WARSAW, Poland -- The body of their president was finishing a long journey home on Sunday, and by the tens of thousands, Poles poured into the streets of a paralyzed capital to watch it pass. It seemed as if nobody could bear to sit at home, as if they had to take some physical part in a national tragedy that happened in a place that was braided into Polish psyche -- and yet lay distant, on the far side of a geographic border and an ideological boundary.
The remains of President Lech Kaczynski were salvaged from the site of the plane crash in Russia that killed 96 people Saturday, including many top Polish officials and iconic figures from the nation's recent history.
Kaczynski and his delegation were on their way to the bone-littered forest near the Russian town of Katyn. The president's plane crashed while the pilot was attempting to land.
The group was en route to a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the massacre of thousands of Polish prisoners at the hands of Soviet secret police, an atrocity blanked out of Soviet history and treated as taboo until after the collapse of the USSR.
The Polish officers, intelligentsia and boy scouts who were rounded up and killed by the Soviets never made it home again. Their bodies still lie in mass graves in Katyn and other sites in the former Soviet Union.
Except for the president, the other victims of Saturday's crash were still in Russia, including Kaczynski's wife, Maria. Also killed aboard the president's Tupolev 154 were the army chief of staff, the head of the National Security Bureau, the national bank president and other high-ranking officials and members of parliament.
Most of the remains were taken to Moscow to be examined by forensics experts before being returned to Poland.
But Kaczynski's body was returned with full military dignity and public honor. His daughter waited on the tarmac. So did Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the former prime minister, who had flown to Russia the night before to identify his twin brother. One by one, they knelt down before the coffin and pressed their foreheads to the wood.
Then soldiers loaded the coffin into a hearse, heaped it with daffodils and roses and set off on a slow and twisting path through the city to the presidential palace.
The people of Warsaw lined up as though a parade were going to pass. They came early and stayed put for hours, waiting. They perched on the edges of planters full of pansies, jostled for a front-row spot on the curb, stretched their cell phones as high into the air as they could to photograph the sweep of the crowd.
"I'm not sure what God was trying to tell us," said Michael Wlodkowski, a 19-year-old student. "But I know this is a very important moment in the history of our nation."
The crowd was very, very quiet. People spoke under their breath. They stared into space. On many crowded blocks, the only distinctly audible noise was the sound of footfalls on stone.
"This is our tragic history," said Eva Wieczerynska, 62, a retired mechanical engineer. "The Polish elite were killed there in Katyn 70 years ago, and the consequences lasted for decades. Now, in a very awkward way, history has come full circle."
When they got tired of waiting, somebody in the crowd would phone a relative watching television at home and ask where the body was. The news passed in whispers: It had crossed out of Russian airspace, it had landed at the airport, it was in the hearse, it was drawing closer -- and then it was there.
As the hearse pulled up before the presidential palace, the crowd broke out into the Polish national anthem.
"Poland has not yet perished," they sang, "as long as we still live."