Mourners pay respects to Polish leader, Obama unable to attend

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 17, 2010; 10:41 PM

WARSAW -- Thousands of mourners crowded into Warsaw's main square Saturday for the first of two days of funeral services honoring the late President Lech Kaczynski, an unyielding Polish nationalist who perished one week ago along with 95 others in a plane crash in western Russia.

The official and religious services -- including a gathering Sunday in Krakow that President Obama and a long list of other world leaders had planned to attend -- marked the final chapters in an extraordinary outpouring of grief and patriotism touched off by Kaczynski's death as his Soviet-era Tupolev TU-154 slammed into a row of trees while trying to land at Smolosk in heavy fog.

A giant cloud of volcanic ash, spewed into the sky by an eruption in Iceland and drifting across Europe for the past several days, caused Obama and other high-ranking mourners to cancel their flights to Krakow. But Kaczynski's family, led by his twin bother, Jaroslaw, insisted the ceremony go ahead, apparently in an attempt to allow normal life to resume in a country that has been seized in mourning.

For the eighth day in a row, even as Warsaw's memorial service got underway in Pilsudski Square in crisp but sunny weather, the elegant esplanade in front of the presidential palace was still jammed with people lining up to pay their respects and light votive candles for the deceased president and his wife, Maria, who also died in the crash.

"We have been sad for the entire week," remarked Henryk Zimba, 59, a retired farmer who drove in from the countryside to attend the memorial. "There is this mood of mourning. It's all anybody's talking about."

In the nearby square, tens of thousands of people listened to memorial speeches by government leaders and bowed in prayer during religious services presided over by the papal nuncio, Archbishop Jozef Kowalczyk, and the head of the Polish episcopate, Archbishop Jozef Michalia. Caskets containing the bodies of Kaczynski and his wife were later carried in a solemn procession to the Warsaw Cathedral for a funeral Mass officiated by the capital's archbishop, Kazimierez Nycz, and the Polish primate, or senior prelate, Archbishop Henryk Muszynki.

"There are certain moments in the life of a nation when we know we are together, that our feelings and our emotions are one," parliament speaker Bronislaw Komorowski, who took over as interim president on Kaczynski's death, told the Warsaw crowd. "The catastrophe of that airplane was one of them."

Kaczynski, accompanied by a phalanx of senior government and military officials, was on his way to a ceremony commemorating the massacre in Katyn, near Smolosk, of some 20,000 Polish military officers and professional leaders by Soviet secret police in 1940 at the outset of World War II. That emotional historical connection, intensified by Kaczynski's reputation as a fierce defender of Polish sovereignty, contributed to the sorrow and patriotism that washed over the country immediately after news of his death and has remained vivid throughout the week among Poles.

Street vendors, marketing the idea that the Katyn tragedy seemed to have happened a second time, sold badges depicting the profile of an airplane and carrying the inscription: "Katyn 2010."

In his funeral address, Komorowski saluted the compassion displayed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials since the crash and their cooperation with Polish investigators searching for the cause of the disaster. In particular, Polish people have been impressed by a decision attributed to Putin this week to show a documentary on the Katyn killings for the first time on a mass-audience Russian television channel.

During the Soviet era, the Katyn massacre was hushed up in Russia and rarely discussed openly even in Poland. Kaczynski had been at the forefront of those demanding it be recognized in Russia and openly discussed around the world as an example of Poland's long struggle against foreign domination.

It was in pursuit of such truths that Kaczynski was on his way to Katyn last Saturday, Komorowski said, adding: "Today the truth about Katyn is shared by the entire world."

Michalia, in a homily, also expressed gratitude to Russia for its expressions of sympathy and openness in facing what happened in Katyn. As he spoke, many in the crowd of mourners broke out in applause. Their reaction suggested that one ironic outcome of Kaczyski's death could be that a man known for skepticism toward Russia in perishing contributed to improved relations between Warsaw and Moscow.

"Now the world knows about Katyn," said Hanna Grosnik, 67, an economist who was among the thousands pressing into Pilsudski Square. "Well, the world knew about it before, but they didn't talk about it out loud. Now, it's out there. It has to be taken into account."

But Magda Sznurowska, a 20-year-old political science student, said she attended the ceremony without any such political undertone. For her, she said, it was a duty to pay respects to the leader of the country, even though she opposed his conservatism and would have voted against him if he had run in the next election in October.

"This is very important," she said as the prelates recited their prayers and soldiers fired a military salute to the fallen. "He was the president of my country."

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