Poland's Mourning After

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Janek Skarzynski / AFP / Getty

Fraught farewell The coffins of Kaczynski and his wife in the presidential palace

When the Polish Air Force Tupolev 154 crashed near the airport of the Russian city of Smolensk on April 10, it added a layer of modern calamity to a historic catastrophe. Among the 96 passengers and crew killed were a sizable chunk of Poland's political elite: President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, the military chief and his top commanders, the central banker, several members of parliament and senior clergymen. They were on their way to mark the 70th anniversary of a massacre of more than 21,000 Polish prisoners of war in the nearby forest of Katyn.

Tragedy is a unifying force, and the crash brought Poland together in grief. There was unanimity even over the late President, who had in life been a highly polarizing figure. To his conservative admirers, Kaczynski, 60, was a patriot and man of deep moral and religious convictions; to his critics, he was a narrow-minded reactionary out of step with an increasingly liberal, outward-looking and European Poland. He had been a nuisance to the government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk. Kaczynski's role was largely symbolic, but he could veto government legislation and did so with some relish. He had blocked Tusk's attempts to reform the health sector and overhaul the debt-ridden pension system. And he also opposed the Prime Minister's efforts to adopt the euro as Poland's currency. (The central banker killed in the crash had also been a Euro-skeptic, appointed by the President.)

Before the crash, opinion polls suggested Kaczynski would lose his re-election bid in October. But his death produced a bipartisan outpouring of fond remembrance. Tens of thousands of Poles placed candles outside the presidential palace in Warsaw, and even political foes recalled Kaczynski's role in the anticommunist Solidarity movement.

By law, the election for a new President must be held within two months. Tusk's center-right Civic Platform is expected to field the parliamentary speaker Bronislaw Komorowski: he was sworn in as temporary head of state. The opposition Law and Justice Party, founded by Kaczynski and his twin brother Jaroslaw, must now find a new candidate and hope the surge of sympathy that followed the crash eventually turns into votes. So it was probably inevitable that the decision to bury Kaczynski and his wife in Krakow's ancient Wawel Cathedral — which holds the remains of Poland's kings and heroes — would lead to accusations that his party was trying to use the tragedy to bolster its chances in the election. Krakow's archbishop, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, decides who can be buried in the historic crypt: he argued Kaczynski deserved a place there because of his deep love for the homeland, but some of Poland's leading figures, including former President Lech Walesa and Oscar-winning filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, criticized the decision.

About 500 people staged a noisy protest in central Krakow on April 13, waving banners that read "Not Krakow, not Wawel" and "Are you sure he is the equal of kings?" More protests were planned in Warsaw, Krakow and other major cities. On Facebook, the "No to Kaczynski's burial in Wawel" site attracted 30,000 supporters overnight. (The funeral on April 18 is expected to be attended by U.S. President Barack Obama, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, among others.)

But the fracas over the funeral plans didn't distract all Poles from the tragedy. In a show of national unity rarely seen since the end of communism in 1989, tens of thousands of mourners welcomed home Kaczynski's coffin and queued in rain to view it in Warsaw's presidential palace. "I want to pay respect to him and to others who died in that catastrophe," said Grazyna Bialowas, 60, a factory worker from the town of Ozarow, near Warsaw. "It is not about politics, it's about the loss of human lives."