Page last updated at 19:39 GMT, Friday, 16 April 2010 20:39 UK

Burial plan for president divides Poles

By Oana Lungescu
BBC News, Krakow

Wawel Castle on Wawel Hill in Krakow, where late President Lech Kaczynski is to be buried
Wawel hill is the resting place for many illustrious Poles

Every schoolchild in Poland knows that the richly decorated Wawel cathedral in Krakow is where this nation's kings and queens were crowned and buried for 700 years.

But the decision to make this the final resting place for the late President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria has proved divisive.

Statesmen and military leaders, many of whom fought against Poland's partition between Germany (or Prussia) and Russia, are also laid to rest here.

A group of six-year-olds visiting the cathedral proudly recited their names.

And even at their age, they knew that the president and his wife, who were killed last Saturday in an air crash in western Russia, would also have their place in the royal crypt.

Under low limestone vaults, visitors file past coffins made of stone, brass and marble encapsulating Poland's long history of heroic defeats and tragic deaths.

Sikorski and Katyn

The last sarcophagus to be brought here is a rectangular block of black and white marble.

Poles protest in Krakow against the burial of Lech Kaczynski in Wawel cathedral
Some are against burying the late president in Wawel cathedral

It bears the name of Gen Wladislaw Sikorski, who led the Polish government-in-exile in London during World War II.

His remains were repatriated in 1989, when communism collapsed in Poland.

In 1943, Gen Sikorski accused Moscow of ordering the Katyn massacre, the systematic killing of more than 20,000 Polish officers and intellectuals.

A few months later, his plane crashed off the coast of Gibraltar under mysterious circumstances.

President Kaczynski, accompanied by dozens of generals, politicians and officials, were on their way to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Katyn when their plane crashed.

Some have drawn a parallel with Gen Sikorski's death, but many Poles were moved by the recent outpouring of Russian sympathy.

'Patriotic man'

I asked Marta Wajgl, who guided a group of teenagers around the cathedral, if President Kaczynski - an instinctively conservative politician who was strongly suspicious both of Russia and Germany - really deserved to be buried next to Poland's heroes.

"I am proud to have the president and his wife in my home town," she said.

"He was a really patriotic man, who did many good things for true Polish history. That is really important for my generation and my family."

Marta said her husband's grandfather had two brothers, and both were killed at Katyn.

Poles hold pictures of late President Lech Kaczynski as they demonstrate in favour of his burial in in Wawel cathedral
But there have also been counter demonstrations in favour of the burial plans

But not everyone is proud of the decision taken by the Catholic Church and the late president's family.

Some 40,000 people have signed up to a Facebook group opposing the idea.

Others have started a group called "Yes to burying the president in the Great Pyramid of Egypt".

Poland's greatest film-director Andrzej Wajda - whose father was killed at Katyn and who made an Oscar-nominated film about the massacre - called the plan "highly unfortunate".

Mr Kaczynski, he said, was a good man but his burial in Krakow would cause the deepest split in Polish society since 1989.

'Political manipulation'

Outside the palace of the Catholic archbishop of Krakow, where a picture of Pope John Paul II marks the window from which he used to address the crowds, those divisions became clear on several evenings this week.

Jan Sowa
I think a hero is somebody who is ready to take challenges and push things forward
Jan Sowa

The trams stopped, as crowds of protesters shouted "Krakow Says No", and "Keep Politics out of Wawel". On the other side of the street, a smaller group waved Polish flags and banners saying "Silence over the Grave".

Jan Sowa, a sociologist, came carrying his young son on his shoulders to protest against what he called "a political manipulation, a way to create a myth that could be useful for political purposes".

To him, Mr Kaczynski was not a hero.

"I think a hero is somebody who is ready to take challenges and push things forward," he said. "He was rather blocking things and trying to reverse processes in Poland that are linked to modernisation and a secular society."

Domestic divisions will only deepen as Poland ends a week of mourning and prepares to elect a new president in June.

Before the crash, Mr Kaczinski was trailing in the polls.

It is unclear if his twin brother Jaroslaw, who leads the main opposition party, will run - and if he runs, if he will benefit from a sympathy vote.

But in the last week the country's democracy has shown its resilience.

And shared grief over the tragedy has brought Poland much closer to Russia than anyone could have expected.

A paradoxical legacy for Mr Kaczynski, but one that any Polish patriot could be proud of.

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