The Beggars of Krakow

Krakow is challenge for beggars. On the one hand it’s a comparatively wealthy place with lots of even wealthier tourists, but on the other Krakowians are notoriously the tightest citizens of the republic. The inside of the average Krakowian’s wallet receives less hours of sunlight annually than parts of North Wales. There are reputed to be solid gold coins from the reign of Kazimierz Wielki (1310–70) still officially in circulation because no government department has yet figured out how to liberate them from the purses of Krakow citizens.

This abundance of riches and challenges has evolved a glitteringly varied set of behaviors on the part of the beggars of Krakow. Here are four of them:

The martyr

Modus operandi:
The martyr is recognizable by his habit of lying nearly prostrate on the pavement, head bowed and arms outstretched in the direction of a bent paper cup meant for the reception of alms. He never speaks and barely moves. The martyr is usually bundled in an extraordinary collection of coats, scarves, paper bags, and bits of string, regardless of the season, and habitually choses a pitch in front of a church. The religious connotation are obvious and these characters nearly always put me in mind of The Life of Brian for no obviously relevant reason.


The martyr in action

Personally I can’t bring myself to go near martyrs let alone give them money. The whole thing just seems so biblical and melodramatic that I prefer to suffer the indignity of stepping over them rather than bending down and popping a few coins in the cup, which I think would make me feel worse—it seems so condescending. Presumably there are some Christian souls who like to see the poor prostrate themselves for cash otherwise I guess they wouldn’t do it.

The bench crew

Modus operandi:
Bench crews are a seasonal phenomenon in Krakow. Once it’s warm enough to sit outside all day the city’s cadgers and layabouts emerge from god knows where are take up residence on their favorite benches around the planty. The planty, a leafy promenade that extends all the way around Krakow’s old town, is an itinerant’s paradise. A gang of five to six cadgers can camp on one of the 900 benches that line the route and fish from the never-ending circular river of tourists that flows past. Every few minutes one of them will pop up and ask a passerby for a cigarette or a bit of change.

Bench crews are persistent and repetitive. There’s one that lives for six months of the year on my route into the center of town. It’s literally impossible not to pass through their hunting ground if you want to walk directly from my house to the market square. Almost every single day for six months the same guy asked me for a cigarette or change. I knew him so well I could have picked him out of a 10,000-man lineup, but he never once seemed to recognize me. Eventually I cracked and screamed “Every bloody day!” as he approached for the nine thousandth time. He veered away as if it had all been a regrettable faux pas on his part. The next day he asked me for a cigarette. The first time I see that ginger bastard this year I’m leaving the country.

The actor

Modus operandi:
Some beggars are exceptionally good at what they do. They have an act, or a story, or some other highly plausible reason why you should give them money for no services rendered. The best actor beggar I ever saw was in Warsaw, not Krakow. I called her the sobbing granny and I saw her dozens of times around the city center. She was in her late 50s or early 60’s and dressed as a respectable hard working woman down on her luck. It was almost a mime act, apart from the sound of sobbing. Tearful and obviously distraught she would totter uncertainly along a crowded pavement until, about five seconds later, a concerned citizen would stop and offer succor. I’m assuming she lives in a villa in Croatia by now.

Sobbing granny almost certainly made her pile and moved on to other forms of human manipulation such as producing talent shows or banking. Others are too clever for their own good. The elaborate story about needing the train fare to visit a sick brother in Gdansk was struck of the official list of believable tales shortly before Red Ridding Hood.

body cast

My brother really isn’t well

The wild card

Modus operandi:
They don’t have one. It’s any trick at any time with there people. These amateurs of the begging world are frequently to be found ‘coincidentally’ standing outside alcohol shops or milk bars when they hit you for change. “Got any change to spare? In here…? No just happened to be standing here is all, as I was yesterday and the day before when you walked past.”

I always give these people money. Their ineptness and lack of professional guile restores my faith in humanity. On the other hand it could be cleverest scam of them all.

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31 thoughts on “The Beggars of Krakow

  1. Lon says:

    Funny, when I need a laugh or good social commentary leave it to your insights. It used to be said in my old stomping grounds in the SF Bay area that just around the corner from ever pan handler was a Mercedes with their name on it…

    Stay warm. What is Krakow like at -6c these days?

  2. bob says:

    Could have sworn the martyr was scatts!

  3. MaterialGirl says:

    The martyr is really some Romanian (or rather Romanian Gypsy) woman. She is trying to take you on the mercy. Usually she is lying on the pavement Sienna Street. Polish beggars usually are menels (drunk men from pathological families, which don’t intend to soil their hands with work). They don’t want food only money and show dirty and running sores on their legs. (Which I’m sure they scraped before).

  4. wildphelps says:

    Entertaining post, but everyone knows that people from Poznan are much more tight-fisted than Krakowians.

  5. island1 says:

    That hardly seems possible.

  6. island1 says:

    There were two comments I was absolutely sure would be made on this post: Guest made the first one and you made the second. What is it about Romanians that makes everyone believe they are all beggars?

  7. wildphelps says:

    Ask around about the infamous “Poznan Tea”

    And did you hear about the Varsovian, the Krakowian, and the Poznaniak who had all been roommates in uni together? After 20 years they met up by accident and decided to have a drink. The Varsovian said he would go get the vodka. The Krakowian said he would go get the pickles. The Poznaniak said he would go get his brother-in-law.

  8. The only time I’ve ever given any change was to a guy that lurched up to me at a cafe. Not an outdoor one, either. I don’t remember how much I gave – I was basically just completely shocked that some jackass was begging for change in a cafe. I later saw the same guy begging elsewhere but was wise to his schtick and steered clear.

    Everyone else asking for change that isn’t some sort of charitable organisation gets zilch from me, regardless of whether or not I’ve got change. Someone else can support their drinking habits.

  9. malaysian says:

    I don’t think it’s appropriate to poke fun at beggars.

    Not all of them beg because they want to – they’re one of the most disadvantaged people in the society and require institutional assistance from the government.

    Many factors might have contributed to this – alcoholic parent(s), broken families, lack of education, low self-esteem/lack of positive self-identity, involvement in drugs, jobless, stigmatization by mainstream society (like this post), etc – all of which you might notice lead one thing to another, and eventually they’re all trapped in a poverty cycle they can’t escape from.

    Mainstream society members like to think of the condition of beggars (or anyone who is socially-disadvantaged/social outcast) as something self-inflicted.

    This is an easy way to wash our hands off what might have been a social problem.

    Ask one of those guys in the ‘bench crew’ on why they beg, and you’ll hear one of the most enlightening things you’ve heard in a while.

  10. Pioro says:

    I think MG meant Roma or Romani (aka Gypsies) and not actual citizens of Romania (although they might be…)

  11. Pioro says:

    Ha! Krakow is a close 2nd to Poznan. I have to concur with Phelps.

  12. Pioro says:

    Thank you Malaysian of reminding me of my humanity. :^) And you are right, when I have the time I actually like talking to beggars and finding out what caused them to end up this way. The last one (it was still warm out) I had a chat with for a good 30 minutes explaining how because of a diagnosed heart condition his employer (one of those justus, scorpion, paramilitary security cos.) let him go. So now he gets a disability pension which barely covers his medicaments and rent. And if decides to get another job he would lose that pension so it became a vicious cycle of hopelessness which lead him to the bottle. But overall an articulate proper man simply put in a bad situation that led to a worse one. It could happen to any of us especially if not protected by a super-welfare state like Scandinavia or Holland which Poland (and 90% of other nations) simply cannot afford.

  13. malaysian says:

    One old Polish lady once me that she gets 500 zloty as pension from the government. (translated from a Polish friend of mine of course.)

    She collects empty cans from the rubbish bin in the parks and on the streets to supplement her pension. She seemed angry because in her old age, the society has not only shown no appreciation towards what she had contributed in her most productive years, but also undignified her.

    The onus is on the society to acknowledge it’s responsiblity towards this group and make necessary political pressure on the government to mitigate the problem.

    Only thing is, the society itself is in deep denial and believe that it’s the nature of some people to want to live like a dog.

  14. MaterialGirl says:

    Nobody said that all Romanins are beggars. Only this women on the pic. is representative of Romanian Gypsy beggars! They invaded Kraków especially in early 90tees. Now, they prefer going to the richest West!

  15. tee says:

    The problem is that a significant number of beggars take advantage of those people who are really in trouble and there’s really no telling how many of them are on the streets because of everything in their life went wrong.
    You should also ask yourself if a few zlotys will make much of a difference.
    We can’t help everyone, that’s a sad fact. Choosing a group of people or some sort of noble cause that we’d like to support with a more substantial portion of our money is probably the best option, than getting ridof our spare change.
    Therefore I rarely give money for people on the street – I prefer giving a bigger sum to some charity organizations.

  16. malaysian says:

    I don’t give money to beggars either.

    It’s the job of the government to clean up the social mess, and it’s our job to make sure they do that.

  17. malaysian says:

    This “insert any east european nation” gypsy myth is getting too far.

    As long as you’re not the Eastern-most European nation, you can always say that the ugliest/poorest/most disgusting people on your local streets are some gypsies from one of your neighbors in the east.

    I’ve heard once a Spanish guy calling a Polish girl (who looks like an average Polish girl) a gypsy.

    Ask a British, a French or a Dutch and they will name different countries in Eastern Europe as the real origin on the “gypsies”.

    In the case of Bulgaria, they will just tell you that the gypsies are from India (or so the myth goes).

  18. Yes, Malaysian, socialism is about the rights that people give themselves. For example the right to take your salary, give you back some and distribute the rest among who they choose.

    It follows that the people who are week and can’t fight for those ‘rights’, get no rights. Old people, beggars, babies can get starved or killed.

    Why is anyone surprised that thieves don’t want to share? Yesterday it was announced that Britain is raising the pension age to 80 years. Effectively, most people will work until death. Fair.

    Yes, fair, if they didn’t steal your NI and most of the tax, excise, VAT et c. People would have their own money.

    BTW – in Krakow they always give change. My friend, another Ania, told me that she was posing for a picture in Krakow, striking a mime pose, and before the picture was taken, she had change in her hand.

  19. malaysian says:


    I don’t really understand what you’re trying to get across here.

    Who are the ‘thieves’ ? And isn’t socialism about protecting the weak ?

    What has raising the British pension age to 80 got to do with beggars on the street ?

    So did Ania’s change in her hand was taken without her knowledge ? Or she gave it voluntarily during the photoshoot ?

    I’m sorry I have a weakness for figurative writing!

  20. Steven says:

    Yes, quite right, also millions of thieves.

  21. Steven says:

    No, it is our job to make the social mess, by trying to clean up the social mess that Stalin shat, all over Eastern Europe.

  22. Steven says:

    They tried raising the pension age to when a Brit. loses three or more front teeth, but half the country was eligible for benifits.

  23. Socialists are the thieves, because they claim the right to my earnings, and spend it all on ZUS palaces, new plane for Tusk and NPOs. They have not much to do with naive kids who just want to help poor people.

    Beggars need help. Pensioners need help. They don’t get much help. Pension is postponed 20 years. Beggars are ignored. Thieves pretended they care, but took the money that people gave for pensions and poor people.

    Ania had no change. Ania extended hand. She got change from some guy, without asking. She didn’t give it.

  24. tee says:

    Well, isn’t our job to make sure that people we choose will do that as our representatives?

    But honestly… right now I prefer to help poor Haitians struck by incredible tragedy rather than getting rid of our ‘social messes’.

    The sad truth is that most of our beggars live like kings compared to how average person lived there even BEFORE the earthquake – or in other 3rd-world-countries, plagued by matural disasters, wars and own governments, who make their lives much worse TODAY compared to what Stalin and his minions had done to our grandparents and parents. The worst part is that developed and developing countries often take advantahge of the poorest, so their misery is partially our fault.

    Therefore noone will get help on a street from me, unless the situation is clearly demanding some form of help… not only because of what I written above, but also because – surprisingly – a few hours after I wrote my firts post an unknown woman knocked to the door to our flat and asked for food/money. I don’t know how she managed to go past main doors to the building, which are closed to anyone without key/code/invitation… That and going around private flats and asking for alms CLEARLY crosses the line.

  25. MaterialGirl says:

    For me the biggest thieves were those who had got condominiums and were colonialists! :(

  26. MaterialGirl says:

    I M talking about facts I saw, U R talking about stereotypes!

  27. Michal says:

    I met a guy in begging in Warsaw who was a bit aggressive/pushy, he told me that he wanted money for drink but I swear I saw him a half hour later with an i-pod. I’d say he was only looking for money to support his nice lifestyle. Normally I don’t give beggers money but I gave him a little, never again. Rude waiters/waitresses get fuck all either.

    I have met lots of beggers in Poland in my short visit there, many of them beg from people sitting at tables by the street or they venture inside the door and ask the people nearest to them for money.

    It should be stopped, who wants to eat somewhere people will beg from you. After a while I will become harder and it will be like water off a ducks back I think.

  28. Hello from Ukraine !

    Krakow the beautiful and interesting city.

    And, we know about beggers here in UA, so I agree with earlier poster, beware to give them money, I am sure some are the Millionaire !


    Marina – Rivne [Rovno] Ukraine.

  29. Rahul Thube says:

    Poland also have beggars hmm , i thought only India is filled with lots of beggars near temples. I can’t even visit such temples .fear of getting diseases from them. I donate money to organisations not to beggars , Because organisations works for the welfare of this beggars but beggars can misused the money like drinking ,or other activities. hmm nice article i learn about beggars in Poland BBye .

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