Krakow, Poland — 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.''
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 ensembles and alone among Poland's major population centers to be spared destruction during World War II, is disintegrating.
The once-gleaming spires and fine ramparts, even in the splendid main market square, look 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.''
The problem results in part from the poor quality paint used, according to Jakub. In addition, he says, a lack of money tempts the city's best craftsmen to work abroad. But he admits that most of the problem results from heavy sulfur emissions. Much of the soot comes from the huge steel mill in Nowa Huta, meaning ``new town,'' the city's postwar 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 seen 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.''
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.)
Nowa Huta residents generally scorn the communist symbol of the giant smokestacks. Instead, they say the town's real triumph is its ultramodern, ark-shaped church.
Nowa Huta was envisioned as a ``new'' socialist town. No church was included in its original blueprint.
In 1960, the workers first asked the local authorities to construct a place for worship.
The authorities refused.
The workers petitioned repeatedly. Finally, permission was granted. But the state provided no funds, no machinary, nothing. And the approved site was so far away from the town center that the local priest says, ``Cows were left for pasture here.''
During their off hours, the workers began building.
After seven years, the church's skeleton was finished.
In 1978, Pope John Paul II inaugurated it. According to the priest, though, work continues on the chapel wall.
The priest says 68,000 people belong to this one church.
Three other smaller churches have since been built, but he estimates that at least a dozen more big ones are needed to meet demand.
On Sundays, masses are held from morning to night. The 5,000 seats always are filled and even during the cold winter months, crowds stand outside, listening to the service over a loudspeaker.
``Nowa Huta's residents remain angry, dissatisfied,'' the priest says, explaining, ``life remains too hard here.''
The work in the steel mill is hard, and the workers end the day only to return to substandard housing. Often two families squeeze into a small three-room flat.
``The church offers them their only consolation,'' he says.
Yet not everything in Krakow smells of sadness.
Theater, for example, remains vibrant and relatively free. State censorship exists, of course, but the boundaries of permitted expression expand and contract with seeming randomness.
Culture Minister Kazimierz Zygulski explains in an interview that a play cannot be openly ``antisocialistic.'' But, he adds, ``we try to be patient and understanding with the artists.''
That leaves directors room to maneuver. Without breaking the rules, they bend, twist, and push them to the boundaries.
At one of Krakow's 17 state-sponsored theaters, for example, an original opera is being presented.
A rock opera set in the 19th century, it tells the story of persecution of some valiant Polish soldiers by the Russian occupiers.
For most of the audience, the play speaks about the present-day situation, about the imposition of martial law and the moral will of individuals to resist an overwhelmingly superior power. It condemns collaboration and ponders the role of the church in a society in crisis.
After martial law, for example, a former Solidarity activist went on television to approve the crackdown. He wanted to protect his job. The next day he met a friend in the street, but instead of lambasting him, the friend patted him gently on the back and said, ``Andrzej, what a great actor you are.''
Or take the legend about the Tartar invasion. It is false.
Tour guide Jakub explains that St. Mary's Church was built several centuries after the invasion of the Tatars.
No matter. To this day, every hour of the day a bugler sounds a blast from the tower. And every hour, just at the moment the arrow should hit him, he cuts off in the middle his ``toot, toot, toot.''