A Week of Mourning Comes to an End

April 20, 2010

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.


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