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Krakow Tries to Save Its Past

Spared World War II damage, this medieval city now faces a new foe: pollution

THE main market square in Krakow, Poland's architectural jewel, is referred to by locals as ``the living room.''

It's a description that fits. On a warm evening, tourists lounge on the stone steps of the statue of 19th-century romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz, a favorite meeting place in this vast square.

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The view from here, or from any of the cafe tables scattered around the square, beats watching television in a real living room.

Flower stalls set up just in front of the statue brim with buckets full of fresh, bright blooms.

Women with arms and legs as round as Polish sausages circle the base of the statue, holding out hand-knit bulky wool sweaters selling for the bargain-basement price of $10.

Beyond this immediate scene stand the square's magnificent Gothic and Renaissance buildings, casting a peach, pink, and pale-yellow glow as the sun goes down. At the top of the hour, a bugle calls from the highest tower of St. Mary's Basilica, in one corner of the square.

The call is cut short in honor of the watchman of 1241 who, as legend has it, saw an approaching horde of Tartars. He blew the alarm on his horn, but never finished his warning because an arrow pierced his throat. `Florence of the North'

Legends, colorful street scenes, and an architectural treasure trove that has earned this city the name ``Florence of the North'' - these are the reasons tourists flock to Krakow. And tourism, says Piotr Jasion, spokesman for the mayor of Krakow, is going to be the city's cash cow.

``We've got over 6,000 historic buildings in Krakow,'' Mr. Jasion says, ``and I don't believe anyone has counted what's really inside all these buildings. No wonder Krakow wants to be a tourist attraction and make its money from that.''

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Last year, tourism in Krakow leaped 40 percent over the previous year, to 2.5 million visitors. Most of them are Westerners (Germans and Americans), in stark contrast to the days before democracy, when the state subsidized hotel rooms for masses of tourists from fellow Communist countries.

Even in the Middle Ages, Krakow was called Poland's most beautiful city. Established in the 8th century, it started as a trade center and then became a city of art, culture, and learning. There's a church on almost every corner - 70 in all - and a main task of the nuns appears to be dusting the scores of statues and altars inside.

That, at least, is what several of them were doing during a tour of the cathedral at Wawel Castle, set on a hill overlooking the Vistula River. The castle, studded with copper domes and towers, has what is considered one of the finest Renaissance courtyards in Europe and is best known for its valuable collection of brilliantly colored 16th-century Belgian tapestries.

The Nazis occupied Wawel Castle during the war, when they made Krakow their seat of government in Poland. Although the Nazis planned to destroy Krakow, and had even set dynamite charges in buildings throughout the city, Soviet Marshal Ivan Koniev reached it before the Nazis could carry out their plan.

But the Soviet delivery also worked against the historic preservation of Krakow, says Tadeusz Chrzanowski. He is deputy director of the restoration firm Ateliers for Conservation of Cultural Property. Because the city suffered no artillery damage, it received virtually no funds to maintain the buildings. Years of neglect

``Very little was done ... for more than 20 years,'' Mr. Chrzanowski says. In 1965, the state began to invest money in the city's historic buildings, but it was impossible to keep up with the damage caused by years of neglect and heavy pollution from nearby aluminum and steel mills.

Pollution is the greatest threat to Krakow's historic buildings. ``Every rain brings down the sulfur,'' actually a weak sulfuric acid that eats away at the mostly sandstone and limestone buildings, Chrzanowski says.

One of the most challenging projects the city faces is the renovation of its Jewish quarter.

When World War II began, 70,000 Jews - a quarter of the city's population - lived in Krakow. They were almost all killed at the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau, 40 miles southwest of the city.

The Jewish shops, houses, and synagogues were plundered by the Nazis. After the war, however, an effort was made to restore some of the buildings. Seven synagogues remain, but only one is still being used for worship. Another is being restored, but the rest have been turned to other uses - artists' studios, a Jewish museum, apartments, offices. Still, the area is decrepit, and Chrzanowski calls it the ``slums'' of Krakow.

Although city officials would like to rebuild the quarter and add hotels and kosher restaurants, the city has yet to find the necessary private investors and faces legal questions over property ownership.

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