LETTER FROM KRAKOW/Pollution and time take their toll on proud, historic Polish city
The Tatars are approaching. From the top of St. Mary's Church in the central market square, a bugler spots them. He rouses the town's defenders -- only to have an arrow pierce his throat midway through the heroic ``toot, toot, toot.''Skip to next paragraph
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Such a legend shows the stuff that makes Krakow the proudest and most historic city in Poland. Founded in 1257, it is the city where Polish kings first ruled. Here the Roman Catholic Church first sank its roots deep into the Polish nation. And here the oldest Polish university, and the third-oldest in all of central Europe, diffused one of the Continent's most sophisticated cultures.
But Krakow is tinged with tragedy. For today, while Krakow continues to be the country's ecclesiastical and cultural center, the hometown of both Pope John Paul II and filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, it epitomizes the passions tearing away at the nation's soul.
The city, one of Europe's most beautiful architectural showpieces and alone among Poland's major population centers to be spared destruction during World War II, is disintegrating.
All the once gleaming spires and fine ramparts -- even in the splendid main market square -- are black and grimy. Tour guide Jakub says the pollution ranks among the worst in Europe and that entire blocks of 500-year old buildings are falling into ruin. He points to a beautiful baroque house, its yellow paint peeling.
``That building was renovated only two years ago,'' he says. ``As soon as the painters finish, it starts turning black.''
Part of the problem results from the poor quality paint used, according to Jakub. Part also results, he says, from a lack of money which tempts the city's best craftsmen to work abroad. But he admits that most of it results from heavy sulfur emissions.
The city reeks of the putrid acid air. When it rains, the water hits car tops and doesn't flow off softly. It burns. 3 Much of the soot comes from the huge steel mill in Nowa Huta, meaning ``new town,'' the city's post-war eastern suburb. City officials, all members of the Communist Party, insist that the mill was built here because Krakow is situated close to the rich Silesian coal mines.
Krakow, by becoming an industrial center, has become a much more prosperous place, according to Andrzej Zmuda, the vice- president of the city council.
Old-time residents have a different view: They say the communist government placed the steel mill on the city outskirts as revenge.
Krakow, after all, was a bastion of conservatism after the war, dominated by the church. For a prewar population of only 300,000, the city boasted some 250 churches. Every block in the old town seems to have its own.
``The Communists took one look at the people here and said `We'll get back at you,' '' explains one resident. `` `We'll give you a proletariat.' ''
And they did. Europe's largest steel mill was built only nine miles from the old royal castle. Almost 33,000 men work there, according to plant spokesman Michal Czarnowski. The smoke stacks are so big they can be see from the castle on a rare clear day.
Krakow's population soon soared to 700,000. A town with a small working-class population before the war became a working-class center. Nearly 250,000 workers alone live in the blocks and blocks of dreary Stalinist-style apartment buildings of Nowa Huta.
``Nowa Huta works,'' Mr. Czarnowski boasts. ``We have built the best metallurgical plant in Poland and one of the best in Europe.'' 4 And yet it was in Nowa Huta where the now-banned Solidarity trade union dug its deepest roots. Workers once knocked the huge statue of Vladimir Lenin in the center square off its pedestal. Although the steel plant was militarized after martial law was declared in December 1981, active resistance continued for almost a year. (Martial law was lifted in July 1983.)
Most Nowa Huta residents scorn the communist symbol of the giant smokestacks. Instead, they say the town's real triumph is its ultramodern, ark-shaped church.