Letter from Cracow, Poland’s Crown Jewel
BY GEORGE WEIGEL
Cracow — When I first came here 24 years ago, Poland’s cultural and spiritual capital was just beginning to recover from 50 years of deferred maintenance.
Unlike every other major Polish city, Cracow was not flattened by World War II. The Wehrmacht got here too quickly in September 1939 to do much damage; Cracow was the gangster-Gauleiter Hans Frank’s headquarters during the Occupation; and the legions of the Thousand-Year Reich left in a hurry in January 1945, intent on destroying the evidence of their genocide at nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau. So Cracow was spared the gratuitous devastation that was one hallmark of the Reich’s impact on the bloodlands of Central and Eastern Europe.
The ensuing four and a half decades of Communism almost accomplished the destruction the Nazis didn’t have time to effect.
In the immediate postwar years, Cracow returned Poland’s highest anti-Communist vote in a bogus referendum and a subsequent bogus election. The payback from the Polish United Workers’ Party was Nowa Huta: a new industrial town, built from scratch east of the city, where both steel and New Communist Man, Polish-style, would be fabricated. The drab, socialist-realist architecture of Nowa Huta, where buildings were arranged on a rigid grid divided by oversized boulevards for May Day parades, was Stalinism’s answer to the asymmetries of the glorious Cracow Old Town with its noble mansions, gabled burgher houses, Gothic and Baroque churches, and narrow winding streets, all surrounded by the great greensward of the Planty and leading the eye and spirit up to Wawel, a rocky promontory on the left bank of the Vistula housing the Royal Castle and the cathedral in which Poland’s greatest heroes are buried. The romance of the idea of “Poland” during the years when Poland-as-state was erased from the map of Europe was embodied in Cracow Old Town. According to Stalinist orthodoxies, the robotnik of the dictatorship of the proletariat would be embodied by the gray, synthetic functionality of Nowa Huta.
In fact, there weren’t a whole lot of New Communist Men (or women, for that matter) fabricated in Nowa Huta; in Stalin’s famous putdown, building Communism in Poland was like “fitting a saddle to a cow.” Nonetheless, Nowa Huta was as destructive as its planners intended, if destructive in a different way: The pollution from its exhaust chimneys, carrying microscopic shards of steel in the breeze, began to eat away at the fabric of Cracow Old Town. Not only were its buildings gray-to-black when I first came here in 1991; the plaster and stone of the magnate mansions that ring the great Main Square — the largest public space in Europe — were crumbling after being scoured for decades by trillions of micro Brillo pads.
Cracow’s first mayor, post-Communism, was Jacek Woźniakowski, a distinguished art historian, a Solidarity activist, and a secret courier between the Solidarity leadership and Pope John Paul II during the 1981–83 martial-law period. Jacek, a great friend and counselor in matters Polish, got the Cracow Old Town listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which gave him the legal muscle to insist that scrubbers be installed on the smokestacks of Nowa Huta; so the slow-motion erosion of one of the world’s great urban environments was stopped. Now, the bright golds and greens and the subtle pastels of the magnate homes ringing the Main Square have been restored. The once-blackened Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption, the Mariacki, shines brilliantly in the summer sun, its golden copper roof complementing the amazing brickwork and asymmetrical towers. The Drapers’ Hall, the Sukiennice, at the center of the Square now features a magnificent museum of the history of the city, below ground level. As in centuries past, the Main Square of the Old Town has become one of the world’s premier crossroads, a place of encounter between languages and cultures: a borderland that is no longer, for the moment at least, part of the bloodlands.
But there are worries.
Read more: eppc.org