quietly, to reconstitute its gutted leadership.

Presidential elections, originally scheduled for October, are now expected in June. Bronislaw Komorowski, speaker of the lower chamber of parliament, has taken over as interim president as mandated by the constitution, and active military leaders also have been appointed.

On Sunday, the Polish Central Bank also appointed an interim president.

Polish relatives of those killed in the plane crash were arriving in Moscow to identify bodies. The Russian government, which had taken pains to avoid alienating Poland in its handling of the crash, announced that hotel rooms and grief counselors would be waiting for the bereaved Poles.

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