The death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski is laden with symbolism. President Kaczynski dies in a plane crash on his way back from a visit to Russia, where ties between them have always — really, always — been strained. Kaczynksi was there to join a Russian delegation to commemorate the anniversary of Katyn, where Soviet secret police killed 22,000 Polish officers in the forest of Katyn during World War II. Putin, the former KGB chief, will head the investigation into the plane crash. The crash photos show the plane wreckage amidst a forest.
Some may wonder what it’s like to be in Warsaw, the capital of Poland and the home of the President, during this time. I’ll tell you from my perspective, an American living in Warsaw.
What’s amazing is how quickly Warsaw mobilized itself for mourning rituals. In the upper middle class residential area of Warsaw in which I live, shows of solidarity began early, within hours of the event. In a three block walk from my place of residence to the neighborhood park, I saw 30 Polish flags waving from building sides and windows, a black ribbon on the top of each. Flags are usually flown during national holidays; many flags were flown downtown, as well. Maybe one or two private cars had a flag on them. All buses and trams had flags. In the neighborhood where I live, besides the flags there was little other outward signs of the event; businesses were open, children played in the playground (despite the chilly weather), people went to eat, to shop. The local cafe where I live had in a display window a vase with red and white flowers in it, an elegant black ribbon tied around the vase. The local theater was closed, probably in commemoration, though the note on it was not clear (it was clear in another place of business downtown, which said something to the effect of, “due to the national tragedy, we are closed”).
In the metro big Polish flags hung. In the metro cars’ televisions screens that usually broadcast news and entertainment had only news on the tragedy, such as articles about Obama, Sarkozy and Merkel offering their condolences. They listed the names of the dead. The metro was crowded, most going to Ratusz Arsenal station, the stop nearest the Palace. The Metro newspaper they give for free ran a special edition, complete with pictures of the crash, and pictures of all the members of the Polish elite who died on the flight.
All of this was within 7 hours of the incident.
We made our way downtown toward the Presidential Palace, near Old Town. People bought red and white roses bundled together, and flower sellers made a brisk business, as did sellers of mortuary candles. Candles in a red (sometimes yellow) glass containers are usually used during religious holidays, and sellers hawked them by the dozens near the Palace. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was mobbed, the huge cross in the square which the Unknown Soldier lies had dozens of roses and candles around it. The police had blocked off traffic.
In front of the Palace were a couple thousand people, at least. I did not see crying, but I did see some grim faces, faces one would expect after a death of someone close. A dozen news trucks, and a couple of ambulances were there, as were half a dozen port-o-potties. Here were the most overt displays of patriotism: women and men wearing funeral clothes, though with red, white and black colors (a black suit and a tie that’s red, a black suit coat and a skirt that’s red, and so on). The church doors to every church were open, people coming in and out. At the Presidential palace, the stone lions out front were draped with roses and soccer scarves, candles were lit nearby, the television stations broadcasting.
Everywhere people used cameras to record everything. I imagine YouTube is overloaded from Warsaw ISP addresses. Here’s a video, not by me.
On Sunday morning, a siren sounded at 10:20 a.m., ostensibly to commemorate the tragedy.