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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » April 30, 2010
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The Nation Mourns
April 30, 2010   
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A period of national mourning was declared in Poland until April 18 after the country’s president and dozens of other political and military leaders died in the plane crash near Smolensk, western Russia, April 10. A symbolic farewell to all the victims of the plane crash took place April 17 in Warsaw, and the funeral of the Polish president and his wife took place the next day on Cracow’s Wawel Hill.

The coffin with the remains of the president, Lech Kaczyński, was the first to return to Poland from Russia. Thousands of Varsovians lined the streets from the airport to the city center April 11 as the hearse made its way to the Presidential Palace. Many onlookers threw flowers. The same happened when the remains of Maria Kaczyńska were brought to the country two days later.

The two coffins were laid in state at the Presidential Palace in the capital to allow the public to pay tribute to the late president and his wife. During the next few days, at least 300,000 people filed past the coffins, some waiting over 10 hours to get inside.

Crowds pay tribute
Between April 11 and 16, several military transport aircraft brought more caskets with the remains of those killed in the presidential air crash. The coffins were brought to the Okęcie military airport in Warsaw in several stages, due to an ongoing effort to identify the bodies. By the time of the memorial service, 75 of the 96 casualties had been identified.

More than 100,000 people gathered on Warsaw’s Piłsudskiego Square to bid a symbolic farewell to all the victims of the crash April 17. Among those attending were the country’s top officials, including the Speaker of the lower house of parliament, Bronisław Komorowski, who automatically took over as acting president after Kaczyński’s death. Also in attendance were Senate Speaker Bogdan Borusewicz, Prime Minister Donald Tusk, officials from the Roman Catholic Church and other religions, generals and diplomats. Former presidents Lech Wałęsa and Aleksander Kwa¶niewski were also present.

An altar with a large white cross was mounted at the site. The families of those killed in the crash were seated in front of the altar. A huge canvas with black-and-white photos of all 96 deceased was placed above the altar.

The ceremony began with the sound of sirens followed by a minute of silence. The list of casualties was read out, each name followed by brief details about them.

“We stand here to pay a last tribute to all those who died near Smolensk, with trembling hearts we read each name, our eyes fixed on the 96 photographs,” said Komorowski. “Trembling, we remember the words of John Paul II who prayed here for the renewal of our land. We remember that this prayer was heard; a free Poland was born of our faith, hope and solidarity. There are few moments in the nation’s history when we are all together. This crash was such a moment.”

Tusk said, “The list of casualties in a way signifies the whole of Poland and our entire history. From 91-year-old Ryszard Kaczorowski [the last Polish president-in-exile] to 23-year-old Natalia Januszko [a flight attendant]. President Kaczorowski means Monte Cassino, Siberia, Stalinism, World War II and emigration. And Natalia means the happiness of a young woman living in a free country, enjoying her youth. The magnitude of this tragedy, the worst in the history of postwar Poland, exceeds our ability to comprehend what happened. No one remembers another case when so many great people died in a single instant.”

The ceremony ended with a triple gun salute. A military orchestra played a funeral march. This was followed by a funeral Mass officiated by Roman Catholic priests.

Foreign leaders gather
The funeral ceremony for the presidential couple took place the next day in Cracow. After a procession along the city streets, the coffins with Lech Kaczyński and his wife Maria arrived at the Basilica of the Blessed Virgin Mary, where a funeral Mass was said by Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, who for over 25 years had worked as private secretary to Pope John Paul II. During the service, the cardinal thanked the Russian people for their sympathy and help after the disaster. Among those present was Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who flew in for the funeral despite air traffic problems in Europe. Many international leaders had canceled their plans to attend, citing the air travel disruption. These included Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel, Silvio Berlusconi, Jose Manuel Barroso and Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Other foreign officials present in Cracow included Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek and politicians and diplomats from many other countries.

After the Mass, during which speeches remembering the president and his wife were given by Komorowski and Solidarity trade union chairman Jerzy ¦niadek, family and friends of the Kaczyńskis, state officials and invited guests formed a funeral procession along the Royal Route to the cathedral on Wawel Hill. The Zygmunt Bell was rung for the duration of the procession; according to tradition, the bell is sounded only at moments of special importance to Poland. The sarcophagus with the remains of Lech Kaczyński and his wife is located in a crypt under the Silver Bells Tower, close to where Marshal Józef Piłsudski is interred. Piłsudski played a key role in Poland regaining its independence in 1918 and went on to be the leader of the reborn country.
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