The President is dead

On 10 April 2010, an official Polish government plane crashed near Smolensk. The President and his wife were among 96 of Poland’s most eminent citizens killed in the crash.

At a little after 10 on a Saturday morning, in our Warsaw apartment, my husband’s  mobile rings. We ignore it. A few seconds later, it rings again. We ignore it again. The third time it rings, I fetch it and throw it at him. The fourth time it rings, he answers. This is how we find out that the President of Poland is dead.

We turn on the TV. Details emerge slowly. The presidential plane has crashed in Russia. Everyone aboard has been killed. Including the President of Poland, Lech Kaczynski, and his wife.

The newsreaders choke up as they tell what little they know.

Simon calls his colleague from an affected Ministry. ‘I’m just checking you’re alright’, he says. ‘I’m not alright. But I’m alive,’ his colleague replies.

The phone doesn’t stop ringing as friends and colleagues share the information they have. And work out what to think. A text message arrives from a Polish friend. ‘We have no president,’ it reads.

Maybe 80 people are dead.

The Polish people take to the streets. The Poles do death well. They honour the dead in ways that are strange and wonderful to me. They light candles and bring flowers. When it happens, every year afterwards, and on certain days during the year.

Polish cemeteries are strangely beautiful. And strangely alive.

On the anniversary of Steve Irwin’s death, someone left a wreath at the base of the Australian flag pole outside the embassy. ‘Czesc, Steve Irwinowi’. Honour to you, Steve Irwin.

I thought this was bizarre. But I was touched anyway.

The television crews cover the massing crowds, as more and more people head into town. Men stand outside the Presidential Palace weeping. In the background the carpet of flickering red and yellow candles grows.

We had planned to have lunch. We cancel it. It doesn’t seem right.

Maybe 130 people are dead.

The presidential plane was heading for a commemoration service for the victims of a world war two massacre. Where Russian troops slaughtered members of the Polish military and political elite to prevent them from rising up against their new masters.

Aboard were the country’s elite. 15 members of Parliament. Head of the Polish National Bank. Head of the National Archives. The heads of each of the services of the armed forces. Chief of Staff of the Military. A former President of Poland.

Now they are all dead.

Talking to a group of young Polish high school students one day, I asked them about communism. ‘We are so proud of our parents’, they said. ‘We respect their sacrifices, we respect their fight, and we are so proud that they won’.

Maybe it’s not death the Poles do well, but honour.

The story is third on the Australian news sites. After a sporting victory and a murder in Melbourne.

I can’t help wondering, if our Prime Minister died, would we gather together to weep?

Kaczynski wasn’t the most popular politician. But he was the Polish President. He was the democratically elected head of the country. He was the symbol of a nation that for many centuries wasn’t allowed to have symbols. The man is dead. More than that. The symbol of this nation lies dead.

I can’t help wondering, if our Governor General died, how many would have to ask, ‘who?’

I too head to the Presidential Palace. With everyone else.

The blossoms on the trees have just started appearing after a long cold winter. The usual red and white flags have been replaced with black ones.

I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do now. I’m not alone.

Thousands of people are pouring into town, heading for the Palace. Everyone has flowers and candles in their hands, bringing them to add to the collection. But there’s no chaos. Rows of portaloos have been set up, and scout troops are keeping order. Buses are diverted. Everyone manages.

Poles are good in a crisis.

I don’t imagine that I’ll get close to the front, but actually I do. People place their offerings, stand for a while, and then move on. There is plenty of space for everyone.

Maybe 88 are dead. A famous actor. A translator. Three stewardesses.

There are so many candles that it’s warm, even in the chilly evening air. Children rub their hands in the heat. Wondering if it’s time to go home yet.

People carry Polish flags with black ribbons tied to them.

If 15 of our politicians died, would we mourn? Or would we say it was a good start?

They stream in from everywhere. Bringing flowers and candles. The Scouts try to keep order and find new places to put all the tributes. They start to pile up along the way. In garden beds, along window sills. There’s just no place for all the offerings.

The Poles are touched by the Russian response. ‘This may bring our nations closer than they have ever been,’ says one political commentator.

By 8.30, the story will no longer make the main news items list in Australia.

I lay a yellow tulip, stand for a moment, and move on.

‘Czesc wam, Polskim’. Honour to you, the Polish nation and people.

Warsaw Insider, May 2010.

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