Archive for the ‘ Krakow ’ Category

Krakow is More than Just a “Second City”


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2011. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


abstract: Krakow may give you the impression that it has a “second city” attitude. Its rivalry is with Warsaw, more than twice its size in population and the capital of Poland. Krakow, of course, was the original capital and remained so through Poland’s Golden Age in the 15th to 17th centuries. Krakow does not let you forget that. It flaunts the Palace and Cathedral on its Wawel Hill, both sacred national symbols, and its magnificent Old Town. It reminds you that Poland’s all time greatest scientist, Nicolaus Copernicus, studied in its Jagiellonian University, the oldest in the land.  It showcases its almost native son, Pope John Paul II, in no fewer than seventeen statues. In this most Catholic of all countries, Krakow is not restrained even to claim the past glory of its Jewish residents, and in the process, not only putting all the blame for the stain of the liquidation of their Ghetto on the occupying Nazi Germans but asserting that its other citizens helped the Jews. The comfort that such shaping the narrative of a city provides may, on the other hand, make it sound provincial. Krakow, however, is not resting on its laurels. The intellectual ferment that its many universities sustain by the large number of their students ensures a future of change.

The Fields

The Warsaw train station looked industrial, standing next to the swank newshopping mall of luxury stores. It was utilitarian. The large hall with a few chairs served many passengers as indicated by the busy schedules for the numerous trains posted on one wall that rose to its high ceiling. The clerks at the information desk and the ticket windows did not speak English as few international customers were expected. I boarded my train for Krakow on time at the lower platform.

Our comfortable compartment for six was full. My fellow passengers were all men on business trips. I walked along the hallway and looked at the views outside as the train sped through the fields of Poland. I imagined that it was a terrain like this where the first Slavic tribes migrated here some thirteen centuries ago. The name “Polanie” means the people of the fields. It took those tribes a couple of hundred years to form a political entity which they then named Polska (greater Poland). Their chief was called Piast. His great grandson, the Duke of Mieszko converted to Christianity. His descendant, Piast Kazimierz I, made Krakow his capital in 1038. It remained the seat of monarchial power for the next 550 years.

From my train the landscape between Warsaw and Krakow was pastoral. The fields were farms . The cloudy sky made the fall scenery melancholic  . The scattered buildings were modest farmers’ houses and barns . I struck up a conversation with a man standing next to me. He was an agricultural economist. “Poland is still very much agricultural,” he said. “Nearly sixty percent of our total area is farmland,” he explained. “Most of the farms are small. Half of Polish farmers produce only for their own needs.”

The train station in Krakow was also close to its major new shopping mall, the Krakow Plaza, but its feel indicated that this town was more a provincial center than Warsaw, the nation’s capital. From the taxi that took me to my hotel I could see the town’s cemetery.  Next to it was a quaint flower market . It was in Krakow that I heard about its rivalry with Warsaw. One man proudly referred to Krakow’s local dialect as a sign of distinction, saying that there were words in this “authentic Polish” which people from Warsaw could not pronounce correctly.  Another person sported a license-plate frame on his car which had this disclaimer: “The license plate is from Warsaw but I live in Krakow.” A tour guide offered bluntly that “Warsaw is the ugliest city in the world, ruined in WWII and rebuilt by the Communists; an example is its Palace of Culture and Science, a ‘gift’ by Stalin.”  Even the remarkable reconstruction of Warsaw’s Old Town, which has won UNESCO’s admiration, was belittled: “Warsaw’s Old Town is reconstructed, Krakow’s is the original.” Warsaw did not pay such attention to rivalry with Krakow. What I heard there said about Krakow was that it was “prettier and historic.”

Wawel Hill

Krakow escaped destruction in WWII and has since benefited from restoration work regarding previous damages from its long past. The Castle and Cathedral on Krakow’s Wawel Hill are historic symbols for all the Poles. The Castle is the home of Poland’s medieval royalty. The Cathedral, the venue for those kings’ coronation, funeral, and entombments, has been Poland’s spiritual sanctuary.

Polish rulers resided on the Hill from the middle of 11th century. The Cathedral was built in 1364 at the site of two even earlier churches. The heyday of the Hill was the time of the reign of the Jagellon Kings (14th -16th cent). The Palace has since been reconstructed as it appeared in the 16th century.

I entered the compound on the Hill past the equestrian statue of Tadeusz Kosciuszko. He is a national hero in Poland because, as the Commander of the Polish National Armed Force, he led the 1794 uprising against the occupying forces of  Russia and Prussia. Just inside the compound was the statue of Poland most recent hero: Pope John Paul II. “This is called the Mobile Pope,” our tour guide said. Permanent statues are no longer allowed in these hollow grounds, he explained. “So the current Bishop of the Cathedral who has insisted on keeping the Pope’s statue here has put it on a pedestal that allows turning it a few inches every so often.”

There are many chapels around the Cathedral . Curiously, this site also has had a special attraction to the Polish believers in Chakra. A concept rooted in Hindu practices, Chakra (Sanskrit for wheel) is said to be a “force center,” a focal point for transmitting energy. Our guide said: “There are seven such points in the world, in such places as Delhi, Mecca, Rome, and Jerusalem. There is also one point in Krakow.” That is believed to be in a certain back alley inside the Cathedral. “It has been visited so often by the believers that the Cathedral has closed off the entrance to it. Now the believers come and touch the wall closest to it.” The guided pointed to the wall .

The Wawel Palace was a three-story Renaissance structure built around a courtyard within a brick wall. The wall was added by the invading Austrians who occupied the Palace in the late 18th century and turned it into army barracks. Refurbished, the Palace is now a museum. Of its many rooms, the Royal Chambers on the second floor are the most impressive. I visited several, generally named after the scene of the freeze located under their ceilings: the Tournament Room, the Military Review Room , the Zodiac Room, the Planets Room, the Bird Room, the Orsza Hall, and the Hall of Deputies. This last was also called the Heads Hall because of the 30 separate wooden painted heads carved in its ceiling. These are all that remain from the original 194 heads installed in the 16th century, meant to demonstrate man’s life cycle from birth to death. The biggest room in the Palace was the Hall of Senators, a symbol of the emergence of a parliamentary government of the feudal nobility in the 16th century Poland. Constituting ten percent of the population, the nobles sent representatives who met in this room as the parliament (Sejm).

This museum in the Palace was also distinguished by a remarkable collection of various types of Flemish and French tapestries dating from the middle of the 1700s. There were figural tapestries, depicting scenes from the Old Testament, “verdures” tapestries, showing real and fantastic animals with a landscape background, and tapestries with compositions of the coats of arms of Poland and Lithuania, allies in the Commonwealth that ruled Poland in the late 16th century. Late baroque tile stoves  in the corners of the rooms were the reminder of the way the place had been kept warm. I also noted that some walls had cordovan fabric coverings. In several rooms the walls displayed portraits of the former royal occupants of the Palace, including King Sigismund I , King Sigismund III, his wife, Queen Constance, King Ladislas IV, and King John Casimir .

In the Orsza Hall (named after the site of the Polish and Lithuanian victory over the Muscovites in 1514) I saw four musicians performing. They told me that they were playing the music popular in the Palace in the 1700s. Their instruments were the reconstruction of the instruments of that era, except for the violin which was new.

From the Wawel Hill I could see the Vistula River , Poland’s longest and most important, which connected Krakow to Warsaw.  We walked in the old neighborhood around the Hill. Here was one of the oldest streets in town, called Canonist Street , where the “Canonical Advisors” to the king used to live. Nearby, stood the Paul and Peter Church dating to the 17th century which had been built with a mission to refute “reformation apostles” from outside Catholic Poland, as our guide said. He pointed out that typical for the era, buildings in this area were identified by figures of animals , and not by numbers.

Old Town

Wawel Hill is at the southern tip of Krakow. By 962 Krakow had become a trade center as reported by a traveling merchant from Cordova, Ibrahim ibn Yagub. It was made a bishopric in 1000 and the capital of Poland some forty years later. The town center was designed in 1257, after devastation by the invading Tatars, and has remained mostly unchanged since. Its Market Square (the Rynek) is one of the largest medieval squares in Europe. One corner of the Square is still anchored by the domed Church of St. Adlbert which dates to the 11th century.  The remarkable acoustics of its nave make the small church an ideal venue for concerts of medieval music, as the one held on the night of my visit.

Another corner of Rynek is occupied by the Town Hall Clock Tower which is what is left from the 15th century town hall. Diagonally across is the St. Mary’s Basilica built in the 14th century. From the higher of the Basilica’s two watchtowers  a bugle call (hejnal) is made every hour. It is a simple melody of 5 notes.  The call is a tradition that goes back 700 years. In medieval times the hejnal served as a warning call. Today it is broadcast on Polish National Radio every day at noon.

In the middle of the Market Square is the Clothing Hall  which was once the center of the rag trade, established in the early 14th century by putting a roof over two rows of stalls. Thus, they say in Krakow, the first shopping mall in the Western world was invented. The more elaborate structure of the Hall was built in the middle of the 16th century. The arcades were added to it a century ago. I walked into the ground floor which was now full of souvenir stores. One was selling wooden chess sets for three players. The original that the Indians had invented to depict a battle between the armies of two parties had been modified to fit the age of multilateral conflicts. I looked around for what would be a memento that would be uniquely representative of Krakow. I ended up with Krakuska, the traditional hat for men. It is a red tufted four cornered hat with a black lambs wool trim and a peacock feather tied with multicolor ribbons to one side. That evening I wore it at the dinner given by our host, a local university. A jaunty professor got up from his seat and took my hand and dragged me to the stage where I followed him in vigorous steps which he said were Krakowiak, the traditional dance of Krakow. Three musicians accompanied us with exuberant sounds of their two violins and a base.The Market Square is a favorite of Polish as well as foreign tourists. On the day I was there a group had come from a small town an hour away, as they told me. They were having a group picture taken at the foot of the imposing statue of Adam Mickiewicz, Poland’s 19th century great bard, surrounded by four allegorical figures representing poetry, learning, motherland, and valor. This was in the midst of many pigeons who have given this area its name, the “pigeon pasture.” My guide said “people are actually encouraged to feed the pigeons.” Flower stalls in the background were run by women; a monopoly which they have kept since medieval times.

I went into St. Mary’s Basilica to see the famed gothic stained glass windows  of its nave with the blue, starred ceiling. My guide pointed to the drape-like walls and said it is the combination of all these magnificent arts that made a visiting Pablo Picasso remark that this church was “the 7th wonder of the world”. The Basilica has 13 altars of which the most cherished is the 15th century altar of the Ascension of the Blessed Virgin Mary with its elaborately decorated triptych. Next to another altar there was Christ depicted on a wooden crucifix. “Note that, uncommonly for a crucifix, Christ is not shown as dead in this; he is looking at you,” my guide said. “Emotional engagement of the spectator is a characteristic of the arts of this church.”

All around the center of the Old Town is a belt of parkland called Planty. This has replaced the former moat. The fall season had turned the leaves of its trees gloriously yellow-green. The Town’s defensive walls has also been removed, but the Florian Gate, one of the eight which allowed entry through the walls, was left standing with its two towers  .

The Pope

My tour guide pointed to a building across the street from the southern part of Planty park and said: “That is the high school where Joseph Conrad once was a student . He was kicked out of school after two years. His uncle sent him to Europe. He became a seaman.  He wrote only in English. Two of his books, Lord Jim, and Heart of Darkness are now must-reads for students in Poland. But we find his English difficult to understand.” Nearby, we saw the residence of a man Poles have no problem relating to: the Archbishop of Krakow who became Pope John Paul II.

Karol Wojtyla had been selected by the Communist government of Poland as the bishop of Krakow from among three candidates recommended by the then senior Polish prelate, Archbishop Stefan Wyszynski. His election as the Pope in 1978 “was a surprise to  the Poles as they could not believe somebody from a Communist country could attain that position,” our tour guide said. The following year, Pope John Paul II came home for a visit. “The Communist regime was angry. When he came to Krakow for the Holy Mass, the government stopped all transportation means. Nevertheless, two million people attended the Mass.” After the Mass the Pope went to the Archbishop’s residence for a rest. “People gathered around the residence and clamored to see him. The Pope came to a window, and said this to the crowd: ‘Go away! It is not easy to be a Pope. I need to rest. Go to the Archbishop!’” The guide pointed to the window which now displayed a large image of John Paul II in white dress (simar), bare-headed, holding onto a cane. “Of course, the Pope was just joking,” our guide said. “That evening he stood at that window and talked for three hours with the people below on the street.”  When the Pope died “this street before that window which is a busy traffic route was closed for several days because people had put on it so many candles and flowers for the Pope.”

To say that Pope John Paul II is revered in Krakow would be an understatement. Our guide said: “He is like the new Jesus. In Krakow they don’t believe in God, they believer in John Paul II. When they say Pope, they still mean him. Politicians always agree with whatever he said. To do otherwise would be political suicide.” There are 17 statues of John Paul II in Krakow. In the small church across this street, which was his favorite in Krakow, there is one large statue, one painting, and another smaller statue on the chair where he used to sit. This was “the ugly side of Pope-mania” in view of our guide: “The Pope himself was against it. He repeatedly said ‘build hospitals and orphanages instead!’”


For many centuries before Pope John Paul II, Krakow’s most famous citizen was Nicolaus Copernicus. Poland still honors him as its most valued scientist. It is his statue that stands before the prestigious Warsaw Science Society. The 15th century Copernicus’s major contribution was to postulate that the earth orbits around the sun. As they say in Krakow, Copernicus “stopped the sun and moved the earth.” I went to see some of the tools he used for this feat, in a place just a few blocks west of the Pope’s former residence. This was in the Museum located in Colleggium Maius, the college where Copernicus studied.

Colleggium Maius (Grand College) is itself historic as it is the oldest college of Poland’s oldest university, Jagiellonian. The college was founded at this location in 1400 by King Vladislav II Jagiello. The walls of the original structure with the distinct wide stone composition were still visible at its entrance. The rest was rebuilt at the end of the 15th century, with a late-Gothic facade, around a courtyard surrounded by arcades. On the day I was there repair work was being done in the courtyard and the center of it, which used to have a well, was fenced off. The upper floor of the two story building used to be the residence of the school’s professors, and the lecture rooms were downstairs.

Jagiellonian University expanded and evolved in Krakow on the model of Italy’s fabled University of Bologna. It boasts among its alumni, from the faculty of philosophy, John III Sobieski whose victory over the Ottoman Turks in the Battle of Vienna in 1683 earned him the title of the “Savior of Vienna and Western European civilization” from the Pope of the time. Pope John Paul II’s older brother graduated from the faculty of medicine of Jagiellonian. The Pope himself attended as a student for a year.

The old building of Colleggium Maius has since been turned into a Museum. The collections are on the upper floor where the brick wall displays a clock. At one in the afternoon I faced the clock and saw it perform a short show with wooden figures of former kings and famous professors of the College parading to solemn music, coming out of a window on the left side of the clock and disappearing through a window on the right. The Museum displays more about those long gone professors. It offered me an opportunity to peak into the life of a medieval Polish academic faculty.

The professors lived and worked in rooms still marked for their original functions, including a library and a common room (Stuba Communis). The furniture was original. The docent who was guiding me pointed to a short bed and said: “This bed is from the 19th century. At the time, they believed that it was best to sleep in a half-sitting position”. An oriental carpet was spread on their table, serving as a table cloth. A vertical tile fireplace  was how they heated the place. “This one is from the 17th century; it is oriental minaret style,” the docent commented.

Copernicus’s memorabilia had a special place in this Museum. On display was a roster of students in his class of the 1490’s. His name on the page was underlined. There was a copy of the handwritten manuscript of his book, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, in Latin. “The original is in the library vault,” the docent said. In one room there were an assortment of wooden instruments “used by Copernicus in his astronomy experiments,” as the docent said. There were also four astrolabes, key instruments for making astronomical measurements in medieval times. They were from different places and times. Three existed before Copernicus and hence available for his use: a 15th century German astrolabe, a 1370 Italian (Jan Brozek) astrolabe, and a 1054 Moorish (Arab) astrolabe from Spain.

The Museum collection also included a wooden statue of King Kazimierz the Great who in 1364 founded the Krakow Academy, considered to be the predecessor of Colleggium Maius. Furthermore, there was “the first globe which mentioned the New World, made in the beginning of the 16th century,” the docent said. In another room there was on display the Honorary Oscar awarded in 2000 to Andrzej Wajda, the great Polish film director. Wajda had donated it to the Museum when he decided to come and live in Krakow.

The Jewish Legacy

In contrast to Wajda, another Polish Oscar winner, Roman Polanski, was in fact born in Krakow but had to escape at the age of eight -through the sewer ditches of Krakow’s World War II Jewish Ghetto. “Polanski was asked to direct the movie “Schindler’s List” but did not accept because he said he was not yet ready to make a film about the Ghetto; when he was ready later he made ‘The Pianist’,” our tour guide said, referring to the movie which won Polanski the Oscar in 2003.

Schindler’s List has played a major role in creating interest in Krakow’s Jewish heritage since it was released in 1993. I joined a large group of foreign and Polish visitors in a guided tour of Kazimierz, near the Old Town, which had been home to the Jews for almost a half millennium. From there we went to Podgorze, just across the river, where the occupying Nazis in World War II housed the Jews on the way to the nearby Plaszow extermination camp. The guide’s commentary was laced with references to Schindler’s List.

“It has been said that the first written reference ever to Krakow was by a merchant who traveled here from Spain in 962,” our guide said. He was referring to Ibrahim ibn Yagub whose travel reports exist only in excerpts in the writings of later Arab geographers. “He was probably a Sephardic Jew,” according to the guide. His inference was based on the argument that the traveler’s name was in fact a common Jewish name (Abraham ben Jacob), although there have also been famous Muslims of that era with those names.

“We know that Jews lived in the center of Krakow as early as the 14th century when King Kazimierz III (1333-70), passed a law ensuring certain rights for them.” The guide pointed to a building in the Market Square and said that used to belong to a wealthy Jewish family. “The Jews could not own land so they came to the cities. Christians could not charge interest so Jews became bankers and, as a result, rich. Jews used to live near the Town Clock Tower. But all that changed because of the persecution of the Jews in Prague. They left and came toward Krakow. Krakow did not accept them. So they went to Kazimierz. The Poles then pushed those Jews who were already in Krakow out and they too ended up in Kazimierz.”

Kazimierz had been founded in 1335 by King Kazimierz III as a town independent of Krakow. After the Jews were expelled from Krakow in 1494, they were settled in a designated area of Kazimierz separated by a wall from the Christian quarters. Their numbers grew as Jews fled here from persecution elsewhere in Europe. As our guide said: “Kazimierz became the most important Jewish center in Poland. In 1820 the wall dividing Kazimierz was removed. By the eve of WW II, Kazimierz had become a predominantly Jewish suburb of Krakow with 65,000 Jews.”

Six of their synagogues are still standing in Kazimierz. Only one of them, Ramuh, which is the smallest, continues to function as a regular place of worship, the rest are now kept as museums. “This is because only 97 practicing Jews are left in Krakow,” our guide said.” We were standing before the Old Synagogue which dated back to the 15th century.  “This is the oldest synagogue in Poland,” the guide said.  “Note the yellow part, which was for women, while the part in bricks, was for men. The sexes were separated from ancient times because Jewish men were commanded not to talk to women during the worship so that they could concentrate on the Torah. Originally, the women’s section was in the back and on the top floor, but here it was different. The women’s section is to the side.”

As we approached the 17th century Izzak Synagogue , the guide said that it was named after its donor “Izzak the Rich, so called because he was the banker to the King.” The guide also showed us the “Progressive Temple” which he said was “built later just outside the medieval quarters of Kazimierz to claim that its members were blending with the rest of the Poles.”

It was when we arrived in the grounds of Ramuh Synagogue that I saw the only person in Krakow who was wearing a yarmulke . Behind the Synagogue was the oldest Jewish cemetery in town. The Nazis “destroyed all the tombs here except the tomb of the rabbi. That rabbi wrote a commentary on Torah which is considered to be one of the most significant books in Judaism. The Nazis did not touch his tomb because of their superstition: they feared his curse.” This was the 16th century Rabbi Moses Isserles, better known by his Hebrew acronym ReMa, the name sake (Ramuh) for the Synagogue.

The cemetery has been reconstructed since. There were many new memorial plaques by descendants of those buried there. Our guide pointed to one plaque from two descendants who lived in New York . “Some of those who survived the Nazis went to the United States and Israel. Around 3000 survived. Some went to Warsaw because that is now the financial center of Poland. Those who have left Krakow would not want to come back. Why come back to bad memories?”

The fabled Jewish cultural life of the pre-War Kazimierz has disappeared. “This was their Broadway,” our guide said as he pointed around to ul Szeroka, a short and wide area that was more like a square. “This was the center of the Jewish community. It was used in Schindler’s List.” We noted stores and restaurants here with Jewish names such as Babelstein  and Rubenstein . “Helena Rubinstein’s family once lived here,” our guide said. But those were faux signs. “No business in Kazimierz is now owned by Jews,” our guide said. “The Klezmer music you hear here is not played by Jews.”

Krakow, however, actively helps the Jews from abroad keep the memory of its Jewish culture alive. Europe’s biggest annual Jewish festival takes place in Kazimierz. The posters of the festival in June were still on the walls when we visited in October, a few yards away from an old house kept as it was damaged during the War. This house “was used in Schindler’s List,” our guide said.

In fact, Kazimierz has now become fashionable as an edgy, artistic quarter with many bars and even a chic hotel. “It was not like this, twenty years ago,” our guide said. “Under the Communists the alcoholics and criminals were pushed here.” This made the real estate cheap. “Consequently, the bohemians moved here. Many bars opened up.” Our guide pointed to a circular structure: “In that building at one time there were 18 bars.” He continued, “Eventually Kazimierz became the place of choice for many.”


The Jewish “Ghetto” which the Nazis created during their occupation was not in Kazimierz. It was in a suburb of Krakow across Vistula River called Podgorze. “The Germans considered Krakow to have been originally a German city which was now being returned to the homeland,” our guide said. “They wanted to annex Krakow, so they did not bomb or destroy it. They told the Jews to leave Krakow. Some did. Then the Germans decided to make Krakow ‘Jew free’ by moving the rest to Podgorze.”

We walked over the pedestrian bridge on the Vistula to reach Podgorze in the early evening as the sky was crimson in the aftermath of a rain and hail storm. Podgorze had been developed as an industrial district by the Austrians who had occupied Krakow in the 18th century. The Nazis used it first as a work camp where Jews became the labor for its factories. To survive, the displaced Jews needed to work and for that they needed a work permit which the Germans issued at a building that still stands in Podgorze. Our guide said: “As might be expected this was very cheep labor. Oscar Schindler hired many of these Jews of Podgorze for his Enamel factory. He did not pay them; he just fed them.” The guide then showed us the administrative building of Schindler’s factory which had recently been turned into the Museum of Nazi Occupation of Krakow.

“Most of the events portrayed in Schindler’s List took place in Podgorze and the Plaszow extermination camp, not in Kazimierz,” our guide said. We stood transfixed in the main square of Podgorze, now called Peace Square (Plac Zgody). Around us were 70 empty chairs . The Jews were put on the train to Plaszow from this square. Initially, those who were able to work were allowed to stay, but eventually the Nazis decided to liquidate all. The chairs represent their furniture and other belongings discarded on this very site. The former German Guard House still stood on one corner of the square. Just outside were remnants of the Ghetto wall with a commemorative plaque. “Look at them. The wall was like a Jewish tomb; the Germans wanted to taunt the Jews,” our guide said.

The guide then turned around and directed our attention to “that modern building.” He was pointing to a new high rise which reflected the last rays of sun from its glass windows. “The producers of Schindler’s List concluded that this was not the scene they could use for events that took place in the 1940s. They shot the movie instead in Kazimierz’ ul Szeroka.” Now he pointed to another corner of Plac Zgody: “That is where the Pharmacy Under the Eagle was. It was run by a Polish non-Jew called Tadeusz Pankiewicz. He managed to persuade the Germans to let him keep his business here in the Ghetto. He was the real hero. He gave medicine to the Jews, often without charge, brought them news from the outside, and on occasions, made his store available to them as a safe house.”

The guide did not think highly of Oscar Schindler. “He saved some Jews’ lives only because he needed their cheap labor for his enamelware factory.” He called the foreign born Schindler “a Czech spy for Germany.” On the other hand, the guide said, “the Poles did not collaborate with the Nazis and had a unit to protect Jews in their resistance movement.” He named a Polish man, Chmielewski, who “owned a factory next door to Schindler,” and said that he saved many more Jewish lives.


Later that day I asked a local professor of journalism about Chmielewski. He said he had only recently heard that Chmielewski was credited with saving 400 Jewish lives, “but there is no evidence for this.” The professor was our host at Krakow’s John Paul II School of Journalism. He was proud to show us the student radio station which had opened just a few months before. He was their faculty advisor. There are many schools in Krakow and students constitute a large portion of its population, some estimates go as high as twenty percent. I welcomed the opportunity to talk to the students who ran the radio station.

They were mostly fourth year students in the five year program that the school offered for a degree. I asked the young woman who was in charge of music at the radio station what kind of music she played. “What I like,” she said simply. The news broadcast was “about the school,” said the young man in charge of that department. The third student, the sportscaster, was quite knowledgeable about American teams. He mentioned that a Polish-American played for the National Basketball Association team Magic. I asked him if he knew “Coach K,” the most famous Polish-American in sports I could recall. He did not. We Googled Coach K and when the sportscaster saw the full Polish name of Coach Mike Krzyzewski, he beamed and said: “Of course, he coached the American basketball team in last summer’s World Basketball Tournament.”

Later that day I toured a different college nearby: the Institute of Oriental Philology at Jagiellonian University . They taught two languages there, Turkish  and Indian. I spoke to two students who were studying Sanskrit. I asked what motivated them in that pursuit. One answered while the other nodded agreement: “Because we want to learn Hindu; we are just interested in Hindu.” They did not have a specific career plan.

I sat next to several students from other colleges at the dinner given by our host that evening. One said her home was about one-hundred kilometers away. Her mother “taught Russian which she says is a beautiful language.” The daughter, however, was studying English: “My generation thinks it is a more useful language.” I asked her friend who was from the “suburbs of Krakow” what the occupations of her parents were. “My mother sells real estate. She is moderately rich.” Still a third student said that she roomed with three other girls in a two bedroom apartment which had a kitchen, but they “mostly” ate out. As to her parents, “unfortunately, my father died 10 years ago; it is sad that I am losing the memory of him.”

I shared what I heard from those few students with my host. “That is a pretty accurate cross section of the students in Krakow,” he said. He was taking us to the “journalists club” in Krakow. It its café some guests were deep in conversation. A woman with a large black hat and a cigarette in her hand stopped talking long enough to acknowledge us. We went inside a large room full of a group of journalists who were discussing the subject of “blogging”. Two young men, one in a black T-shirt, and an older man were the panelists. They stood in front of the room. Our host announced us. We sat and listened to him interpret what was being said for some time. “It is a hot subject for debate these days among the intellectuals in Krakow,” he emphasized.

Back in the café, we were introduced to the editor of the “established” Krakow newspaper. He told me that his paper had a circulation of 40,000. Its competitor was “the regional edition of the National Polish paper, with a circulation of 15,000.” His newspaper was the local favorite partly because it was “the most independent paper during the Communist rule.” It got “most of the local advertisements as people are used to it.” Much of the ads were “from real estate people and car dealerships.” He said that his paper was owned by four “local people” and that “it was profitable.” When I mentioned the blogging discussions in the next room, he said: “Of course we are concerned about the changes in journalism due to the digital age. We expect digital competition, and we already have a digital version. But most of our readers in Krakow still want to touch the newspaper they read.” Then he added: “The new generation probably will feel differently. Change is unavoidable even in old Krakow.”


This article, entitled “ Krakow: More than just a second city”, was published on the following website of on April 28, 2011, with related pictures: