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Candles in Warsaw: The country is united in the same way the U.S. was after 9/11 (PETR JOSEK/Reuters)
Candles in Warsaw: The country is united in the same way the U.S. was after 9/11 (PETR JOSEK/Reuters)

Jan Cienski

Poland survives a past full of loss Add to ...

Poles have had a lot of experience with death and grief, and it shows in the flawless ceremonies taking place almost daily at Warsaw's Okecie airport as soldiers stand ramrod straight, swords glinting, and funeral marches greet the stream of returning bodies from Saturday's air disaster.

The crash that killed president Lech Kaczynski and 95 others, including many of the country's most senior political and military officials, has united the country the same way Americans suddenly came together after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

House after house (including mine) on my street in suburban Warsaw is flying red-and-white Polish flags decorated with black ribbons. Hundreds of thousands of people have filed past the presidential palace to lay candles and flowers, with the crowd occasionally becoming so overwhelming that parents have had to lift small children onto their shoulders to keep them safe.

All Poles are shocked - from those who thought Mr. Kaczynski was an exemplary president to those who saw his presidency as a failure. Anyone who spent any time at all in official Warsaw over the past couple of decades knew at least a few people on the doomed airplane.

I was cleaning out my wallet yesterday and pulled out a business card from Mariusz Handzlik, one of the president's ministers. We had talked a couple of weeks ago about getting Mr. Kaczynski to sit for an interview. He also died amid the shattered remnants of the Polish government Tupolev Tu-154 airliner in the grey and leafless forest in Smolensk, western Russia.

While writing this article, I glanced up at the television and saw the young daughter of Slawomir Skrzypek, the central bank governor I had often talked with, weeping and clutching at her mother as her father's coffin was slowly marched off the cargo plane by camouflage-clad troops.

The fact that Mr. Kaczynski and his delegation died while flying to Katyn, where the Soviets killed more than 22,000 Polish officers in 1940, puts the air-crash victims into the pantheon of Polish national heroes.

Some people are drawing obvious comparisons between the two events, saying Joseph Stalin's killing of the cream of prewar Poland has been followed by the death of the elites of today's country.

But the spit-and-polish ceremonies at Warsaw's airport don't bear that out. The first victims of Katyn lay forgotten by the Soviets, the Polish communists and an uncomfortable West, as the country the slain officers had fought to defend was first raped by the Germans and the Soviets and then turned into a colony of Moscow for more than four decades. The current dead are being brought back to a well-ordered and independent Polish state.

Within minutes of Mr. Kaczynski's death, his functions had been taken over by Bronislaw Komorowski, the Speaker of Parliament. Firefighters were still scrambling over the wreckage of the airliner when Poland's national bank put out a statement saying Mr. Skrzypek had been replaced by his deputy. Despite losing many of its top-ranked general officers, the Polish military continued fighting in Afghanistan. The country has been dealt a blow, but the institutions are working.

When the world's leaders, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, gather in Krakow on Saturday for the burial of Mr. Kaczynski and his wife, Maria, in the crypt below the Wawel royal cathedral, they will see a country that has managed to shake off its past of loss and failure and has joined the normal nations of the world.

As the last of the flag-draped coffins were taken off the airplane yesterday, the military band broke into the jaunty air of the Polish national anthem, whose first line is: "Poland has not yet perished."

Jan Cienski is the Warsaw correspondent for the Financial Times of London.

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