World War II, Krakow and Beethoven (1)


(Scenes from Krakow’s town square)

I recently spent ten days in Krakow, Poland, a beautiful city where the ghosts and disputes of WW II still linger. This is the first of two blogs about Krakow’s noteworthy history.

Krakow is in southern Poland east of the border between the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Settled in the 7th Century, the city has a long and remarkable history as a center of trade, culture, architecture, and academics. Like much of Poland, it was invaded many times from the east, and the Polish language, with its spiky clusters of unpronounceable consonants, owes much more to Slavic languages than to Latin.

From the 11th to the 16th centuries Krakow was the capital of the Kingdom of Poland. Its Jagiellonian University, the 2nd oldest university in Central Europe, was founded in 1364, and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (who posited that the earth orbits the sun) studied there in the 1490s. One of the early Polish kings was hospitable to Jews, and the city developed a significant Jewish population.

Krakow’s beautiful architecture survived WW II due in part to the quick action of its mayor. Shortly after Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, he declared Krakow an open city, and the following day, September 6th, the Germans took over. While Germany annexed portions of Poland outright, Krakow was in territory administered as a colony and source of forced labor by the Nazi’s General Government, a division of the Third Reich. Hitler’s lawyer, Dr. Hans Frank, was appointed head of the General Government, and he ruled from Krakow’s Wawel Castle, once home to Polish kings.

Under Frank’s brutal regime, Krakow’s Jews were moved from the city into a walled ghetto, and subsequently deported to extermination camps. Oskar Schindler (depicted in the movie “Schindler’s List”), a Czech industrialist and Nazi, operated an enamelware factory in Krakow. Nazi connections and bribes enabled him to save the lives of some 1,000 Jews by employing them in his factory. Another Krakow resident, a very young Roman Polanski (the film director), escaped the ghetto and survived.

When Soviet forces took Krakow on 18 January 1945, the city once again avoided much physical damage. As the war ended, the Soviet Union assumed control of Polish elections and government. Eventually, the Polish People’s Republic was formed, a Soviet-dominated government that suppressed intellectual and academic life and continued until 1989.

And how does Ludwig van Beethoven fit into this picture? Beethoven himself never set foot in Krakow. However, his music—specifically, a priceless collection of autograph manuscripts of his work—resides in the city. How that collection came to Krakow and why it remains there today is a fascinating WW II story of stealth, secrecy, shifting national boundaries, and war-related grievances that continue to this day. This remarkable tale will appear in part 2 of this blog.

While John McCrea was never in Poland or Europe before or during the war, the events that took place there were certainly part of “his world.” Before the German invasion of Poland, John was the executive officer (second in command) of the battleship USS Pennsylvania, the flagship of the U.S. Fleet, based in the Pacific. John followed world events closely. He was aware of Japanese aggression and conquest in Asia and the increasing tensions in Europe. He believed the U.S. might be drawn into war and spent considerable effort on war training and trying to focus the men of Pennsylvania on planning for war. Few, including senior officers, thought the U.S. would go to war. Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 and the breakout of hostilities in Europe only strengthened John’s belief that U.S. involvement in war was a distinct possibility. He proved to be prescient.


“Jagiellonian University,” Wikipedia,;

“Nicolaus Copernicus,” Wikipedia,;

“Kraków,” Wikipedia,;

“Hans Frank,” Wikipedia,;

“History of Poland,” Wikipedia,;  

“Invasion of Poland,” Wikipedia,;

“Open City,” Wikipedia,;

“General Government,” Wikipedia,;

“The Potsdam Conference, 1945,” Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State,;

“Oskar Schindler,” Wikipedia,;

all last accessed 2.13.2017.


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