If Warsaw was an acquired taste than Krakow turned out to be my favorite flavor. It did not take me long after arriving in the city to realize that the old Royal capital of Poland was a jewel box that offered up a multitude of sumptuous treasures. The beauty of Krakow’s Old Town (Stare Miasto) was a feast for my eyes. It was both quaintly charming and splendidly grand, thoroughly royal and invitingly homey. Spectacular, but on a human scale. Resisting the charms of Krakow was impossible. I gave in willingly to this seduction. It had everything, a world class castle, ecstatic Renaissance architecture, evocative neighborhoods filled with the ambiance of vanished cultures and enough history to fill a set of encyclopedias. It was one of the most enthralling places I have ever had the pleasure to visit. I found myself thinking time and again that Krakow should be the capital of Poland. It is little wonder that following the movement of Poland’s capital to Warsaw in 1596, Polish kings continued to be crowned at the famed coronation castle on Wawel Hill. Such was its magnificence that Krakow could make royalty fall at its feet. I was no different, unable to resist its enchanting allure. My impression of Poland would largely be informed by Krakow. To the point that Warsaw became a faint memory. That led me to question how Krakow had managed to avoid the worst excesses inflicted on Poland over the last several centuries. The answer, luck.
The Unscathed City – Great Escapes
One of the most tragic of numerous traumas in Polish history was the partitions. Over the course of three separate, but similar instances – in 1772, 1793 and 1795 – Poland was carved into oblivion by ravenous neighboring states. Portions of it were divvied up to the Russian, Prussian and Austrian Empires. Krakow, as part of a region that came be known as Galicia, was fortunate enough to end up under Austrian rule, which was relatively lenient, largely respecting Polish culture. Nevertheless, in 1794 a revolt started in Krakow’s Market Square. The rebellion turned out to be still born, as it was rapidly quelled by Prussian forces who then looted treasures from Wawel Castle. Fortunately for Krakow, this turned out to be pretty much the worst of its suffering during that era when Poland was partitioned into nonexistence. For three decades – beginning in 1815 – Krakow enjoyed an exalted status as a nominally independent Free City.
Meanwhile, Warsaw suffered as a frontier and administrative outpost on the fringes of the Russian Empire. Tsarist control was extremely heavy handed with few rights for ethnic Poles. The same was true for the Polish population in what had once been the Kingdom of Poland’s western reaches, as they were subjected to intense Germanisation by their Teutonic overlords. Meanwhile, the situation continued to improve for Krakow in the latter half of the 19th century. The province of Galicia was given autonomy by the Austrians in 1868, leading to a wellspring of Polish intellectual and cultural revival whose epicenter was in Krakow. The city was proving to be Poland’s favorite child time and again, sidestepping the draconian measures inflicted on its fellow countrymen in other parts of the land. Krakow’s elegant Old Town sparkled radiant in the waning light of the hundred-year peace that lasted from 1815 through 1914.
Superficial Survival – The Darkest Of Ironies
Two cataclysmic world wars wreaked havoc on Poland. At least superficially, Krakow remained intact, but the human toll was tremendous. In the First World War, much of the population fled the city to avoid a Russian siege in the depths of winter. Twenty-five years later the situation turned exponentially worse, even though it did not start that way. On the sixth day of the war, Krakow’s mayor surrendered the city before it could be attacked. The Germans then decided to headquarter their General Government (administering occupied Poland) in the city. This meant that very few bombs fell on Krakow. While Warsaw underwent repeated waves of destruction, Krakow’s architecture remained intact. Inside museums and churches it was a much different story, as countless works of art were stolen by the Nazis. Intellectuals were arrested and shipped off to concentration camps.
The greatest price was paid by the city’s Jewish population, some 70,000 lived in the city when the Germans first arrived in 1939. Famously, Oskar Schindler saved 1,200 Jews working at his enamel factory. While a heartwarming story, that figure pales in comparison to the approximately 65,000 Jewish Krakovians who perished in the Holocaust. By the end of the war only about 4,000 Jews were left in Krakow. Though much of the Jewish quarter in Kazimierz was left intact, the people and culture it had fostered were extinguished. It would eventually become a place for tourists, rather than Jews. Parts of Schindler’s List would be filmed there, bringing it much acclaim. Many failed to see the macabre irony in this. It would never have been used as a film set if a thriving Jewish community had still existed.
There was another dark irony to come during the Cold War. Krakow’s architecture may have survived World War II intact, but a focus on heavy industry by the postwar ruling communist regime inflicted much greater damage, especially in a superficial sense. This was almost totally due to Nowa Huta, a vast industrial development and planned urban settlement built as an eastern suburb to the city. The Nowa Huta steelworks was one of world’s largest. The pollution emitted from that giant complex left the city’s historic architecture coated in a sheen of toxic grime. The district was supposed to be a touchstone of enlightened central planning that would expedite the movement towards a worker’s paradise. Instead, it became a cauldron of dissent. By placing so much of the working class in one area, it spawned movements against, rather than for the state. Communism finally collapsed, just like fascism and imperial authority had before it, the one thing still standing in Krakow was its architecture, awaiting a restoration that would soon arrive.
Eternal Mission – The Peak Of Poland’s Past
The restored and preserved version of Krakow was the one I had come to visit. A city of superlatives, architecturally, culturally and intellectually. Here was the greatness of Poland, collected all in one place. Eastern Europe’s Renaissance city with an edge, a paradise that could never be quite lost. Krakow was a romance with many dark chapters, but it had arrived at a happy ending. This was its lot and its luck. Krakow always managed to find a way to escape and was an escape, at least for the Poles. The city acted as a hidden gate that led back to the glittering kingdom that once was and would forever be Poland. Now another golden age was in progress, the city was living off and building upon itself, realizing an eternal mission to forever stand at the peak of Poland’s past.