All day I’ve been struggling to communicate to “regular” people who aren’t connected to Poland, just what the plane crash this morning that took the life of the Polish President, First Lady, and political and religious leaders means to Poland. The NY Times just came out with an article that does it far better than I can.


Published: April 10, 2010

WARSAW — On a chilly April night, thousands of Poles wandered the historic old town of the capital city, their way lighted by a multitude of flickering flames, candles in the red and white colors of the Polish flag burning at their feet.

The people were of all ages and political persuasions, families and groups of boys and girls in scouting uniforms. If there were no answers to be found Saturday night as to why the country had been robbed of many of its brightest minds and most dedicated public servants, Poles could at least find reassurance in the presence of so many others in the same searching state of shock.

Pawel Skoczylas, 26, a clerk, said that he had come to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Pilsudski Square to mourn those killed “because I’m a patriot, because I’m a Catholic, because I’m a citizen of Poland, because I’m just a man, a person.”

His voice trembled as he spoke. Like many of those out in the streets, he said he had difficulty talking about something he had not yet fully grasped.

A line of candles ran from the tomb to the tall, white cross marking the spot where Pope John Paul II had given his first sermon in his native land as pontiff. Mourners formed a circle around the cross and sang “Black Madonna,” a hymn about the religious icon and national symbol.

“I felt I had to be here,” said Tomasz Kielar, 40, a civil servant. He said he knew Wladyslaw Stasiak, head of the president’s chancellery, who was one of those killed in the crash of a plane taking Polish officials to Russia to commemorate the Katyn massacre.

“Katyn was a page in history in the 20th century,” he said. “Now it’s going to be a page in history in the 21st century.”

Almost everyone interviewed knew someone who died that morning in the thick fog of western Russia, not only the famous politicians and commanding generals, but also the Russian-Polish interpreter, the president’s doctor, the eight members of the presidential security detail.

“We cannot forget that there were other people on board, intelligent, educated people,” said Aleksandra Jarosz, 17. The military chaplain killed in the crash, Bishop Tadeusz Ploski, had performed her sister’s marriage last year.

In life, President Lech Kaczynski was a polarizing figure in a political environment plagued by party disputes, but in death those differences were set aside. “Surely the president was a man whose decisions were not always accepted by all of the Polish people, but he was our president,” Ms. Jarosz said.

Indeed, in the hours after the accident, there was striking unity across the political spectrum. “Faced with our national tragedy we stand united,” the acting president, Bronislaw Komorowski, said in a televised address to the nation. “There are no divisions into left and right. World views, religious denominations are of no importance. We are united in our grief and care for our nation.”

Polish public television broadcast a black-and-white montage of photographs of the dead, interspersed with video of workers using hoses to put out the fire at the scene of the accident, the national anthem playing somberly in the background.

Special editions of newspapers were handed out free to thousands of passers-by. “Poland in Mourning,” declared Gazeta Wyborcza.

At the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, a cluster of people formed around a man in turn playing the guitar, singing and praying aloud. Flowers were suspended in the iron gate in front of the building, along with a small photograph of Tomasz Merta, under secretary at the ministry.

Before his death, Mr. Merta was in charge of the nation’s monuments. It would have been his task to oversee the creation of a permanent memorial to those who perished, had he not been among them.

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