This morning, as I flipped through my photos of Poland taken this past October, I came across a series of shots of the famous Gothic St. Mary’s Church in the Main Market Square of Krakow. Page after page of different angles, intriguing details, Monet-esque studies of various lighting and different times of day. My own camera told me what I had not realized at the time – I was obsessed with St. Mary’s Church and in particular with the north tower.
For anyone who has been blessed enough to stroll the enchanting streets of Krakow, Poland’s spiritual and medieval capital, you know the story of St. Mary’s North Tower. As legend goes, when the Tartars, nomadic warriors descended from the mighty Genghis Khan, descended upon Krakow, the town watchman in this tower sounded a warning song from his bugle, allowing the city enough time to rally a defense at the city walls and successfully hold off the attack. Tragically, the watchman was shot through the neck by an arrow as he continued to sound out the alarm. It is a moment in Polish history that makes every Polish man, woman, and child stand a little taller and step out their front door with pride.
I am not Polish, and even my convoluted American immigrant heritage does not, at least to my knowledge, contain a speck of Polish blood. Yet my own photo album sings of my own spiritual connection to this church, its tower and the legend that encompasses it. Then it hit me with stunning clarity – I had connected with the legend of Polish courage and fortitude as a child, reading a wonderful children’s book called The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly. A winner of the Newberry Medal, one of the gold standards of children’s literature, I came across this enchanting book in my 4th grade classroom. A story of a young Polish boy in 15th century Poland who fled one of a successive wave of Tartar attacks, it weaved a tale of bravery in the face of possible death, and a boy inspired by the legend of the watchman two centuries before him to help save Krakow. I devoured the book in three days.
So as I stood on the rain-slicked ancient cobblestones of the market square in the shadow of history and craned my neck back to gaze up at this monument to legend, I became that ten-year-old girl. The local fireman on duty opened a window, the bugle appeared far above, and suddenly legend swirled audibly around me – the magic of the hejnal. I did not realize at the time the power of a moment my spirit had waited 18 years to meet. I may not be Polish, or even Polish-American, but as the bugler sounded out his haunting refrain to each of the four directions, I felt as if I had come home. The final note struck and cut off abruptly, and then the fireman waved out the window to the spectators below. My ten-year-old heart waved back.