Thousands lined the street to pay their final respects to the fallen president
It was an ordinary Saturday morning; I woke up at around eight and made my way out of bed to make myself some breakfast. I turned the computer on to listen to some music as I prepared for my day. I had a football match in a few hours.
My phone rang with an SMS. It was from Ammar, a friend of mine from school, it read "the Polish President has died in a plane crash."
I stood, without moving, my mind completely blank, my eyes focused on the screen. I read the message over and over again but couldn’t understand. Was this some kind of a joke? As the reality sank in, disbelief turned to shock and shock turned to dismay. That message would turn my morning into mourning that would last through the long and sad week and beyond. As Poles, it was a week of shock and confusion, and the world seemed to share our anguish as we all reached out to one another in disorientation and longing. The world grieved with us.
"Poland has not died yet, as long as we survive," were the opening words of a sermon during a special mass in Stephansdom dedicated to the victims of the catastrophe in Smolensk – also the opening lines of the Polish national anthem. A huge mass of people had gathered, filling the cathedral that night to pay their respects not only to President Lech Kaczyński and first lady Maria, but also to the 94 others on the same flight, including a dozen members of parliament and all the heads of the Polish armed forces. I felt the spirit of our nation come to a halt as it once again attempted to cope with shock and tragedy.
Disbelief accompanied the tribute that followed. Sorrow hit the Presidential Palace in Warsaw first, where the presidential couple had lived for the past five years. After the news reached the city, the palace began to slowly fill with people.
"The crowd grew every hour because none of us wanted to be alone," said Justyna B., a resident of Warsaw.
"Some of us just wanted to light a candle, pray, sign the book, and some if even just for a moment to stand there.
"There was so many people there, you could barely squeeze through," said Paulina Kamińska, a student in Warsaw. She made her way out to the palace just before nightfall and described a mass of people as they stood in front of hundreds of lit candles.
The mourning spread to Polish communities all around the world, and in Vienna the weather was appropriately dismal. Chilly, cloud-covered days with rain set the mood throughout the gloomy week. My first stop took to me to a Polish church on Rennweg beside the Lower Belvedere. A day after the catastrophe, the little church was already crowded as the service began. I made my way inside, trying to get as far as possible but I didn’t make it far past the door. All those that had gathered stood quietly, buried in their thoughts, as the priest led the service.
On the black metal fence along the outside of the church, people had attached pictures of all those that had died in the crash, along with Polish flags, black ribbons, and flowers looped and tied to the bars. Below, as in front of the Presidential Palace, candles lined the sidewalk.
After the service, some people made their way there just to stare at the pictures, others to light more candles. I stood there for some time, transfixed, unwilling – or was it unable? – to move away. Faces around me were blank with shock. But it was time to go as more people were making their way to the church for the next service.
Two days later, I went by the Polish embassy in Vienna. The scene was similar: people, candles, flags and flowers. However, like the church, there was more to this façade, so I made my way into the embassy. Two books of condolences were set out in one of the rooms and all were invited to sign it, I felt I needed to. As I walked inside, I made my way to the back of the line. In front of me stood the Japanese ambassador; in front of him a delegation from the Hungarian embassy.
"Deeply shocked" was how Heinz Fischer, Austria’s president, said learning of the catastrophe. He had come here a few hours before to add his name to the book of condolences. The employees reported that delegations from many of Vienna’s embassies had been coming all day to sign the book and more were expected.
The Japanese ambassador finished writing his condolence. It was my turn. As I walked into the room, I came before a table. On it laid two books with a picture of the Presidential couple in between. As I wrote my condolences on the one to the left, a woman sat down in the chair next to me. She moved herself closer to the table and afterward reached into her pocket to pull out a piece of paper – she had prepared her condolence ahead of time.
On Friday, I made my way to Stephansdom, where the archdiocese of Vienna had helped organize a special mass in the cathedral. As in the little church earlier in the week, the cathedral was full; every space whether with or without a bank to sit in was covered. Mass was headed by Cardinal Schönborn, who led the service in Polish, which is not his native tongue.
"I’m sorry if I have damaged your beautiful language," said the Cardinal, as the service came to an end. "I hope in the future to learn more of it," – his words were followed by warm applause from the congregation for his gesture.
My last stop was Kraków, Poland, where, it was confirmed, President Kaczyński and his wife would be buried in the city’s castle, Wawel. As I drove through the Polish countryside the night before the funeral, the roads were lined with flags, endless rows of white and red with black ribbons tied to the top. There was quiet and calm. The radio played soft music and all talk was of the catastrophe.
The next morning, I made my way into the city. Just before I left the house, I saw on TV that the caravan with the bodies of the presidential couple had landed at the airport and was making its way towards Saint Mary’s basilica, where the funeral was to take place. I managed to catch up with it in the city center. Surrounded by a police escort the caravan moved slowly along Kraków’s streets so everyone could see, and then from the crowds came wave upon wave of hundreds of flowers that soon littered the funeral car. In their wake, was applause; a sign of respect. It was time to move to the main square.
The funeral was not to begin for another three hours but there, outside the basilica, tens of thousands had already gathered. The square was filled to the last corner and we all stood in the blazing sun waiting for it to commence. Priests scattered amongst the crowd led others in prayer. On huge screens set up all around the square people watched the funeral live, as all sang and prayed along. All was calm, with the inner quiet wrung from so much emotion; everyone just wanted to be there, to experience the funeral to the end. After the ceremony the bodies of the couple were taken by ceremonial military escort to the castle, where we were not allowed to join. So instead, the crowd began to sing the national anthem and watched as the bodies of the two continued to move farther and farther away.
There were similar scenes across Poland. "The last time Warsaw looked like this was after the death of John Paul II, empty, quiet, encompassed in sorrow," said Justyna. Like her, it too was my last memory of such an outpour of grief, the only other time I had seen a whole nation come to a halt, when so many people had come together, knowing that it mattered.