Page last updated at 15:18 GMT, Saturday, 10 April 2010 16:18 UK

Shock and tears for a 'wounded nation'

By Marie Jackson
BBC News, Hammersmith

Tribute flowers
London's Polish community paid tribute at the centre

All over London, Poles woke up to radio bulletins, text messages and family and friends bearing shocking news.

Their president and dozens more had been killed in a plane crash in Russia.

At London's Polish Social and Cultural Centre in Hammersmith, many appeared visibly shaken, choked by the enormity of the events.

Old and young gathered at the centre - usually a hub for theatre, lectures and history - to share their feelings and try to shape a fitting response.

Monika Skowronska, vice chairman of the centre, told the BBC she had been close to tears on hearing the news, and too upset to drive to work.

"Everyone is in complete and utter shock. People are just speechless and lost. I keep seeing the same individuals pass me by. They want to talk to each other and share similar memories."

Throughout the morning, the centre became an impromptu memorial site.

Condolences book
Ryszard Kaczorowski was well-loved in Poland, and London

Sprays of lilies, carnations and roses were laid outside, beside a candle.

And inside the red and white Polish flag hung next to a condolences book and a framed photograph of Ryszard Kaczorowski, the country's president in exile during the Communist years and a frequent visitor to the centre.

Elderly Poles, mostly dressed head-to-toe in black, lined up quietly to write their tributes to the man who many there knew fondly, and express their sympathies to others.

Jacek Bernasinski, assistant director to Mr Kaczorowski, was among them.

"I knew the man for 50 years," he said, before bursting into tears.

"He was an honourable man, his word was his bond, he was very gentle and had a good sense of humour.

"He was extremely popular in Poland, representing the old ideas and not associated with any particular party.

Szymon Nadolski
It's very sad that some people lost their lives, but it's still important doing what we are supposed to do
Szymon Nadolski

"In Poland, there is a tradition of offering people of his stature the freedom of a city. He had the freedom of 33 cities."

The younger generation seemed rather more lost, grappling for meaning and trying to second-guess the future for Poland and its people.

Szymon Nadolski, 30, who has been living in London for three years, was woken by his flatmates, and left shell-shocked by the news.

His morning was meant to be spent advising centre visitors how to quit smoking.

Instead, he found people could talk about little other than the plane crash and its ramifications, but he insisted it was important to carry on.

"It does not stop our daily life," he said.

"We are saving lives by helping people to quit smoking. It's very sad that some people lost their lives, but it's still important doing what we are supposed to do."

Other young people were asking themselves whether they were doing enough for their country.

Agata Krulikowska, Joanna Puchalska and Emilia Ordzieniewicz
Friends from the Polish Psychologists' Association found solace in company

Three women, all members of the Polish Psychologists' Association, attended a morning lecture at the centre, but found it near impossible to concentrate.

One professor from Warsaw had tears in her eyes as she spoke, they said.

Joanna Puchalska, 26, said she now felt a responsibility to return to Poland.

Her friends, Agata Krulikowska, 31, and Emilia Ordzieniewicz, 28, wondered whether they should be more involved in the intellectual life of their country.

Dozens of the intellectual elite died in the crash, including historians, writers, as well as political figures.

"Maybe we need a new generation to step in to take over," said Ms Ordzieniewicz.

'Rising from the ashes'

The twisted irony that the crash occurred on the way to the 70-year anniversary memorial service of the Katyn massacre of thousands of Poles in World War II, was not lost on anyone.

London is just two weeks away from its own Katyn memorial service, at which Ryszard Kaczorowski had been expected to speak.

Now these commemorations will take on a very different form, and resonance.

At the centre, there was also much debate about how Poland has withstood so much in history, including Nazi occupation and the Holocaust.

Monika Skowronska asked whether this latest tragedy, on top of everything else, was "too many wounds for Poland".

But Emilia Ordzieniewicz said: "For more than 100 years, Poland did not exist. However the culture survived, the language was maintained and the Polish spirit stayed and came back to life and created a new country in 1918.

"It may be nationalistic, but we are like a phoenix, rising from the ashes."

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