Krakov, Poland — It has known 1,000 years of vivid, often violent history. It has survived five earthquakes, a score of burnings,and frequent inundation from a labyrinth of underground waters.
Seventeen times it has been under siege or overrun by invaders, beginning with the Tatars in the 12th century.
Yet Krakow, ancient home of Poland's cultural heritage, has been damaged more severely by industrial pollution in the last 25 years than by all that hostile men or nture had contrived in the 10 previous centuries.
And, experts say, its preservation depends on the speed with which costly remedial and protective measures are undertaken.
Krakow is one of 12 cities recognized by UNESCO as exemplifying the world's finest architecture through Roman, Gothic, and Renaissance ages. Italy's Venice is another.
Set on low land and eclosed by hills, Krakow is endangered by flooding from the Vistula River. A mroe serious threat comes from the maze of underground streams over which the city was built. Their water is all the time nibbling away at its foundations.
Moreover, the topography makes the city even more vulnerable to the buildup of atmospheric pollution than are towns in the adjacent Silesian coal belt.
Krakow's satellite steel town of Nowa Huta -- showpiece of the postwar drive to industrialize -- and a dozen other industrial units in the region spew some 150,000 tons of toxic waste into the air every year.
Scores of smaller installations add to the pollution. Few plants are equipped with antipollution devices, and most of those that are still do not scrub the air clean.
Krakow, which is home to some 750,000 people, is a smoggy city. Two contributing factors: the low-grade coal used to heat both public and private buildings and the fumes from motor traffic bottled up in narrow, medieval streets.
Ironically, even on a clear, sunny day -- or evening -- the "mist" delights the eye with a special, haunting quality of light. Yet, all the time it is eating into the fabric of famed buildings: Wawel Castle, for five centuries the home of Polish Kings; the Cathedral, seat of a 1,000-year-old archibishopric that recently was held by Cardinal Karol Wojtyla until he became a Pope John Paul II; Europe's second-oldest university, the Jagiellonian; the Renaissance Cloth Hall; and St. Mary's Church, which has an exquisitely colored, carved wooden Gothic altar.
Poles in general -- not just residents of Krakow -- regard the city with the same kind of intense loyalty to their past that persuaded the postwar communist government to rebuild the old Warsaw exactly as it was before Hitler's war destroyed it. They recently completed restoration of the castle, which the Nazis had blown up before pulling out.
Krakow escaped such destruction because the swift Russian advance left the Germans no time. Unfortunately, this left Krakow at the end of the line in postwar priorities. Its problem is not one of rebuilding, but of preserving revered buildings against a different, more long-term threat.
The government has been pondering this problem for years. The experts and news media are again urging that industrial facilities, no matter how small, be forced to comply with modern antipollution requirements. They also recommend reducing the number of motor vehicles and dispersing public services to reduce inner-city traffic.
They say the most environmentally destructive industries must be brought into line first, even at the cost of temporary shutdowns. (Predictably, the authorities cite the disruption of production.)
In 1971 the Gierek regime appealed for support to rebuild Warsaw's castle, and Poles contributed massively. Since then they have added some $15 million to the quarter billion dollars the government has allocated for Krakow's preservation, and the work has begun.
The pro-government weekly Kultura recently underscored the urgency and the mood. "There are values higher than those dictated by current industrial and economic needs," it said. "Without that realization, even the most generous efforts to save old Krakow for posterity will be futile."
It was reminding the authorities that money and the will are available -- but very little time.