Tuesday 20 April 2010 | Poland feed

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Hundreds of thousands in Warsaw for President Lech Kaczynski's memorial service

A grieving Poland paid its respects to its dead president and the 95 other victims of the Smolensk air disaster with an emotional service of remembrance in central Warsaw.

 
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Hundreds of thousands in Warsaw for president Lech Kaczynski's memorial service
A sombre procession of thousands upon thousands of mourners from all over Poland made their way to Pilsudski Square Photo: AP
Hundreds of thousands in Warsaw for President Lech Kaczynski's memorial service
Jaroslaw Kaczynski (3rd L), brother, and Marta (4th left), daughter of the late President Lech Kaczynski during the memorial ceremony Photo: REUTERS
Hundreds of thousands in Warsaw for President Lech Kaczynski's memorial service
The memorial ceremony for the 96 victims of the plane crash in Smolensk Photo: REUTERS
Lech Kaczynski
Polish President Lech Kaczynski died in a plane crash in Russia Photo: AFP
Russian rescuers inspect the wreckage of the Polish government Tupolev Tu-154 aircraft which crashed near Smolensk airport
Russian rescuers inspect the wreckage of the Polish government Tupolev Tu-154 aircraft which crashed near Smolensk airport Photo: AFP/GETTY

In bright spring sunshine an estimated 100,000 Poles bowed their heads as the names of the 96 who died on April 10 were read out.

A few minutes earlier at 12 o'clock the city had stood silent for two minutes as air-raid and police sirens wailed across the city.

In the morning the same sirens had signalled the exact time, 8.56am, when the aircraft carrying President Lech Kaczynski had crashed as it approached Smolensk airport in western Russia.

Along with the president and Maria, his wife, the crash killed the heads of the Polish armed services, the governor of the national bank, two ministers and a litany of household names in Poland.

The tragedy, the worst to strike the country since the end of the Second World War, triggered an outpouring of emotion that erased all political differences and united Poland in grief.

"None of us can remember an incident when so many great and important people died in one tragic moment. The list of those who died comes from the whole of Poland, and that list is Polish history," said Donald Tusk, Poland's prime minister, at the ceremony.

In an emotional and personal speech, Maciej Lopinski, a colleague and friend of Mr Kaczynski, addressed the late president.

"You fought for freedom. You were a good, wise, open and warm man," he said in a breaking voice.

"There are no words that can express my sorrow and pain."

After the service, Mr and Mrs Kaczynski left the presidential palace that had been their home since 2005 for the last time. Their coffins, draped in the Polish banner, were drawn on gun carriages through streets lined with mourners to St John's Cathedral in Warsaw's old town for a private memorial mass for family and close friends.

Later in the day a military aircraft took the bodies to Kraków where they will be buried on Sunday in Wawel Castle, the resting place of Poland's kings, queens and national heroes.

Polish authorities pledged that the funeral would go ahead despite the cloud of volcanic ash closing all of Poland's airports, and forcing a number of national leaders and dignitaries to either cancel or rearrange their travel plans.

The prime ministers of Spain, Canada and South Korea have all cancelled, as has Prince Charles and Barack Obama, and there were fears in Poland that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev may be unable to attend.

A number of central and eastern European leaders said that would travel to Kraków by either rail or road.

But in a day of deep and sincere emotions a cloud of ash spewing from an Icelandic volcano was at the back of the minds of many.

For the relatives of the deceased the emotion of the day was too much too bear.

During the service Marta Kaczynska, the only child of Lech and Maria Kaczynski, sobbed while others wiped tears from their eyes.

A harrowed-looking Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Lech's twin brother, sat stone faced, displaying little emotion.

Along with the loss of his brother he has had to contend with the declining health of his mother Jadwiga. Seriously ill in hospital she is still unaware that one of her sons has died.

For the thousands upon thousands of Poles who had travelled to Warsaw from all over the country the service brought home to them the calamitous loss the country had endured.

"I had a lump in my throat when I heard the list [of names] being read out. I knew so many of them, and now they are all gone," said Malgorzata Lewandowska, a 22-year-old Warsaw student.

"We took a train this morning to a say a special farewell to our president and all those who died with him. We are sad because we lost our head of state," said Zenon Kosciuk, who endured six hours on a train from the western city of Szczecin to attend.

The service brought to an end a week of intense mourning in the Polish capital.

Police said that during the week some 300 tons of flowers and candles were cleared from the pavement and road outside the presidential palace, the focal point of mourning, in order to make room for more.

 
 
Poles and Russians mourn
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