Ghosts, corpses, stunning frescoes and a heavenly choir – Poland’s oldest school has them all

Amid the ancient Gothic brickwork and ghoulish legends is a modern high school that prepares its students for careers in Poland’s booming high-tech economy, a mission it performs exceedingly well. Kalbar/TFN

The crests may have changed over the centuries, but there is no denying that this unique school is old.

Today’s iteration under the name of the Marshal Stanisław Małachowski High School, popularly known as Małachowianka, dates back to 1921, already a decent pedigree in Poland, but schooling first started on this site in the historic northern Masovian city of Płock a staggering 838 years ago in 1180. 

Officially the oldest school in Poland by around half a millennium and the 40th oldest in Europe, the school doesn’t disappoint those expecting Poland’s version of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. Ghosts are alleged to stalk the corridors, pupils share the grounds with over 600 corpses, and astonishing discoveries about the schools past are surfacing all the time. 

However, amid the ancient Gothic brickwork and ghoulish legends is a modern high school that prepares its students for careers in Poland’s booming high-tech economy, a mission it performs exceedingly well. It regularly maintains a respectable position in national league tables, while last year one of its pupils ranked in the top 25 for high school graduation exam scores among the 248,000 pupils who sat the exams and the school regularly produces Olympians who take top places in inter-school subject-based battles. 

In the school hall, paintings from the beginning of the 20th century by Władysław Drapiewski (the same artist who painted the ceiling of the Płock cathedral) were discovered by conservators.Kalbar/TFN

The legacy of schooling over vast tracts of time seems to have entered the DNA of Małachowianka. Piotr Sosnowski, the deputy head and a teacher at the school for over twenty years explains: “The traditions here play a big part in the life of the school. The pupils learn about the school’s history when they start and it is repeated in many events that take place each school year.

“The pupils are aware that their school is special and they are proud to tell people they come here,” he adds.

It is no surprise that such an ancient seat of learning should be in Płock. The city was the capital of Poland in the 11th and 12th centuries and a stronghold of Poland’s early Piast rulers even before the country’s baptism in 966. The legacy of this heritage is that the city is brimming with late Romanesque and early Gothic relics. 

In the basement of the school are the foundations of the 13th century church of which it was part and where hundreds of buried bodies were unexpectedly revealed.Kalbar/TFN

It was from these Piast rulers that the school takes it origins. Legend tells us that a collegiate church with a school was established in 1180 by a certain Dobiechna, the widow of a trusted confidante of Boleslaw the Wrymouth, the king of Poland up to 1138. 

To appreciate the school’s historic setting, it is enough to take a stroll westwards from Płock’s impressive Romanesque cathedral. Stunning views of the Vistula spread out to the left, while to the right the school buildings show how it developed over the ages. 

The first structure that comes into view is the 15th century tower, which is built on top of the foundations of the original 13th century collegiate church. 

Placed upon the top of the tower is a fully-functioning observatory with a retractable roof and a state-of-the-art telescope gifted by a former pupil.Kalbar/TFN

Adjoining this a 17th century wing built by the Jesuit counter-reformation shock troops who ran the school until 1773. Then, it taken over by King Stanisław August Poniatowski’s enlightenment-inspired National Education Commission, the first modern education ministry in Europe. The complex is rounded off with modern school and sports buildings from recent decades.

The true spirit of the school, though, is not in the old buildings, but in its ranks of illustrious alumni. Generations of apple-cheeked boys, and after 1945 girls, must have sat through Latin lessons over the years staring out of the window wondering what adventures life would have in store for them. Huge numbers of them did indeed go on to have glittering careers.    

The impressive line-up is topped by Poland’s longest serving president Ignacy Mościcki, Poland’s first prime minister after communism Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Second World War 303 Squadron fighter ace Jan Zumbach and Catholic saint Andrzej Bobola.

Piotr Sosnowski, the deputy head and a teacher at the school for over twenty years said: “The pupils are aware that their school is special and they are proud to tell people they come here.”Kalbar/TFN

As if invigorated by the vitality of this youthful spirit, the school has recently restored its crumbling fabric. In 2012-14, it underwent a thorough make over at a cost of 30 million PLN, most of which came from the European Union Regional Development Fund. This not only halted the deterioration of the deteriorating fabric, but it lead to many amazing discoveries about the school’s long and often mysterious past. 

Chief among these are the pile of dead bodies that sit in a concreate tank, now a consecrated ossuary, by the perimeter fence. When the foundations of the 13th century church were exposed, hundreds of buried bodies were unexpectedly revealed. Archaeologists have no information about who these people were as no grave markings remained. All that is known is that they were residents of Płock. 

Unsurprisingly, this ghoulish past has led to a raft of ghost stories that circulate among the student body. Creaking timbers and doors slamming shut in the venerable halls are often attributed to restless spirits. 

Basia, Julia and Sylwia in their penultimate year at the school said the stories of ghosts were fun but they didn’t believe them.Kalbar/TFN

Katarzyna Kuplińska from the school’s museum is a walking compendium of knowledge about spooky goings on at the school. “One time, a teacher was in the library when a pupil came to ask a question. The teacher told the pupil to come back when she wasn’t busy. A while later, the teacher saw the pupil and asked why he had not come back to ask the question. The pupil replied that he she asked the other teacher in the library, but there was no other teacher in library,” she related. 

Other ghost stories often involve children who are seen in corridors and suddenly disappear. “One porter was so terrified by what he experienced that he had to be taken to hospital. Nobody knows what he saw,” Katarzyna says. 

Basia, Julia and Sylwia in their penultimate year at the school take a more sanguine approach. “We’ve all heard lots of stories, but I don’t think any of them are true,” Julia says. 

Magnificent, sacral polychromes decorated the walls of the hall until the 1970s. Then, the communist authorities, thinking it unconscionable that religious paintings should pollute the pupils of a secular school, ordered them to be covered by a layer of plaster. Now they have been uncovered and restored.Kalbar/PAP

“The ghost stories are just a bit of good fun. We recently had Ghost Night when pupils dressed in scary costumes and we had a treasure hunt with questions about the school’s history,” Sylwia added. 

In addition to dead bodies, the EU funded renovation work also led to other discoveries. 

In the school hall, paintings from the beginning of the 20th century by Władysław Drapiewski (the same artist who painted the ceiling of the Płock cathedral) were discovered by conservators. 

The magnificent, sacral polychromes decorated the walls of the hall until the 1970s. Then, the communist authorities, thinking it unconscionable that religious paintings should pollute the pupils of a secular school, ordered them to be covered by a layer of plaster.The school’s impressive alumni include Poland’s longest serving president Ignacy Mościcki, Poland’s first prime minister after communism Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Second World War 303 Squadron fighter ace Jan Zumbach and Catholic saint Andrzej Bobola.Kalbar/TFN

Fortunately, the director at the time Kazimiera Kawa told the workers to first apply netting to the walls, which they then plastered over. It meant that decades later the plaster could simply be peeled off and the polychromes were found to be in relatively good condition. 

Another exciting discovery were fragments of the previously bricked-over apse in the school’s now fully restored auditorium. Initial plans envisaged rebuilding the apse in the cleared space, but when the restorers discovered fragments of decorations and columns, the team decided to take on the challenge of recreating or rearranging the missing elements of the apse. 

The result, along with the restored polychromes, is an undeniably stunning school hall that is the perfect setting for performances of the school’s famous choir, as well as other school ceremonies and events. 

TFN’s Stuart Dowell (centre) being shown around the school by the deputy head (R) and Katarzyna Kuplińska (L) from the school’s museum who is a walking compendium of knowledge about spooky goings on at the school.Kalbar/TFN

The final treat from the revitalisation is the viewing platform atop the Gothic tower, which is open to tourists and visitors.

The views of the church towers and the town hall are breathtaking. The Vistula disappears to infinity towards the capital and towards Gdansk in the opposite direction. In the distance, the chimneys of Orlen spike upwards in competition with older pinnacles of the Old Town. 

Placed upon the top of the tower is a fully-functioning observatory with a retractable roof and a state-of-the-art telescope gifted by a former pupil. Reaching for the stars is something that the school has been getting right for a long time, and the future looks equally starry.