Now that the initial paralysis brought on by the Smoleńsk tragedy has subsided, the sober reality of investigations, conspiracy theories, and electoral campaigns has set in. Yet, there are certain aspects of the plane crash that still need to be sorted out. And 20 days after seems a bit late in coming for most Poles.

Three black boxes were recovered from the crash site, two of which are still being examined in Moscow by Russian investigators and Col. Zbignew Rzepa from the Polish Supreme Military Prosecutor’s Office. Poland has repeatedly pressed Russia to hand over the black boxes, the contents of which contain flight parameters and voice recordings of the last thirty minutes of the flight (including the pilots’ conversations with the control tower on the ground). Needless to say, the contents of the boxes have not yet been released to the press… and as most Poles believe, never will be.

Yesterday, four hypotheses for the cause of the crash were officially presented by Polish prosecutors: 1. technical difficulties with the plane; 2. pilot error; 3. organizational problems with the flight – including miscommunication with controllers on the ground; and 4. pressure from passengers to land, despite atmospheric conditions. A terrorist act was all but ruled out by the official investigation, and technical difficulties were deemed unlikely. This leaves miscommunication with controllers the ground and pressure from passengers as the most likely causes of the accident. However, the validation/discrediting of both of these theories goes back to the black boxes, which would have recorded communications on board. And so (forgive the cliché) – a vicious circle has begun.

In terms of conspiracy theories: can you really blame the Poles? I guess in some respects, yes. I encountered many a suspicious reaction right after the crash, when emotions were still raw and unfiltered by rationality. “The President died in a plane crash? In RUSSIA?!” On the other hand, this is not the first time the dead body of a Polish President has flown back from Russia: Bolesław Bierut died under “mysterious” circumstances during a political visit to the Soviet Union in 1956. (It was widely speculated that he was poisoned.) Many Poles also cite the fact that all cameras and filming devices were immediately confiscated at the crash site. The first offcial images were released when rescue crews were already on-site, hosing down steaming pieces of debris. In response to this, I guess it’s appropriate to cite Saddam Hussein’s execution and the controversy over what a cell phone can capture on video. However, in this case, amateur video was captured at the Smolensk crash site and is being investigated by experts. (Most controversial in the video is the lack of ‘dense fog’ and the gunshots heard in the background.) A Belarusian reporter also took photos a few hours after the crash, capturing uniformed military personnel changing lightbulbs that light the runway strip at the Smolensk airport. Whether the originals were necessary to the investigators, or if it was an attempt to cover up some sort of inadequacy, is uncertain. But once these conspiracy theories begin, they can go on forever…

The investigation, itself, will go on for quite a while. Seventy witnesses are being interviewed, personal items of those onboard the president’s flight are being examined (cell phones, laptops, etc.), pieces of the plane have been reconstructed to analyze and test, not to mention those black boxes…

At any rate, it has been very interesting within the last week or so to witness the uncertainty of how to approach the upcoming presidential elections – scheduled for June 20. According to the Polish Constitution (this Monday, May 3rd is actually Constitution Day in Poland and a national holiday), upon the death of the President, the Marshal of the Sejm (=Speaker of Parliament) becomes Acting President–in this case, Bronisław Komorowski–and is required to declare an election date within two weeks. The election must then take place within the next 6o days.

And so, the late President Kaczyński’s national-conservative political party, PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, Law and Justice) put forth its candidate at the last moment – right before the April 26th deadline: Jarosław Kaczyński, the late President’s twin brother/former Prime Minister of Poland  from 2006-2007/ current chairman of PiS.

His main rival in the election is Acting President Bronisław Komorowski, vice-chairman of the liberal-conservative PO (Platforma Obywatelska, Civic Platform Party)/Polish Minister of National Defense from 2000-2001/Vice-Marshal of the Sejm (lower chamber of the Polish parliament) from 2005-2007/Marshal of the Sejm from 2007-2010. Komorowski’s candidacy has been endorsed by Lech Wałęsa, leader of the Solidarity movement and first President of Poland (from 1990-1995) after the fall of Communism.

[It is important to note that Wałęsa and the late Kaczyński were on bad terms at the time of his death. The two worked side by side during the Solidarity movement, but fell out afterwards. Wałęsa went on to sue Kaczyński over allegations that he secretly collaborated with the SB (Służba Bezpieczeństwa, Security Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs)– the internal intelligence agency and secret police established in Communist Poland in 1956 mainly responsible for political repression.]

Kaczyński’s candidacy is quite controversial. Many opponents (particularly the PO party) say he will be riding on sympathy votes, politically exploiting the Smoleńsk tragedy. Marta Kaczyńska, daughter of the deceased President has even joined his campaign, agreeing to appear on billboards to endorse her uncle’s bid for the presidency. What seems like a natural choice for president to some (if not many) Poles has unfortunately reawakened the age-old sharp elbowing, ever present (it seems)  in Polish politics.


A week of mourning has officially come to a close in Poland. Unofficially, however, there are still many funerals to be attended, 20 additional bodies to be identified from the crash, and weeks–possibly months–to get this country back on its feet (mentally and politically).

Saturday’s tragic plane crash and the deaths that came with it left the nation paralyzed. Stores and schools closed down on Monday following the tragedy, cultural events were canceled, and a week of national mourning was declared by Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

Round-the-clock news coverage showed images from the crash site in Smoleńsk and the arrival of coffins in Warsaw. A necrology of the victims flooded television screens in trams and plastered bulletin boards on the streets. The scope of the tragedy was burned into the nation’s consciousness.

This predominantly Roman Catholic nation expressed its mourning by attending memorial services and laying candles and flowers at the foot of monuments commemorating Katyń. Varsovians gathered in front of the Presidential Palace by the thousands, illuminating Krakowskie Przedmieście with their votive offerings.

On Saturday, April 17th–a week after the fatal crash– a memorial service was held at Warsaw’s Piłsudski Square. Approximately 100,000 people crowded the square and nearby areas to pay tribute to the 96 victims of the plane crash.

PAP / Bartłomiej Zborowski

PAP / Bartłomiej Zborowski

Kaczyński’s twin brother Jarosław, Lech and Maria Kaczyński’s daughter Marta, along with top officials of the Polish government, as well as foreign dignitaries (including U.S. Ambassador to Poland, Lee Feinstein) were also in attendance.

PAP / Bartłomiej Zborowski

The site of Saturday’s memorial service–Piłsudski Square– holds a special place in Poland’s history. Many outdoor masses were celebrated here by Pope John Paul II when he visited Poland–the first being June 2, 1979, when he famously said:

Niech zstąpi duch twój. I odnowi oblicze ziemi. Tej ziemi. (Let your Spirit descend. And renew the face of the earth. The face of this land.)

These words would inspire an entire nation; in remembrance, a cross was erected on the spot where the altar once stood. This cross now bore witness to another pivotal event in the history of Poland: the biggest tragedy in its postwar history.

PAP / Bartłomiej Zborowski

I made it a point to bare witness to another historical event: the funeral of Lech and Maria Kaczyński in Kraków. I arrived on Thursday evening and stayed with Senior Fulbright Lecturer, Lori Kent.

On Saturday morning, we got up early to wait in line for passes to the Main Square for Sunday’s funeral service.

The line stretched around the corner of Św. Jana and down the north side of the square for about half a mile. We got there around 8am and waited about 2.5 hours to get our passes.

Newspaper reads: The Last Farewell

While waiting in line, we found out that Mozart’s Requiem Mass was playing at the Main Square that evening.

Being in the square so early on Saturday morning allowed me to document preparations for the funeral services. They were just starting to set up the stage near the old town hall tower…

I also snapped pictures of a memorial to the fallen President and the rest of the victims outside of St. Mary’s Basilica.

Next, we took a walk over to Wawel, Kraków’s breathtaking medieval castle. After the funeral mass at St. Mary’s Basilica in the main square, Lech and Maria Kaczyński were to be laid to rest in a crypt beneath the castle’s cathedral. On our way back to the square, we walked over to the Błonia– a vast meadow (48 hectares–about 26 football fields) adjacent to Kraków’s old town. They were setting up a screen there, too, which would be relaying the funeral to the masses gathered there.

Back to the main square…

We headed up Grodzka Street, where they had already finished hanging banners and flags. The funeral procession would be going down this street, and over to Wawel Castle.

The banner reads: Poland bids farewell to the President of Poland, Lech Kaczyński and his wife.

Alcohol stores were still open on Saturday night, but were prohibited from selling alcohol on Sunday until 8pm, in light of the President’s funeral. (It was also prohibited to sell alcohol in the city of Warsaw on Saturday, April 17th in light of the memorial services.)

A special concert of Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor was held at 8pm in the Main Square. The work was performed by the soloists soprano Yulia Lezhneva, mezzosoprano Anna Lubańska, tenor Rafał Bartmiński and bass Wojciech Gierlach, the Sinfonietta Cracovia orchestra, vocal ensemble of Capella Cracoviensis and Polish Radio Choir under the baton of Marc Minkowski.

The evening vigil on Kraków’s Main Square was a tribute to the victims of the tragedy and to express  solidarity with their families.

On Sunday morning, we headed over to Bracka Street, entrance point for those with passes to the Main Square.

There were still flowers on the road from when the hearses drove by that morning, on their way to St. Mary’s Basilica.

We waited about an hour to get in through the gates on Bracka Street. Each person had to go through a security check.

When we finally made it through the gates, the square was beginning to fill up.

We ended up near St. Adalbert’s Church (at the Southeast side of the square), from where we could watch the telecasts of the mass going on inside the Basilica, as well as the procession as it came down Grodzka Street.

While some world leaders were unable to attend the funeral in light of the volcanic ash cloud over Europe, many did attend. Some resorted to laborious means of transport, like Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who drove 18 hours to make it to the service. Among those present were:

  • Russian President, Dmitri Medvedev
  • President of Germany, Horst Koehler
  • President of the Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych
  • President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai
  • President of Lithuania, Dalia Grybauskaite
  • President of Bulgaria, Georgi Parvanov
  • President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus
  • President of Slovakia, Ivan Gašparovič
  • President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili
  • President of Hungary, Laszlo Solyom
  • President of Albania, Bamir Topi
  • President of Latvia, Vaira Vike-Freiberga
  • President of Slovenia, Danilo Türk
  • President of Moldova,Vladimir Voronin
  • President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev

as well as officials from Belarus, Armenia, Mongolia, and Iraq.

The funeral mass for Lech and Maria Kaczyński was held at St. Mary’s Basilica, Kraków’s beautiful Gothic church on the main square.

The mass was led by Archbishop Dziwisz, who addressed Russian President Medvedev personally in his opening remarks: “The sympathy and help we have received from our Russian brothers has breathed new life into a hope for closer relations and reconciliation between our two Slavic nations.”

The Berlin Philharmonic played Mozart’s Requiem during the two-hour-long mass. At the end of the service, Boże coś Polskę, was sung. The refrain of this patriotic hymn goes:

Przed Twe ołtarze zanosim błaganie:
Ojczyznę wolną pobogłosław Panie!

(Before Your altar we being this plea: Bless this free homeland, Lord!)

Everyone raised their flags as they sung the hymn.

After the mass, the funeral procession went down Grodzka Street to Wawel Cathedral, during which the bell on Wawel hill rang. Lech and Maria Kaczyński’s coffins were greeted by a 21-gun salute and then interred in one of the underground crypts in a private family ceremony.

Maria Kaczyńska's coffin draped with Polish flag

Lech Kaczyński's coffin being pulled by armored carriages

The crypt where Lech and Maria Kaczyński were laid to rest was opened to the public at 8pm that night. People waited for hours to get in and pay their last respects.

Whether or not Poles supported Kaczyński in the past, his funeral transcended politics and became a display of national solidarity. It showed the world a proud, stable nation rich in tradition and distinct in identity. Its dignity in the face such a tragedy can only be admired.

After being identified by her brother thanks to a wedding ring with an inscription, nail polish and distinguishing marks, the body of First Lady Maria Kaczyńska arrived in Warsaw today. After a short ceremony at Warsaw’s Okęcie airport, her funeral procession followed the same path as it did just two days before, when her husband’s coffin flew in from Smoleńsk to a stunned nation. Despite it being a work day, thousands of people lined the streets, eager to welcome their First Lady back home. Tulips, daffodils, and roses showered the hearse as it made its way to the Presidential Palace.

Her coffin will lie in state day and night, beside that of her husband’s, allowing citizens to pay their last respects before Sunday’s funeral. “Together they lived here, together they set off on their last journey, and together they died. They should symbolically welcome people who come to pay tribute to them together as well,” said Jacek Stasin from the Presidential Chancellery.

In a press conference today, Kraków’s Cardinal Archbishop Stanisław Dziwisz announced that the Kaczyńskis will be laid to rest at Wawel Castle in Kraków– the main burial site of Polish monarchs since the 14th century. The state funeral will take place on Sunday, April 14, 2010 at Wawel’s 1,000-year-old cathedral. It is reported that the Kaczyńskis will share their crypt with Marshal Józef Piłsudski (1867-1935), considered by most Poles to be the greatest Polish statesman and who was largely responsible for Poland regaining its independence in 1918 after 123 years of partitions.

Sunday’s state funeral is to be attended by many of the world’s top leaders. Among them include:

  • NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen
  • President of European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek
  • President of the United States of America, Barack Obama
  • President of Russia, Dmitri Medvedev
  • President of Germany, Horst Koehler and German Chancellor, Angela Merkel
  • President of Lithuania, Dalia Grybauskaite
  • President of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves
  • President of Bulgaria, Georgi Parvanov and Bulgarian Foreign Affairs Minister, Nikolay Mladenov
  • President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy
  • President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus
  • Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper

I have been putting off this post for a while. To be honest, the death of President Lech Kaczyński and his wife Maria, along with top officials of the Polish government came as a complete and utter shock to me and everyone in Poland. I found out from an elderly man on a bicycle, as I was waiting for a taxi outside of the Radegast Station Holocaust Museum in Łódź with two other Fulbrighters this morning. Immediately, Polish flags sprang up everywhere, draped with black ribbons.

I attended a mass in the intention of the victims of the plane crash at the St. Stanislaus Kostka Cathedral in Łódź. The archbishop of Łódź, Władysław Ziółek, celebrated the mass and was joined by the President of the City of Łódź and other top officials. It didn’t matter if you were the President of Łódź or an art student–you could stand side by side at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and commemorate this tragic loss.

The last time I remember being in a church so packed was at the mass for Pope John Paul II at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC. My mother and I just made it into the cathedral before they reached capacity and shut the doors. Then and now, it was amazing to witness everyone joining together in mourning.

The statue of Pope John Paul II outside the cathedral in Łódź was enveloped by candles and flowers. Since the 5th anniversary of the death of Pope John Paul II happened to fall on Good Friday this year, today (April 10, 2010–the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday) was designated for masses in his intention. It is an unsettling coincidence.

The President’s plane went down at 8:56am Warsaw time in Smolensk, Russia after repeated attempts at landing in dense fog. Apparently on its fourth attempt, it clipped trees and caught fire upon crashing to the ground.

President Lech Kaczyński and all those on board were headed for Katyń memorial ceremonies, which have been taking place all week.

It is the first time Poland and Russia have jointly commemorated the Katyń massacre of 1940, when 22,000 members of Poland’s intelligentsia were brutally murdered and buried in mass graves in the forests of Katyń, in western Russia (what is now Belarus).

The Katyń massacre refers to the murder of Polish officers in the Katyń forest, who were from the Kozielsk prisoner of war camp. Officers from the Starobelsk and Ostashkov camps, as well as in West Belarus and West Ukraine, the NKVD headquarters in Smoleńsk, and various prisons across the Soviet Union were also murdered. There is a Belorusian Katyń List that has yet to be revealed with names of Polish prisoners of war to be murdered at various locations in Belarus and Western Ukraine. Vladimir Putin was to have presented Prime Minister Donald Tusk with the list on Wednesday; it did not happen.

Those who died at Katyń included an admiral; two generals; 24 colonels; 79 lieutenant colonels; 258 majors; 654 captains; 17 naval captains; 3,420 NCOs; seven chaplains; three landowners; a prince; 43 officials; 85 privates; 131 refugees; 20 university professors; 300 physicians; several hundred lawyers, engineers, and teachers; more than 100 writers and journalists; as well as about 200 pilots. In all, the NKVD executed almost half the Polish officer corps. Altogether, the NKVD murdered 14 Polish generals during the Katyń massacres.

The mass graves of those murdered were discovered by the Nazis in 1943, but the Soviet Union shifted the blame onto Nazi Germany. So. just imagine it’s 1940 for a moment. Your brother, husband, or father– most likely a military officer, professor, lawyer, physician–  disappears. The last thing you hear is that he boarded a train to be sent off to a forced labor camp somewhere in Russia. Three years go by and Nazi Germany announces its discovery of mass graves of Polish officers. There are bullet holes in the back of all the skulls. The Nazis put up lists of the names of all those who were murdered. The Soviet Union denies responsibility. The war ends in 1945, the Red Army invades Poland and sets up a Communist regime. It continues to deny the Katyń massacre and gets rid of anyone who is inconvenient– anyone who is making too much noise. The Soviet Union continues to deny responsibility until 1990, when NKVD documents are finally revealed proving the Soviet Union not only perpetrated the murders, but elaborately covered them up. Imagine not being able to openly talk about the loss of your loved one for 50 years.

I think the most tragic twist of fate in this whole thing is that dozens of these people– the family members of Katyń victims–were aboard the President’s plane. They were on their way to pay respect to their loved ones. Instead, they joined them in the forests of Katyń.

Furthermore, the highest officials of the Polish government, leading historians, and religious officials were on their way to honor the memory of their murdered countrymen, who were once, too, members of the Polish elite.

The whole world has finally learned about Katyń. It’s just such a shame that another tragedy was what finally brought it to light.

BBC news


  • Lech Kaczyński, President of the Polish Republic
  • Maria Kaczyńska, First Lady RP
  • Ryszard Kaczorowski, last President of the RP in exile (surrendered his position in 1990 when Lech Wałęsa elected as proper Polish president)
  • Krzysztof Putra, Vice-Marshall of the Sejm
  • Jerzy Szmajdziński, Vice-Marshall of the Sejm
  • Krystyna Bochenek, Vice-Marshall of the Sejm
  • Jerzy Bahr, RP Ambassador to the Russian Federation
  • Władysław Stasiak, Chief of Staff to the President of the RP
  • Aleksander Szczygło, Head of the Office of National Security (equivalent to the US National Security Council)
  • Jacek Sasin, Vice-Chief of Staff to the President
  • Paweł Wypych, state-secretary in the Office of the President
  • Mariusz Handzlik, under-state-secretarz in the Office of the President
  • Andrzej Kremer, under-state-secratry at the RP Ministry of Foreign Affairs
  • Stanisław Komorowski, under-state-secretarz at the RP Defense Ministry
  • Tomasz Merta, under-state-secretary at the RP Ministry of Culture and National Patrimony
  • Gen. Franciszek Gągor, Chief of the Polish General Staff
  • Andrzej Przewoźnik, Secretary of the the RP Institute of Military History
  • Maciej Płażyński, President of “Wspólnota Polska,” the Polish cultural organization much like the German Goethe Institute or the British Council
  • Mariusz Kazana, Director of Protocol for the RP Ministry of Foreign Affairs


  • Leszek Deptuła, Sejm deputy
  • Grzegorz Dolniak, Sejm deputy
  • Grażyna Gęsicka, Sejm deputy
  • Przemysław Gosiewski, Sejm deputy
  • Sebastian Karpiniuk, Sejm deputy
  • Izabela Jaruga-Nowacka, Sejm deputy
  • Zbigniew Wassermann, Sejm deputy
  • Aleksandra Natalli-Swiat, Sejm deputy
  • Arkadiusz Rybicki, Sejm deputy
  • Jolanta Szymanek-Deresz, Sejm deputy
  • Wiesław Woda, Sejm deputy
  • Edward Wojtas, Sejm deputy
  • Janina Fetlińska, Senator
  • Stanisław Zając, Senator


  • Janusz Kochanowski, human rights advocate
  • Sławomir Skrzypek, President National Bank of Poland
  • Janusz Kurtyka, President of the Institute of National Memory
  • Janusz Krupski, Head of the Office for the Rights of Combatants and Repressed Persons


  • Bishop Gen. Tadeusz Płoski, field chaplain of the Polish Army
  • Archbishop Gen. Miron Chodakowski, Orthodox Church chaplain of the Polish Army
  • Pastor (Colonel) Adam Pilch, Evangelical (= Protestant) field chaplain
  • Father (Lieutenant-Colonel) Jan Osiński, field chaplain of the Polish Army


  • Edward Duchnowski, Secretary-General of the Siberian Association
  • Father Bronisław Gostomski
  • Father Jósef Joniec, President of the parish association
  • Father Zdzisław Król, Chaplain to the Warsaw chapter of the association of Katyn families, 1987-2007
  • Father Andrzej Kwaśnik, Chaplain of the Federation of Katyn Families
  • Tadeusz Lutoborski
  • Boźena Łojek, President of the Polish Katyn Foundation
  • Stefan Melak, President of the Katyn Committee
  • Stanisław Mikke, vice-chairman of RP Institute of Military History
  • Bronisława Orawiec-Loffler
  • Katarzyna Piskorska
  • Andrzej Sariusz-Skąpski, President of the Federation of Katyn Families
  • Wojciech Seweryn
  • Leszek Solski
  • Teresa Walewska-Przyjałkowska, Foundation “Golgotha of the East”
  • Gabriela Zych
  • Ewa Bąkowska, granddaughter of Brig. Gen. Mieczyslaw Smarowiński (Polish general killed at Katyn)
  • Maria Borowska
  • Bartosz Borowski
  • Dariusz Malinowski


  • LT Gen. Bronisław Kwatkowski, Operational Head of the Polish Armed Forces
  • LT Gen. Andrzej Błasik, Head of Polish Internal [i.e. police] Forces
  • Major Gen. Tadeusz Buk, Head of Polish Land Forces
  • Major Gen. Włodzimierz Potasiński, Head of Polish Special Forces
  • Vice-Admiral Andrzej Karweta, Head of Polish Navy
  • Brig. Gen. Kazimierz Gilarski, Head of the Warsaw Garrison

Wieczne odpoczywanie racz im dać Panie, a światłość wiekuista niechaj im świeci. Niech odpoczywają w pokoju wiecznym. Amen.

Please go rent Andrzej Wajda’s film Katyń.

Świat się wkońcu dowiedział o Katyniu. The world has finally learned about Katyń.