This is a story about a plane crash that split a country and its people in half.
Of course, as with most big, historical events, no one knew what happened at first. That morning I was watching the news channel, still in bed, when the female presenter said that the flight must have been delayed and that they are waiting for more information. She was wearing a bright turquoise top.
They showed some other piece of news to fill the time and went to commercial break. When they returned she still had the turquoise top on but there was a grave expression on her face.
“We have just been informed that the plane carrying the president and the first lady has crashed. At this moment we’re waiting for more information about the passengers.”
I kept looking at her top, thinking she should probably change. I wondered if they had spare clothes for her. And then, after another commercial break, the turquoise blouse was gone. She was wearing black.
There were no survivors. Ninety-six people died and most of them were high ranking officials and politicians.
It felt unreal. I sat up on the bed and watched TV in a daze. I don’t think I registered anything they were saying. After five minutes I noticed the clock on the screen and realized I was supposed to be on my way to the cinema to meet with my best friend, Kasper. I phoned him and he picked up almost immediately.
“Did you hear?” I asked him even though I already knew the answer.
“Yeah. Mom is freaking out, talking about a war with Russia.”
I froze. “Do you think that’s possible?”
“What?” He sounded surprised. “No, of course not. It’s just my mom.”
I sighed with relief. Kasper’s mom was prone to panic. “So, are we still going?”
There was a long pause. “We should go. But not to the cinema, just to meet up.”
“That’s a good idea,” I agreed. I felt better with that plan. Cinema just didn’t seem appropriate. “See you in twenty.”
It was early April, and even though the trees were bare, it was still warm enough for us to just sit on a bench and talk. We theorized and one question followed another. How could they have crashed? Something must have happened to the plane, it was so old and our government cut corners on everything. Could it have been an attack? That seemed unlikely.
How will our nation get through this?
To that, Kasper had a response ready. “We will be stronger than ever. The thing about big tragedies like this is that they unify everyone. Maybe this will finally put the country in the right direction.”
I wanted to believe that but couldn’t help being skeptical. Poland has prospered since the fall of communism, but our political scene was in constant turmoil. The two opposing parties mostly worked to either stay in power or undermine the opposition. Every day you would turn on the TV and witness some hollow bickering or petty insults. My parents often said it would be unthinkable in any other civilized country. Of course by “any other civilized country” they meant the west.
A group of people passed us hurriedly. I spotted a few grannies in their characteristic berets.
“Where are they going?” asked Kasper.
I glanced around and pointed to the church at the other end of the park. “I guess it’s happening all over the country. People are praying for the victims.”
“Of course.” Kasper’s face contracted into an ugly scowl.
Kasper and I were both a-religious, but I didn’t share the strong contempt Kasper had for the church. I understood it, but I never went as far as to change my Facebook photo to a cross in the middle of the red “no entry” circle, as he did. He even wanted to become an official apostate, but the procedure was complicated and required three catholic witnesses, so he put it on hold.
“Don’t be mad. Prayer brings them consolation. It’s what they’ve known their whole lives,” I reasoned, feeling a bit like the devil’s advocate.
“I’m not mad.”
He sounded mad enough. I changed the topic and asked him who should be the next president. We sat on the bench and talked for another hour.
The next day I went to a kiosk to buy a chocolate bar. While I looked at Snickers and Milky Ways, the owner, an old lady, was talking with her friend at the counter.
“Such a tragedy, such a tragedy,” she sighed and then patted down a stack of newspapers lying next to the cash register.
“It’s a catastrophe!” Came the emotional response.
“That’s right, catastrophe. A catastrophe on a global scale,” the owner said in an elevated tone as if Poland was somehow now more important because politicians died in a plane crash.
“If only they went together with the prime minister. It wouldn’t have happened!”
I stopped browsing through the sweets. It was a topic of conversation before the crash, one that I hardly paid attention to. The plane was supposed to land in Smolensk, near Katyn, where the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre was taking place. Our president and prime minister represented opposing parties and at first, only the prime minister was supposed to take part in the ceremony. Putin invited him officially and he went there on the 7th. The president was invited to Moscow but wanted to pay tribute in Katyn as well. His visit was arranged separately. I didn’t know what to make of it. Such quarrels were a regular part of Poland's political landscape.
I picked Snickers and for the first time in many years, bought myself a newspaper.
At first, the national mourning was supposed to last seven days but it was extended to eighteen. On the fifth day, a big wooden cross was placed in front of the presidential palace on Krakowskie Przedmiescie street. People came there to leave flowers, lit candles, and pray. For a moment all of us Poles were united in grief. The prime minister looked devastated on the news. Other politicians spoke with respect and dignity.
But under all those candles, flowers, and solemnity, cracks were just waiting to appear.
The first problem was the presidential burial. People close to the president wanted to bury him at Wawel, the resting place reserved for kings. The opposition thought that was excessive, as did many others, but they relented. The burial took place on the 18th.
Kasper and I were talking to each other every day on the phone. He didn’t care where the president was buried, and truthfully, neither did I. What we did care about was a conspiracy theory floating around that pinned the blame of the crash on the prime minister.
“They say it was actually a bomb,” said Kasper in a bored tone.
“A bomb? What kind of bomb?”
“A thermobaric bomb.”
“A what? What the hell is that?”
“It doesn’t matter, it’s all made up. They keep changing it too.” He laughed and then paused for a second. “And that’s not even the craziest part.”
“They say some people survived the crash but were shot by the Russians on sight.”
I groaned. It was the kind of thing people in this country would gladly believe. Evil Russians.
“And I assume the prime minister orchestrated it all?” Now I was the one laughing.
“With Putin’s help of course.”
The accusations were insane, but the beauty of this theory laid in the fact that since the plane crashed on Russian soil it was up to the Russians to conduct the investigation. Their report, however meticulous, would never be credible to many people.
In the following weeks, conversations about the crash became tedious. Suddenly everyone in Poland became an aviation expert just waiting to give their opinion on how, according to them, the plane crashed. The initial report published in May pointed to a combination of pilot error and poor weather conditions. Of course, that wasn’t nearly as interesting as the evil prime minister working together with the Russians, and some people, including the late president twin brother, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, were not convinced. And he decided to run for president.
In early June and Kasper and I went for a walk in the center of Warsaw. Every wall was plastered with election posters. The frontrunner for the election was Bronislaw Komorowski, representing the centrist-liberal party. His campaign slogan was “Unity builds”. Kasper stopped in front of one of his posters.
“That’s what it should be all about,” he said, pointing to the written slogan. “I can’t believe this election I turning so ugly after what happened.”
I could believe it. This was Poland. But I didn’t want to upset him further. “Well, he’s ahead in the polls, so maybe if he wins things will finally calm down.”
“They should. It would make every sense,” agreed Kasper. He didn’t sound too convinced.
“It’s just a couple more weeks.”
Kasper smiled, turned from the poster, and started walking. I joined him but not before I took a long look at Kaczynski’s poster, plastered a few meters away. His slogan read “Poland is most important”.
Bronislaw Komorowski won the election in early July and, as it was customary, moved to the presidential palace. Since three months have passed since the crash he decided that the wooden cross standing in front of the palace should be re-located to a church. After all, the presidential palace and Krakowskie Przedmiescie were not places of worship. That seemingly innocent decision plunged the country into one of its ugliest and ludicrous disputes.
Some very religious people saw plans to remove the cross as an attack on Christianity itself. Other, mostly ones who didn’t vote for Komorowski, thought it meant that the new president didn’t respect the victims anymore. If he’s removing the cross he might as well spit on their graves!
A group of people called by the public as “Defenders of the Cross” stood watches so that the cross wouldn’t be moved. On the day it was supposed to be transported they managed to hold off the municipal police and Government Protection Bureau and so, to avoid a riot, the cross stayed.
Kasper was beside himself. He went to a rally for a secular government organized by a left-wing party. He protested at Krakowskie Przedmiescie in front of the cross that was constantly surrounded by flowers, candles, and the “defenders”. We phoned each other after he came back.
“This is outrageous,” he said and I could immediately tell this phone call was going to turn into a rant. “These defenders are like some peasants from the middle ages! Do you understand, that this is happening here, in Poland, in 2010? They’re fighting as if the government declared Catholicism illegal, while all the president wants to do is move the cross to a freaking church, where it belongs-“
“I know, it’s ridiculous.”
“It’s not only ridiculous, it’s political. Kaczynski knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s spinning this. Using the oh so sacred symbol for political gain.”
Kasper talked for another few minutes during which I mostly grunted in agreement. I knew he needed to vent and it’s not like I disagreed with anything he was saying. I only wished he didn’t get so angry.
Soon the two pieces of wood standing in front of the presidential palace turned into a more important topic than the crash itself. It exposed painfully what was already at odds in Poland. Old vs new. Traditional vs progressive. Religious vs secular. European vs Polish.
If you thought the cross should stay, it meant you were a conservative, catholic fundamentalist, who regarded the late president as a saint. If you felt the cross should be removed, you were a liberal, anti-christian degenerate, who probably laughed when the plane crashed. There was no in-between. The only third option was to be indifferent and that’s what I tried to be. Not because I felt that the truth was in the middle – it was clear to me that the presidential palace was no place for a cross. It was just the dispute was so absurd to me I didn’t want to even think about it, let alone take part in the conversation.
I tried to avoid the news but every time my parents turned on the TV, the cross was there, right with the “defenders”, and protesters. Everyone talked about it and Kasper often went to Krakowskie Przedmiescie and reported to me what happened. There was just no escaping it.
Then, one day, I glimpsed a short clip from the news. Most of the “defenders” were older people, many of them women. On the clip a really old woman stood before the cross, listening to insults from the protesters. She was on the verge of crying.
I knew she was wrong. I regarded her as indoctrinated, only half-sane. But even so, I pitied her. I looked at the protesters and couldn’t understand how you could hate anyone so much.
Kasper called me that evening. At first, we talked about movies, but the topic quickly changed to the cross.
“They’ll have to transport it soon. Probably going to use force to remove the defenders,” he chuckled.
“I have to be honest, when I look at them in the news I can’t help to pity them,” I replied casually. It felt like a normal thing to say.
There was a long pause and for a second I thought that maybe my phone battery had died, but just as I was about to check I heard Kasper’s enraged voice.
My blood run cold. What did I do?
“Well, you know, it’s mostly really old people, and they have insults thrown at them all the time,” I said, trying to explain myself. “It’s all a bit sad.”
I stopped talking and the line went dead. I tried redialing Kasper but he wasn’t picking up. After the third attempt, I understood. He hung up on me.
I could feel my stomach contracting. My hands started to tremble. I didn’t know what just happened. After a few more minutes a message from Kasper appeared on the screen.
Don’t talk to me unless you take back what you said about the cross defenders.
I looked at my cellphone in shock. My first instinct was to explain myself further, to soften my words, maybe really take them back. But as I was about to type in an explanation that would no doubt turn into an apology I read his message again and hesitated. I only said I pitied them. There was nothing wrong with that.
Kasper, we quarreled about many things over the years, but I never thought we would be divided by politics.
I thought this would make him realize how stupid he was acting. I didn’t have to wait long for an answer.
Me neither, but supporting the defenders of the cross is too much for me.
Supporting? I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Before I managed to write a response with my trembling fingers another message popped up.
My decision is final. I’m not talking or writing to you until you change your mind.
My initial shock subdued and anger started to simmer in its place. Who does he think he is to talk to me like that? How could he set such absurd conditions to our friendship? He was treating me like an idiot.
I wrote more messages, a few of them in anger, but not about the cross or the defenders, but about how he was acting. He didn’t answer a single one of them.
It may seem unbelievable, but it’s been ten years, and Kasper and I never spoke. I met him a few times on the street. We exchanged glances. I forwarded him a link once.
I often think of what he said that day when the plane crashed. How a tragedy can unite a nation, make it stronger than before. I knew it was nonsense. I knew Poland was too broken to be healed just by shared grieving. I knew, that if anything, it could only cause more turmoil and divide the Poles even further.
I just didn’t know it would divide Kasper and me.
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