Travel July 2002

The Jewel of Poland

Once again, many-faceted Kraków sparkles
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On a brisk, sunny morning this past spring I was back in Kraków, lounging at one of the hundreds of outdoor café tables scattered around the vast medieval Market Square—the largest of its kind in Poland and, reputedly, in all of Europe. Off to the side, from a window in the tower of the part Gothic, part Art Nouveau Saint Mary's Church, the hejnal kicked in: a haunting trumpet solo that is sounded live every hour on the hour by a trumpeter who abruptly cuts himself short in midstrain. This happens in commemoration, it is said, of a thirteenth-century trumpeter, a watchman felled in midclamor when a Tatar arrow pierced his throat. Next the fellow closes the window and opens the next one over, repeating the ritual at the four cardinal points of the compass. A classic gesture from an earlier, romantic Polish era: martyrdom, not just once but four times an hour.

I found myself imagining the guy's view from up there, one of the highest vantages in the city. Kraków constitutes a focal node of history, a place where the great themes converge and knot up and radiate back outward. Over there, for example, about a half mile to the south, the fellow could doubtless see, atop its promontory overlooking the Vistula River, Wawel Castle, home to more than 500 years' worth of Polish kings (and their tombs). Among them was Kazimierz the Great, who in the 1360s founded the Jagiellonian University (one of the oldest in Europe, after those in Bologna and Prague). The university's spires and gabled roofs should in turn be visible to our trumpeter, just to the west of the square. It was also Kazimierz who offered Europe's Jews safe haven during a period of intense persecution, though a century later, following a huge influx of expelled Spanish Jews, his successors relegated Kraków's Jews to the Kazimierz district, farther south and a bit to the east, just beyond Wawel. Likewise visible from up there in the tower, though a bit closer in to the south, is the house where Copernicus lodged in the 1490s, soon after studying at the university. Recently the building was transformed into a hotel, bearing the astronomer's name, which happened to be where I was staying on this trip (ask for the truly splendid Room 301!). Relatively expensive, the place offers a fetching combination of Gothic and hypermodern, with a gleaming blue lap pool slotted into its arched stone cellar.

As the years passed, Wawel remained a sort of shrine to Polish nationhood, especially after 1795, when the country disappeared from the map of Europe altogether, divvied up among three adjacent empires. The Austrians refitted the castle as a provincial garrison. Austria-Hungary's was the mildest of the three occupations, which may have something to do with why the Polish independence fighter Jozef Pilsudski and the exiled Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin both made the town their base in the years leading up to World War I. (Our trumpeter could easily spy their various lodgings scattered about the Old Town.) After the war the two went on to lead their respective regenerated countries, and even briefly went to war with each other, in 1920. Less than two decades later Poland was being divvied up again, this time by Stalin and Hitler, and Hans Frank, the dread Nazi "Butcher of Poland," made Wawel his headquarters; he herded the town's Jews over the river into the Podgorze district, the site of Oskar Schindler's factory and, a bit farther on (though possibly still visible to our trumpeter), the Plaszow concentration camp, in whose factory so many of them were worked to death. And, of course, about forty miles to the west are Auschwitz and Birkenau.

For all the horror of Frank's occupation of Wawel Castle, it was perhaps thanks to his tenure there that Kraków, almost alone among major Polish cities, was spared the wholesale destruction wrought by the retreating Nazis. (Reluctant to smash up his private jewel-box fiefdom, the disbelieving Frank dallied till it was too late.) And so houses here are still occupied by families who have held them for generations, which may explain why after the war Kraków proved to be one of the most difficult areas for Stalin's new Polish Communist overlords to subdue. These leaders decided to punish the recalcitrant bourgeois enclave by erecting, just to its east, an otherwise senselessly sited mammoth industrial town, Nowa Huta, with tens of thousands of New Workers carted in to man its hideously belching Lenin Steelworks.

From the archives:

"The Paradoxical Pope" (May 1980)
"First as Parish priest, then as bishop, and finally as cardinal, Wojtyla learned the subtle art of dealing with the authorities while shepherding his flock through a hostile landscape. The Polish Catholic Church presented a solid block to the outside world." By Kati Marton

The ensuing years would see an ongoing struggle between the Communist authorities and the dynamic new archbishop of Kraków, Karol Wojtyla, for the souls of those workers, a struggle incarnated in the battle to erect a modernist, arclike Church of Our Lady Queen of Poland amid the workers' tenements. It was Wojtyla who at last prevailed, in 1977 (the crucifix spire of the church pierces the horizon to the east), a year before his ascension to the papacy, as John Paul II. A few years after that, and much to the exasperation of the Communists, those model workers from Nowa Huta would prove among the fiercest partisans of the Solidarity movement, even after the imposition of martial law in December of 1981. Indeed, in August of 1988 it was from the Lenin Steelworks that the climactic set of strikes began, under the slogan "What one Lenin started, let another finish off!" And so another did, signaling the death throes of communism in Poland and, within a few months, throughout Eastern Europe and all the way back in Russia itself.

Quite the little panorama.

Down below the tower the Market Square was filling up, as it does just about every day from Easter through late fall—with tourists, yes, but mainly with townspeople, whose sense of time seems to differ from that of their far more driven countrymen up in the capital, Warsaw. With the transition out of communism, Warsaw has bought into capitalism whole—everyone is busy plotting deals, calculating angles, nurturing contacts, making money. Warsaw, Krakovians are fond of saying, is where you should go if you intend to make a living. Kraków is where you should stay if you want to live.

The transition has been particularly felicitous in Kraków. Fifteen years ago, when the country was under martial law, I used to visit the town as a foreign correspondent, and in those days the Market Square was a dispiriting, dispirited place, often choked by a thick industrial haze, the passersby terminally glum, the state-owned shops closing up tight by early nightfall. The collapse of communism shut down some of the most egregiously polluting industrial behemoths, including parts of Nowa Huta—and the air is much clearer. In addition, the transition unleashed entrepreneurial energies, with cafés and bars and shops and beer gardens opening up in seemingly every nook and corner. In summer the square teems, a happily roiling carnival every night till well past two.

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