Page last updated at 10:40 GMT, Saturday, 17 April 2010 11:40 UK

Poles draw strength from tragic past

Polish scouts arrange flowers left by mourners at the presidential palace in Warsaw

By Oana Lungescu
BBC News, Warsaw

Although in mourning for the loss of life in the Russian air disaster, young Poles are philosophical about Poland's ability to pull through this crisis.

It was late in the evening, but in a scruffy building in south-west Warsaw, groups of young people - some holding babies - were huddled in urgent meetings.

Polish scouts from the local district organisation were preparing for another day of national mourning. I had noticed them since the weekend of the fatal crash.

I'd say that Polish history is marked by surviving tragedy, not by tragedy itself
Jakub Wojtaszczyk, mathematician

In their distinctive green uniforms, they stood guard outside the presidential palace, respectfully arranging the mounds of red and white flowers - the Polish national colours - and making sure no-one stepped into the sea of burning candles as they wiped away the tears.

Pinned to a notice-board were the black-and-white pictures of two handsome young men from a previous generation of Warsaw scouts.

One had been tortured by the Gestapo for being part of the Polish resistance against German occupation during World War II.

The other was shot in Katyn forest 70 years ago, one of the estimated 22,000 Poles - military officers, doctors, teachers and priests - killed by the Soviet secret police in a systematic massacre meant to ensure that Poland would never again rise as an independent nation.

Their faces are part of Poland's history of defiance and suffering at the hands of powerful neighbours - but the two young scouts I met that night had nothing tragic about them.

Political loss

Twenty-nine-year-old Jakub Wojtaszczyk had a PhD in mathematics, flashing blue eyes and a strong American accent. "I'd say that Polish history is marked by surviving tragedy, not by tragedy itself," he told me, his voice rising with emotion.

We really wanted to celebrate my wedding but then we decided not to do that - it was so sad
Kasia Dzieciolowska, history student

"Heck, I'm proud to be Polish, I'm not proud of having, like, an insurmountable number of tragedies in our history. What makes me proud is the fact that we organised. The defining moment is the way we react, not the tragedy itself."

Next to him sat Kasia Dzieciolowska, a 24-year-old history student with a winning smile. For her, the defining moment this weekend was not going to be the memorial service for the 96 who died in the plane crash, but her own, long-planned wedding.

"It's a strange situation," Kasia said. "I had my hen night last Saturday, the Saturday of the disaster. We really wanted to celebrate my wedding but then we decided not to do that. It was so sad that we just met and talked about it. There was no party."


Jacob and Kasia
Jacob Wojtaszczyk and Kasia Dzieciolowska from Warsaw Boyscouts

Kasia and Jakub mourned the loss of so many human lives. But they were surprisingly matter-of-fact about the political loss to their country's establishment.

"Politicians are of course replaceable, not people. But I will become a historian and I know we will remember them," said Kasia.

Poland has indeed moved fast to replace most of the top officials who died in the plane crash - from the army chief of staff to the president of the national bank.

As the country's constitution requires, the speaker of parliament, Bronislaw Komorowski, has become acting president.

His position is delicate, as a member of the governing liberal Civic Platform party, and the man who, before the crash, stood the best chance of replacing Lech Kaczynski.

With an early presidential election now expected in June, Mr Komorowski has behaved with discretion and dignity.

So has prime minister Donald Tusk, despite many past clashes with Mr Kaczynski over the late president's confrontational policy towards Russia and Germany and his blocking of economic and social reforms.

It's a sign of Poland's political resilience that Jakub salutes: "It's not that replacing one politician with another would crash the system. Come on, we had elections coming anyway. This is a pretty stable country and I don't think anyone has fears that we won't be able to hold it together without these people."

Passionate protests

Pictures of the late Polish president and his wife
Mr Kaczynski and his wife will be given a state funeral in Krakow on Sunday

But mid-week the mood suddenly changed, with the announcement that the late president and his wife would be buried in Krakow, alongside the country's kings and heroes.

On the streets of Krakow, I saw passionate protests, with students arguing this was a political decision to boost the electoral chances of the president's twin brother Jaroslaw. 40,000 people have joined a Facebook group against it.

On the phone from Warsaw, Kasia Dzieciolowska told me she didn't agree with the decision, but neither did she agree it was the right time to protest.

I asked her how were the preparations for her big day were going. "Everything's fine," she said. "But I have the TV on all the time and next to it I can see my wedding dress. It's like living in two different worlds."

I wished Kasia good luck and happiness. I have no doubt that, like her, Poland is strong enough to come through these strange, terrible days.

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