Poland has said goodbye to its president. On a sunny Sunday afternoon the flag draped caskets of Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria were slowly pulled along the last kilometer of of the journey from the capital Warsaw to their burial ground at Wawel Castle on the Vistula river in Krakow.
Stoic police and soldiers lined along the street gave crisp two fingered salutes as people pressed close to the barriers and threw flowers at the green army Humvees towing the presidential couple, killed along with 94 others in a plane crash outside Smolensk, Russia on April 10.
Among the procession were clergy, members of Poland’s military elite, and foreign dignitaries. Masked sharpshooters were posted atop the Wawel Castle keeping a close eye on the crowd packed on the sidewalk some straining their necks and holding cameras up in the air to catch a last glimpse of the caskets as they turned the corner up Wawel Hill. Only those personally invited by the Kaczynski family were to witness the burial ceremony at a crypt in the Wawel cemetery reserved for Poland’s heroes and monarchs.
The decision to bury Mr. Kaczynski and his wife at Wawel Castle has not been without controversy. The ancient fortress is revered as the resting place for Poland’s most honored royalty. ”I think it is a great mistake,” said one lifetime resident of Krakow, ”Wawel is a place for kings not presidents, it is a sacred place. I think they defied the will of the Polish people with this decision. He is not a king and she is not a queen. I think he should be in Warsaw like he stated in his will, that is the place for presidents.”
Another Krakow resident agreed that a lot of people were wondering why the presidential couple were to be buried at Wawel. ”This is the place where Sobieski and Kasimir are buried. Yes he died and it is a tragedy but it was only an accident, it could have happened to anyone.” The decision to bury the Kaczynskis at Wawel was put forth by church leaders and the Kaczynski family.
For hours prior to the procession people lined the street trying to find a place as volunteer scout troops from across Poland assisted with crowd control. During the funeral mass some lined along the route the prayed aloud guided by loudspeakers playing the ceremony being held at St. Mary’s church in Krakow’s old market square.
A limited amount of tickets for a public assembly at the square were given away within hours.
TMourners pray during the funeral mass
he funeral procession caps off a week of national mourning in Poland. There were even rules enforced regulating public behavior. According to locals, during the week certain nightclub owners in Krakow were fined for having loud music being heard on the street.
From midnight Saturday to 8 pm Sunday no alcohol was to be served anywhere in the country. The normally bustling Krakow nightlife was silent on Saturday evening.
One exception was a hidden party of restaurant staff who had a chance to enjoy each others company since there were no customers. Still, in the middle of the vodka fueled noise the maître d’ reminded everyone why they were there and the group observed a minute of silence.
In the wake of his death, Mr. Kaczynski is being lauded as a beloved national figure however the opinion of some Poles diverges from this.
Monika Caban, a student from Krakow said, ”to be honest most of us didn’t like him. He was
radical and xenophobic. Before this happened we always saw his bad side on the news, doing outrageous things that I think didn’t represent us as a people. Now that he’s died the news is presenting him in a wholesome light, his entire image has been changed.” Another student said he was angry that Kaczynski was being called a hero simply because he had died.
ne student admitted he liked Mr. Kaczynski, ”he understood political power and he knew how to manipulate it, he was an expert at foreign policy and that is the presidents job.”
Regardless of controversy the death of Poland’s most visible figures has changed the cultural and political face of the country.
”These were people we saw everyday on TV,” said Ms. Caban, ”and now they are all gone. If one person dies, that is strange enough but to have so many important people go at once, that is going to change a lot. Our generation knew about Katyn and Auschwitz as a part of history and now with this, we have our very own sense of loss.”