In Krakow’s town square, leaning out the highest tower in St. Mary’s church, a rotating group of trumpeters play the Hejnat Mariacki, a Polish tune, every 15 minutes. In the past, the short song served as a cue to open and close the city’s gates. According to an American author’s book that was published in 1928, the tradition commemorates a trumpeter who spotted approaching Mongolian invaders in 1241. Warning the city, he sounded off with his trumpet atop the tower. Krakow closed its gates right before the Mongolians could penetrate into the walls. The trumpeter, however, was cut off mid-tune when one of the Mongolian’s arrows hit his throat. It’s a nice story that’s commonly fed to tourists. One problem: The American author’s account is totally false.
Some suggest the writer was a victim of a hoax. Others think he took what was generally accepted as a legend and tried to repackage it as fact. Either way, his version prevails today. Funny, my previous post was dedicated to how I was once convinced pictures are only a weapon of distortion. In the wrong hands, apparently words and explanations of the past can be just as unreliable – probably worse since tales can take on a life of their own and are more likely to be passed down to future generations.
Krakow is built on a lot history. Literally. Today the town square is more than 15 feet higher than it used to be because villagers built on top of older layers when they wanted to improve or rebuild the area. In one of the coolest museums I’ve been to in Europe, visitors can see a preserved section of the original, now underground square. In addition to witnessing the various foundations, there was a cemetery dating back to the 12th century and various exhibits illuminating Poland’s past. Seeing the layers and layers of history accumulating on each other around me, I thought about what I had learned about Poland and other cities in Europe. What parts would hold up to scrutiny? Like the trumpeter’s tale, would much of history, if sorted through and properly excavated, be revealed as a sham?
Of course, not everything is up for debate. There are certainly some undeniable facts about Poland. To give a brief history, the country was a huge empire in the 16th centuries, which is why much of European royal ancestry can be traced to its kings’ and queens’ bloodline. Once the country declined and lost several wars, it was split up between Prussia, Russia and Austria beginning in the late 18th century. That’s the plain truth, but zooming in and examining the smaller events that made up the rise and decline of the empire, there’s definitely ambiguity and competing versions of history.
The same can be said of Poland during WW2, something I was reminded of when I happened upon the Jewish quarter and Schlinder’s factory (the origins of Schlinder’s List). To some, even though he had bad vices like gambling and womanizing, Schlinder had pure intentions, some critics offer a less humbling view: Schindler was an opportunist who only wanted to make money.
At the end of the day, I guess what’s important is that Schlinder was a hero to many. As a tour guide said, many survivors that he helped hold the view that his intentions were ultimately irrelevant – that particular part of history wasn’t important to them. To them, the bottom line is that because of his actions, they were able to survive – nothing more, nothing less.
Lots to think about in Krakow – layers and layers of history accumulating – none of it neat and tidy.