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Poland mourns Lech Kaczynski, father of a new nationalism

A cross and candles are focal points on Pilsudski Square as people gather to pay their respects to those killed aboard the Polish presidential plane that crashed Saturday in Smolensk, Russia.

Associated Press

A cross and candles are focal points on Pilsudski Square as people gather to pay their respects to those killed aboard the Polish presidential plane that crashed Saturday in Smolensk, Russia.

WARSAW — Poland's strong mix of patriotism and grief was on display Sunday for the second day in a row, with a nation united in sorrow and pride mourning the death of President Lech Kaczynski and hailing him as a champion of their national identity.

Warsaw, the capital, fell silent at noon, when sirens wailed and a moment of national reflection was observed. Later, tens of thousands, some weeping, lined the streets from the airport and crowded the city center to view Kaczynski's body being returned to the presidential palace, where it will lie pending funeral arrangements.

An elegant esplanade in front of the palace was so jammed that many could not move; police and Girl Scouts had to lock arms to prevent the crowd from destroying islands of votive lamps that have been flickering green, red and yellow since news of Kaczynski's death in a plane crash broke Saturday morning.

"Before the crash, there was a lot of talk against the president, and now this," said one of those in the crowd, a middle-aged man with a gray mustache and a black ribbon of mourning, affixed to a pin representing Poland's red and white flag. "It's because of Katyn. This is a human and historical tragedy."

Kaczynski and his delegation were traveling to that Russian village to commemorate a World War II tragedy when their plane crashed in Smolensk, Russia. The reminder of Katyn, where more than 20,000 Polish officers and intellectuals were massacred by Russian forces, caught Poland's imagination and drew people into the streets on a sunny but crisp April afternoon. But Kaczynski's reputation as a fierce champion of Polish nationalism — and a relentless critic of German and Russian wrongs against his country — also played a major role in the outpouring of feelings.

People pushing for room in the jammed streets said that they did not support all of Kaczynski's often abrasive policies but that they were drawn together to honor a man who symbolized their national pride and willingness to challenge Russia.

"He was a true president who stood up for his country," Yacek Ploniecki said as the crowd jostled around him.

The show of emotion in the streets of Warsaw was in part the result of shock — an entire delegation of senior government officials died in the crash. It was also seen as a reflection of lingering resentment against 45 years of postwar Russian domination here, particularly given the incident's connection to the tragedy at Katyn.

During that postwar period, what happened at Katyn was never part of the Polish school curriculum, and authorities made sure no books or articles were published to spread the memories that circulated quietly among families and intellectuals. That all changed in 1989, and Kaczynski, 60, was at the forefront of the shift. When Georgia fought a brief and one-sided war with Russia in the summer of 2008, for instance, Kaczynski was quick to visit Georgia and offer Poland's moral support.

"Obviously, Kaczynski was a patriot," said Witold Liliental, 71, whose father, 2nd Lt. Antoni Liliental, was among those who died at Katyn in the spring of 1940 at age 31 with a bullet in his head.

Liliental opposes Kaczynski's Law and Justice Party but credited the president with several wise overtures since being elected in 2005. "He was one of those inflexible type of patriots who will not bow to anything," Liliental said.

Poland mourns Lech Kaczynski, father of a new nationalism 04/12/10 [Last modified: Monday, April 12, 2010 12:21am]

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