Johns Hopkins Gazette: February 13, 1995

Cracow: A Great University Town

By Mike Field

'Gazette' writer Mike Field spent much of December touring Russia
and Eastern Europe, including visits to several university towns:
He reports:

     It's taken a lifetime of investigation, but I think I have
determined that Cracow, Poland, may be the ideal college town.
It's not too big--just over 500,000--but big enough to offer some
excitement. There's culture, nightlife, history, and the city's
art museums can boast of Da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine and
Rembrandt's Landscape with the Good Samaritan, to name but a few
of their treasures.
     The University of Cracow is large enough to be fractious, as
any good university should be, and old enough to be respectable,
having already passed 100 by the time Nicolaus Copernicus was a
stu-dent there. Besides, who can resist a town founded by a
cobbler named Krak, who had to kill a virgin-devouring dragon
before he could lay the city's first cornerstone?
     Up on the hill overlooking the river, Krak's descendants
built a series of magnificent castles, each more grand than the
last. Casimir the Great built a fine cathedral there in the later
14th century, wherein today lie buried most of the heroes of
Polish history. Rumors have it that space remains available for
the cathedral's charismatic Cardinal Wojtyla, now known to the
world as Pope John Paul II, should his wishes and papal tradition
ever permit.
     Further up the hill, in the main part of the palace, an
enormous throne room is canopied by what is perhaps the world's
most unique ceiling. Boxed and paneled in a style typical of the
late Renaissance, each ceiling panel was once mounted with a
hand-carved likeness of the head of some member of 16th- century
Polish society. Bakers and butchers, priests and parishioners,
the great, the lowly, fat and thin, all shared an exalted
position looking down upon the King. And he, in turn, could look
up to them, remembering perhaps that his kingdom was neither land
nor castles but a collection of people, all of them individuals.
     Many of the panels are blank now. In one of the recurrent
wars that devastated Poland for most of the last century, enemy
troops occupied the palace. For sport, they took turns shooting
at the heads.  BANG! went the enemy guns, and down came the head
of the butcher.  BANG! again, and there went the farmer's wife.
Perhaps it was their very individuality that made them such
satisfying target practice.
     Down the other side of the hill, across a bridge made famous
in the movie "Schindler's List," lies a crowded plot of land that
became the Jewish ghetto during World War II. Thousands were
crowded within the neighborhood walls, often living 10 and more
to the room. 
     On one corner a gentile apothecary had a shop. This man, say
many in Cracow, is a true hero of the occupation. Like Schindler,
he used his influence, his wits and even his own money to save
those he could; unlike the German adventurer turned
industrialist, he didn't make a lot of money for himself in the
process. As a matter of fact, a lot of people in Cracow are less
than enamored of Herr Schindler these days.
     "It was the movie," says our guide, Renata. "When the movie
company came they said they would hire people and pay them well."
But, she says, it didn't happen. A story she has heard says the
movie extras hired to run naked in the yard at Auschwitz were
promised good pay and a hot meal. Instead, they got a few dollars
and a cold sandwich for their pains. It was, she says, as if they
weren't individuals. Just extras. 
     Many in town have heard this tale and are unexcited at the
possibility of another movie filming there. If this is Hollywood,
who needs it? But there was something else.
     "After the movie, a lot of tourists started coming from
America," Renata says. "They all wanted to see the building where
Schindler's Jews worked, the bridge they crossed, anything having
to do with the movie."
     Renata started a special Schindler tour, taking them to all
the points that were interesting and even some that weren't,
particularly. Inevitably though, as the tourists looked around,
as they saw the Da Vinci paintings and the marvelous architecture
and the famous university where Copernicus studied, they all
stopped, and looked at her, and asked the same question. How? How
could it happen?
     "They had guns, they had tanks, and we didn't," Renata would
say. And then she would shrug her shoulders. How indeed could it
happen in this perfect university town?
     Less than an hour away, in the sleepy Polish town of
Owiecim, far worse was in store for the butcher and the farmer's
wife. The Germans called it Auschwitz.
     Two years after the war, before he was hanged for his
crimes, the Auschwitz commandant was allowed to write his
autobiography. This is part of what he wrote: "When at night I
stood out there beside the transports, or by the gas chambers or
the fires, I was often compelled to think of my wife and
children, without, however, allowing myself to connect them
closely with what was happening."
     "All the Americans come and they say it couldn't possibly
happen, not in America, not again, not after this," says Renata,
momentarily losing her usual good humor. "And I tell them this.
Before the communists fell we had many visitors from Eastern
Europe. Until the end of the 1980s the No. 1 amount of tourists
visiting Auschwitz came from Yugoslavia. Explain that."
     How can you explain it, here in this ideal college town? It
couldn't happen. Not here. BANG!

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