Poland falls silent as thousands bid a final farewell to president
Published 19/04/2010 | 05:00
AT PRECISELY 5.07pm yesterday, the 13-tonne bell of Saint Sigismund pealed out and Poland fell silent.
The 16th-century bell is rung only at moments of national joy or tragedy. Yesterday it marked the end of a week of mourning for President Lech Kaczynski, long days of public grief that have set Poles thinking about their future in Europe and their uneasy relationship with Russia.
"Today the bell knells for the reconciliation of Pole with Pole," said Bronislaw Komorowski, the Speaker of Parliament, addressing dozens of leaders in St Mary's Basilica in Krakow. "And it rings for reconciliation with the Russian nation in the name of the extraordinary tragedy of Katyn."
Earlier, prayers had been said, not only for the president and the 95 others who died in the April 10 crash in Smolensk, but also for the people of Russia.
The president had been leading a delegation to the Katyn forest to mark the 70th anniversary of the shooting of thousands of Polish officers and intellectuals.
"Shot," Mr Komorowski reminded the worshippers, "with a bullet to the back of the head." Not that the Poles present needed reminding. But the words were aimed at President Dmitry Medvedev, the most prominent head of state to attend, and to Russian viewers watching the ceremony.
Poland is using the untimely -- and still not fully explained -- air crash to send a message to Moscow: speak the truth about history, accept blame, and relations between Warsaw and Moscow can be transformed. In theory, at least, the death of the president, a passionate anti-communist, could help to end centuries of enmity and change Europe's political landscape.
It was significant, then, that the late president was seen off largely by Central and East European leaders rather than the Western heavyweights who promised to attend. The plume of volcanic ash forced President Barack Obama to call off his trip.
Some West European-based leaders refused to be deterred. Jerzy Buzek, the president of the European Parliament, for example, drove across Europe. It was supposed to have been a geopolitical occasion, but the character changed: it became a chance for East Europe to show its sympathy for Mr Kaczynski.
In the end, after the 21-gun salute and the departure of the leaders, the Poles were left alone with their late president.
Hundreds of thousands had hitch-hiked across the country, crowded into trains to reach the ancient city. As the gun-carriage hauled his flag-draped coffin from Krakow's market square, they shouted Dziekuemy! -- "We thank you!" And the bell stopped ringing.
Among those who made it were President Medvedev of Russia; President Vaclav Klaus (Czech Republic); President Ivan Gasparovic (Slovakia); President Danilo Turk (Slovenia); President Viktor Yanukovych (Ukraine); President Valdis Zatlers (Latvia); President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and Prime Minister Andrus Ansip (Estonia); President Traian Basescu (Romania); President Laszlo Solyom and Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai (Hungary).
Those unable to attend included President Mary McAleese; President Nicolas Sarkozy from France; Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel; British Foreign Secretary David Miliband; King Juan Carlos of Spain; President Gul from Turkey; Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf; President Halonen of Finland; South Korea's Prime Minister Chung Un Chan; Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper; and President Olafur Grimsson of Iceland. (© The Times, London)