Marcin Oracewicz

In Brief: It’s hero time. A plaque at the Barbakan records how one man saved Kraków with a button from his coat.

What’s it for? On June 22, 1768, the Russians were quite literally at the gate. Under the command of General Ivan Panin, the invading army had reached Kraków and was set to break through the Florian Gate. To make matters worse, ammunition was running out… the city looked destined to fall.

Cometh the Hour:  Anyone who knows anything about Polish history will know that this is not a country to lie down and die. On this occasion, one man in particular was to seize the glory. His name was Marcin Oracewicz, who moved to Kraków from Spisz, and became a citizen in 1745. When the Russians attacked, Oracewicz was heading towards the Barbakan, determined to help defend his adopted home.

A million to one chance: The problem faced by Oracewicz, and for his comrades in arms, was that Kraków’s defences were already creaking. Not only were the Cracovians heavily outnumbered by the Russian forces, but there was still the question of ammunition. Or rather, the lack of it. What the city needed was a miracle.

Divine intervention: As he passed a statue of the Madonna, Oracewicz rubbed one of his buttons on it and uttered a prayer, asking the Holy Mother to intervene. With no bullets to hand, he was forced to use the button as a bullet. From the city wall he fired into the mass of Russian troops – and hit Panin in the eye, killing him and thus saving Kraków, for the time being, at least.

The stuff of legends: That, in any case, is the story, and the reason for the plaque. In truth, there is some dispute over whether Panin was commanding the Russian troops, or whether it was actually Oracewicz’s button bullet that killed him. Nevertheless, there is a plaque at the Barbakan marking the moment and, when it comes to heroes, why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

Bookend biography: Marcin Oracewicz, Born, c. 1720, Spisz. Died c. 1789, Kraków.

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