Krakow: peaceful surface masks bitter realities

''It's almost another world,'' a West German colleague murmurs. And so it is.

The lovely market square here, with its Gothic Church of the Holy Virgin and Gothic-Renaissance Cloth Hall, is alive with people. Masses of daffodils, tulips, and carnations in the flower stalls provide a kaleidoscope of color.

There is not a military uniform in sight. A solitary policeman is seated in his traffic control box as usual.

In Warsaw, there is not much visual evidence of martial law either now - only blocked-off roads leading to ''sensitive'' buildings and guards on the bridges over the Vistula. But in Krakow martial law is even less visible.

Krystyn Dabrowa, first secretary of the city's Communist Party committee, says, ''In Krakow we don't have the real sense of martial law. We are trying to solve all our conflicts by using political methods.''

Behind this more relaxed atmosphere, of course, is the harsh reality that underlies the emergency all over Poland. There was plenty of military hardware on Krakow's streets in the first days after martial law was imposed Dec. 13. But it was withdrawn earlier than in most cities.

Today, there is not even a guard outside City Hall.

It is largely tradition and history that make Krakow ''special'' for all Poles. Krakow is a city given over to learning. It contains one of the two oldest universities in Europe, the Jagiellonian, founded in 1364.

Seated on a polished oak bench listening to the rector, or viewing the university's treasures -- which include the first known ''globus'' showing ''America, freshly discovered'' -- a visitor finds it momentarily difficult to believe that Poland is under the rigors of martial law.

It is the same in the crowded Philharmonic Hall, listening to American pianist Malcolm Frager playing Beethoven sonatas. He is the first foreign artist to perform in Poland since martial law.

But reality seeps through when Jagiellonian's rector, history Prof. Jozef Gierowski, tells of 20 students arrested. He talks of efforts to secure their release or at least ensure continuation of their studies during detention.

This was still under consideration by the authorities, he said, adding, ''We are not giving up. Nobody is forgotten.''

It is the damage to the academic and intellectual community here that seems most serious. That damage explains why the authorities have found it difficult to involve respected Krakow figures in the so-called committees of ''national redemption'' that are supposed to seek social conciliation and accord.

Only a score or so of steelworker union activists were arrested or interned here. In Krakow as a whole, detentions did not exceed 151, according to Mr. Dabrowa - though other sources are convinced there were more. Some 50 persons, he said, had already been freed.

Dabrowa said that half of some 2,400 Krakow party members who resigned were from intellectual groups. Of them 500 belonged to the academic or higher education fields. According to Professor Gierowski -- himself vice-chairman of a university Solidarity group before he was (democratically) elected rector -- no professors were arrested or dismissed following the declaration of martial law. ''All are working in the same posts and departments as before,'' he said.

But 180 of Krakow's 400 or so journalists have been moved to other posts, some of them to other publications.

At Gazeta Krakowska, the local daily, which was the liveliest voice in Poland last year, 20 of 40 senior writers were shifted. After martial law editor Maciej Szumowski -- one of the firmest and most progressive party ''liberals'' -- was barred from his office.

Mr. Szumowski has let it be known he intends to continue to fight for his ideas within the party. Military leader Wojciech Jaruzelski has promised that democratic discussion will continue there despite martial law.

The Lenin Steel Works is the heart of Nowa Huta, a steel town within the city of Krakow. It is a sprawling conglomerate with technological and license links with most of the world's biggest producers.

After a peak output of nearly 7 million tons of steel in 1978, the Lenin plant felt the pressures of the energy crisis and the general rundown of Polish industry over the past two turbulent years. It is picking up slowly now at about 5 million tons.

Officials spoke candidly of the bitterness among the plants 37,000 workers -- about 90 percent of them members of Solidarity -- and the strike through the first week of martial law. But when police finally broke in, the plant seemed to have emptied relatively quietly.

''There was no violence,'' plant officials insisted. ''The action was carried out without resort to force and no one was hurt.''

There were few opportunities to talk with workers themselves. Those one could speak with said little beyond a quiet, determined word about the need for a return to independent unions.

Everyone seems aware that a move in this direction is the only way forward; that the success of the economic reform and any start on the road to recovery depend on the reemergence of ''socially acceptable'' new unions, including Solidarity -- even if under another name.

Yet, since government publication of a draft for ''public discussion,'' nothing concrete has been done. Least of all has there been any effort to include Solidarity, though it is being said that Vice-Premier Mieczyslaw Rakowski is soon to meet with Lech Walesa and another meeting between the Roman Catholic primate and General Jaruzelski is possible.

Krakow's touch may seem ''softer,'' but the provincial Communist leadership faces the same dilemma as the rest of Poland: how to gain public confidence without losing control.

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