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Polish president and wife buried in Krakow

Former president Viktor Yuschenko of Ukraine kissed the hand of the granddaughter of the late Lech Kaczynski. Former president Viktor Yuschenko of Ukraine kissed the hand of the granddaughter of the late Lech Kaczynski. (Reuters)
By Dan Bilefsky
International Herald Tribune / April 19, 2010

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KRAKOW — About 150,000 Poles bade farewell to their president and first lady yesterday in an emotional funeral service here that capped more than a week of public mourning, with the shadow of a special presidential election looming in the background.

Cannons fired a 21-gun salute as the bodies of President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, Maria, were interred at the crypt in the Wawel Cathedral, among Polish kings, saints, and national heroes. The couple were among the 96 people, including dozens of members of the country’s military and political elite, killed in a plane crash in western Russia last Saturday.

As the period of mourning came to a close, the political repercussions began to move to the foreground. Still unclear was whether Kaczynski’s twin brother and former prime minister, Jaroslaw, would declare his candidacy in the election. Early opinion surveys showed daunting odds for Kaczynski, but the extraordinary outpouring of feeling since the crash has made for an unpredictable environment. The funeral Mass began with a performance of Mozart’s "Requiem." Undeterred by the cloud of ash from the Icelandic volcano, Russia’s president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, flew to Krakow for the service, where the airport was open only for official delegations. Germany’s president, Horst Kohler, arrived by helicopter, while the Czech president, Vaclav Klaus, traveled by train and car.

President Obama was among the leaders forced to cancel because of the volcano’s expanding ash cloud. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, and Prince Charles also canceled.

Bronislaw Komorowski, speaker of the lower house of Parliament and the acting president since Kaczynski’s death, thanked the visiting delegations for coming and called for “Polish unity and unity with the Russian nation, in the name of overcoming the Katyn tragedy.’’

Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, archbishop of Krakow, said: “The tragedy which took place eight days ago gave rise to much good among the people and nations. The sympathy and aid we witnessed on the part of our Russian brothers gives hope for the coming together of our two Slavic nations.’’

“Memory and truth are stronger than the greatest tragedies,’’ Janusz Sniadek, the chairman of the Solidarity trade union, said. “The solidarity of Poles in these days of mourning is a tribute to you, your wife and all the victims.’’

The couple’s daughter, Marta, and her uncle, Jaroslaw, prayed beside the coffins during the Mass.

The crowd outside the church chanted, “Lech Kaczynski, thank you,’’ as a military band played in Krakow’s main square. The flag-draped coffins were pulled by Humvees, as soldiers in berets slowly marched beside.

Mourners gathered in every square of Krakow, waving Polish flags and wearing pins bearing Kaczynski’s face and the words “Our President.’’ Church steeples were adorned with flags capped with black ribbons. The crowd alternated between solemn hymns and defiant clapping every time the tragedy at Katyn was invoked.

When Sniadek said, “Tell the world how Mr. Kaczynski died, because his death is a statement to the world,’’ the crowd burst into uproarious applause.

Malgorzata Jalocho, a philosopher who traveled early this morning from Kielce, said she came to Krakow because Kaczynski was her president.

Like many of those in attendance, Jalocho said she believed that Kaczynski, too often ridiculed in life, was only receiving his due appreciation posthumously.

“The truth has also been heard about President Kaczynski,’’ Jalocho said. “When he was alive there was a festival of aggression against him. He was a great patriot. He was defending Poland.’’

As the coffins made their way from the Basilica to the crypt, traveling slowly through the streets of Krakow, thousands of Poles burst into spontaneous chants of “Dziekujemy’’ or “Thank you.’’

A military plane transporting the bodies to Krakow flew below the volcanic ash plume.

The outpouring of grief had not been seen in Poland since the death of Pope John Paul II five years ago.