Tag Archives: Władysław Sikorski

The Krakow funerals

I knew there was never any chance I would get to the centre of the action, but I wanted to be on the streets sampling the mood and eavesdropping on conversations on what was surely the biggest day this city will see in a long while. It felt like we were at the centre of the world for a few hours, a rare enough feeling anywhere in Poland and even more so down here in sleepy Krakow.

Saturday: the day before

The plan for Saturday was to see how the preparations were going for the big day, to walk the route the cortege will take, and to visit the crypt under Wawel where the Kaczynskis will be interred.

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Krakow waits

The television was on as we prepared to head out. After slowly slipping back into the routine of movies, soap operas and ads as the week of mourning progressed, most channels suddenly reverted to the wall-to-wall coverage that characterised the first two days after the disaster. Live footage of the commemorative event in Warsaw was interspersed with still more scenes from the lives of the Kaczynskis. It’s amazing how slowing down video and turning it black-and-white can make anyone look statesman-like and pivotal. The guy who composed the score for the movie Katyn must be making a fortune this week, it’s played every five minutes over yet more slow-motion images of Kaczynski saluting or having his tie straightened by his wife. Dimly overheard from my neighbour, who is obviously watching the same thing: “NATIONAL HERO! HA!”

The main square, 3pm

On any given Saturday you will find gangs of mustachioed men setting up stages, lights and camera platforms on the square. The almost weekly concerts, pageants and commemorations are the bane of city-centre dwellers. Today was no different. Giant screens, stages, floodlights, camera cranes, and serried ranks of seating were everywhere. The only difference today was that everybody was taking pictures of the scaffolding rather than tutting at it.

There was a shuffling stream of people filing in and out of the Mariacki church—the scene of tomorrow’s funeral mass. My wife went inside and reported that a wedding was about to take place. Mariacki is the administratively-favoured venue for mixed marriages, where ‘mixed’ means ‘between real people and foreigners.’ Walking past the side entrance we overheard a stressed-looking English bride in full regalia asking: “Will you be my witness?” Volcanic ash at 30,000 feet must have taken a serious toll on her guest list. I hope her parents made it at least.

Wawel, 4pm

Wawel is to Krakow what the Tower of London is to London; if you live here, you never go. I’ve walked around the free parts but never bothered to buy a ticket. I’m glad I finally did. The cathedral itself is not exceptional, it’s small and cramped compared to Europe’s great gothic examples, but the crypt is well worth a visit. It’s an extraordinary experience to walk among the sarcophagi of some of the greatest names in Polish history. They look as if they’re been there a couple of weeks rather than centuries. The chamber containing the Kaczynskis’ tomb was, unsurprisingly, closed to the public.

Władysław Sikorski tomb

The tomb of Władysław Sikorski–seeing names like this at first hand and how few of them there are raises questions about the Kaczynskis’ place down here that I didn’t have before.

The climb to the Sigismund Bell is an experience in itself. Don’t attempt it if you’re not capable of squeezing into the cupboard under your sink, there are a couple of places where you have to perform a similar manoeuvre as you climb among massive timber beams on a series of wooden staircases. It’s not a scary or long climb, but it is tight. The bell itself is just a big bell, albeit a very old one. I had always believed that it was only rung at moments of exceptional national grief or celebration, so I was surprised to discover that, in fact, there are at least 29 days every year when it sounds: three extra occasions this year.

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The Sigismund Bell

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More photos of preparations from Krakow Migrant


Sunday: the funerals

I learned two things about Historic Events today: they hurt your feet and the rattle of camera shutters is deafening.

We woke to the news that 14 delegations had been grounded by rampaging volcanic ash. “Poland is on its own again; our allies have been frightened away by smoke from a mountain.”

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A photogenic mourner

Only Poland could have this kind of luck. From an international event it turned suddenly into a very local affair. Medvedev was still coming and the president of Georgia who, apparently, insisted on taking off from Rome volcanoes or no volcanoes; “That’s how you lose presidents,” I thought to myself.

The first hour and a half was taken up with vain attempts to get near the main square. People were drifting from street to street in the hope of finding one that would miraculously provide a grandstand vista. None of them did. We even popped into the second floor office of the Krakow Post with vague thoughts of a window seat, but the view was no better. The crowd was chatty and lighthearted. The most common overheard phrase was “Chodżmy gdieś indziej” (“Let’s go somewhere else”). It was the very essence of milling about.

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Cameras held high and kids on shoulders were the order of the day

With little hope of success we decided to try our luck on the procession route along Grodzka. Jostling along with the crowd I heard a young student complaining to his girlfriend: “Miał być Obama, miał być czad…” (Obama was supposed to be here, it was supposed to be buzzing…”)

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A street plugged with people, just like all the others

At 3 pm, half an hour before the funeral mass was due to end, we made our stand in Mary Magdalene Square (opposite the Church of Saints Peter and Paul) just two rows back from the barricade. Loudspeakers were relaying the service. Most Poles in the crowd knelt at the appropriate moments, much to the surprise of the few tourists around.

With the end of the mass we were expecting the procession imminently. Instead, Komorowski launched into an extremely dull and worthy speech. The guy next to me under his breath: “Dobra gościu, nie jesteś jeszcze prezydentem” (“Alright mate, you’re not president yet”). Then there was something in Russian and, literally, a dozen words in English. BBC World reports that the service was conducted in Polish, Russian and English were wildly overstated.

Brief flurries of entertainment were provided by people attempting to get a better view and, more importantly, a seat by climbing on top of a wall across the street. The pioneers were chased off by the police, but that didn’t stop a new bright spark trying it every 10 minutes. Us pavement people hated the wall people and murmured approvingly every time they were deposed.

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We hate wall people

After two hours that I would never have knowingly volunteered for, the thumping rhythm of the procession finally approached. It was one of those uncanny and disturbing moments when TV-reality becomes right-here reality. The military police Humvee rolled past two arm’s-lengths away and the gun carriage bearing the president’s coffin was right where I had seen it the day before on TVN. What you don’t get on TVN is the sense of a very real wooden box containing the broken and burned remains of a very real human being, and then another one containing his wife, and then his twin brother walking right behind looking utterly exhausted and horribly vulnerable.

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Cameras and coffins

There is a strange contradiction in human behaviour on occasions like this. We want to experience it in person and will stand on hard concrete for many hours to make sure we do, but as soon as the occasion happens, the coffin passes by, or the King waves, or the superstar blows kisses to the crowd, we immediately place our camera screens between our eyes and reality. We want a record. There must have been tens of thousands of photographs taken within five metres of where I was standing. The clacking of computer-generated shutter sounds was like hail. There were no tears, there was no sobbing, there was just a raging hunger to capture the image.

And then it was all over.

There was a certain amount of chaos on the way home because the main road through the centre of town (Franciszkańska/Dominikańska) was sealed off to allow more important people to be whisked to the airport. It’s one of my undying ambitions to be whisked somewhere, preferably to the great annoyance of thousands of lesser mortals. It was impossible to get from the south of town to the north or vice-versa for 45 minutes. People passed the time sitting on the planty flicking through their photos. A shrill-voiced woman passing by said: “Wszędzie tajni agency Secret Service” (“There are Secret Service everywhere”), even though there weren’t.

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Memories of 20-minutes-ago

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Some more photos:

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Armoured vehicles pelted with carnations

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Commemorative posters everywhere

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The Polish flag at half-mast over Wawel Castle

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Outside-broadcast units on every corner


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It’s 2 am as I post this. There is a profound and absolute silence over the city. The story is over. What is next for Poland? Somehow, this week, the country  became part of Europe in a way it hasn’t been for decades. Iconic Polish images of a new kind have become part of the modern European story.

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Polish exhumation mania

Sometimes it takes a while to notice national characteristics or manias. I learned early on that mushroom picking and harvesting change from unwary shoppers were national pursuits on a par with English cricket or American baseball, but only recently have I stumbled on the Polish national obsession with exhumation. There seems to be something about a buried body that nags at the Polish consciousness, especially if the body belonged to somebody famous. A Pole who does anything of note in his or her life has a slim chance of resting peacefully in the grave. Some manage to get in a good few centuries coffin time before they are unearthed, others barely have time to begin decomposing before the shovels start clanking away, and a few have been dug up and reburied so many times they may as well have had revolving doors installed on their tombs. Either lying around under the earth just offends the Polish work ethic, or there is something else going on. I wouldn’t be the first internationally-renowned authority on Poland to note the Polish tendency to poke at sleeping dogs, assuming I was an internationally-renowned authority on Poland.

gravesThe grave – not necessarily the permanent residence of the Pole.

By randomly clicking through the Wikipedia entries for famous Poles I’ve come up with a startlingly long list of them who have been dug up in one form or another. Since I consider this article the founding document in the soon-to-be burgeoning study of Poland-based exhumania I’ve organized it under three separate morbid reasons

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Reason 1: Maybe he was a saint?

This question usually comes into play shortly after a particularly religious or holy person has snuffed it and is part of a wider Catholic and Orthodox obsession with the incorruptibility of the sacred. In both of these faiths the failure of a body to decompose in the normal manner is seen as evidence of sainthood. Consequently, if you were a noted holy person during your life the temptation to dig you up and see of you’ve decomposed yet is eventually going to be overwhelming.

Incorruptible saints have a long history in Central and Eastern Europe. One of the reasons the communists preserved Lenin and put him on public display was to capture some of the Russian people’s centuries-old adoration of incorruptible bodies for their secular saint. The practice of exhuming popular bishops, priests, and cardinals was rife in Poland throughout much of its history. It is still one of the favorite “miracles” among the faithful today. The story of Padre Pio’s miraculous state of incorruptibility when he was exhumed in 2008 was all over Poland. The fact that the Catholic Church had quite deliberately and clearly stated that he had been artificially preserved and that they had put a latex mask on his face for public viewing didn’t stop thousands jumping up and down and claiming incorruptibility.

The story of Piotr Skarga is instructive on this point. Skarga was a renowned and highly respected Polish Jesuit during the period of the Counter-Reformation. Once he had died and people could no longer contain their excitement over whether he had decomposed or not he was duly dug up and inspected to see how saintly he was. Unfortunately for Skarga the examination revealed that he was indeed in a miraculously good state of preservation, but that he had accidentally been buried alive and therefore wasn’t eligible for sainthood. Seems a little unfair. There was probably some boring political reason that I can’t be bothered to research.

john_paul_2Hmm, I see exhumation in my future

Think we’ve seen the last of Jan Pawel II? I’d lay good money that his “incorruptible” visage will be staring out at us from the front page of gazeta.pl before too long.

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Reason 2: Dead, but in the wrong place.

The fact that a lot of notable Poles have found it necessary to move to other countries in order to become notable rather than, say, rotting in a Russian prison has meant that a lot of them have died away from the motherland. Although Poles are justifiably proud of their great and good they get a little nervous when said great and good aren’t conveniently lying around in Polish soil so that they can point them out to tourists. Dying as a famous Pole in a foreign country, especially if you’re a poet, makes you a prime candidate for the exhumation game.

Of the three giants of Polish literature (Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, and Zygmunt Krasiński) two thirds (that’s two of them) were exhumed and reburied in Poland. Mickiewicz has the dubious honor of having been exhumed and reburied twice. He died in 1855 in Istanbul and was buried in handy crypt he happened to have in his basement. Seriously. Shortly thereafter he was exhumed and reburied in Montmorency near Paris and in 1900 he was exhumed again and moved to Wawel Cathedral in Krakow. So far he has managed to remain buried for over a hundred years, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a triple just yet.

adam_mickiewiczMickiewicz, exhumed twice… so far

Other famous grave dodgers include Henryk Sienkiewicz, who had the rare privilege of being cremated somewhere between his first burial in Switzerland and his second in Warsaw, Józef Bem, who went six feet under in Aleppo and ended up doing it all over again in Tarnów 79 years later, and Stanisław Witkiewicz (known as Witkacy), who is my favorite. Witkacy was a famously loony playwright, novelist, painter, and photographer who delighted in confounding expectations. He famously killed himself somewhere in eastern Poland a few days after the German invasion in 1939 and was buried there. Years later he was exhumed and moved to his beloved Zakopane, except he wasn’t. Somehow the communist authorities managed to dig up the wrong body and, realizing their mistake, refused to allow anyone to look in the coffin before the remains were reburied. In 1994 the remains were exhumed (again) and found to be those of a Ukranian woman. Some theories hold that Witkacy didn’t in fact commit suicide and lived out the rest of his life in Łódź. Whether in Łódź or absurdist heaven Witkacy was surely laughing his rear end off.

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Reason 3: Hey!

Moving into the period of the reborn Poland, post 1989, a new exhumation theme emerges – the theme of vindication, proof and blatant curiosity. The paradigm of this new excuse to dig up the dead has to be the case of Władysław Sikorski. Sikorski died in a plane crash off Gibraltar that may or may not have been orchestrated by British Intelligence, Russian spies, or malignant Venusians. Like Mickiewicz he achieved the rare double exhumation. He was first buried in Newark-on-Trent, England shortly after his death, and reburied in Wawel Cathedral in Krakow in 1993. He was exhumed again in 2008 as part of an investigation to find out if he had been bumped off or not. The unpopular results suggested that he had died from crashing into the Mediterranean in an airplane. Who knows how long it will be until somebody comes up with a new reason to unearth the general and subject him to further tests.

sikorskiSikorski – a sure candidate for the triple exhumation?

Other examples include the bizarre search for the body of Copernicus, which went on for years and finally ended with the announcement that his remains had been found in 2008. They knew he was dead, and they knew he was buried under Frombork Cathedral so exactly why they felt the need to dig up his body I am unable to fathom. Presumably it was to see if he was wearing an “I love Poland” tee-shirt thereby ending centuries of controversy over whether he was actually Polish or German.

In 2008 the Polish government was petitioned for permission to “exhume” the heart of Frédéric Chopin, which was “buried” inside a pillar of Warsaw’s Kościół świętokrzyski (Holy Cross Church) in order to find out if the composer had died of tuberculosis or cystic fibrosis, because that’s really important to know. Chopin’s heart had previously been exhumed and hidden during the war to save it from German heart thieves. The rest of Chopin’s body has been safely entombed in Paris for 160 years, but who knows.

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