Just a few months ago, Krakow's Communist Party daily, Gazeta Krakowska, was perhaps the most sought-after newspaper in Poland. Its lively, often controversial reports made it the symbol of the strivings of Polish journalists for a freer press and some copies would change hands for as much as 200 times the cover price.

Today, following the imposition of tight press controls by Poland's martial-law government, Gazeta Krakowska has reverted to its former mold. No longer is it difficult to get hold of. Huge stacks of the paper pile up at newspaper kiosks in this ancient university city--unsold, unread and uninteresting.

The man who transformed Gazeta Krakowska from a turgid party organ into a sought-after modern-day journal sits dejectedly in the Kuznice Club for Marxist intellectuals just off Krakow's main square. Sipping tea, Maciej Szumowski reminisces about "the most beautiful period in my professional life"--the 16 months of relative creative freedom that ended Dec. 13 with the military crackdown against the independent Solidarity trade union.

The 43-year-old newspaper editor recalls that, on the first Sunday of martial law, he was summoned to a party meeting in Krakow. An official read a list of those journalists who, in the future, would not be permitted to enter the offices of Gazeta Krakowska--a shabby but splendid art nouveau building.

Szumowski's name was at the top of the list.

For a couple of weeks, Gazeta Krakowska was closed. In its place, a martial-law broadsheet was published bearing the mastheads of all three Krakow newspapers. The price of the newspaper's being allowed to reopen was the "ideological verification" of all its staff--in other words, a purge of all journalists considered politically unreliable.

During this process, which was supervised by hard-line Communist Party members and military commissars, 20 of the 40 permanent staff members at Gazeta Krakowska lost their jobs. Szumowski resigned as editor-in-chief.

Szumowski is a thin, wiry man with intense eyes, who habitually wears jeans and a polo-neck sweater. He accuses the authorities of "brutality for brutality's sake" in their treatment of journalists. Some writers, he says, were summoned for interrogation at police stations in an attempt to intimidate them. The most talented either were fired or resigned in disgust, leaving obedient mediocrities behind.

"The team that we built up, the team that became a symbol of an era, has been shattered and scattered. . . . These are journalists who tasted the joy of writing the truth," he says.

The purge at Gazeta Krakowska was repeated in newspaper offices throughout Poland. Journalists were summoned before special panels and required to answer questions on their attitude toward martial law, Solidarity, and the Communist Party. Those who gave the wrong answers were fired.

Journalists in Krakow say the purge was supervised from Warsaw by the party's propaganda chief, Stefan Olszowski, who had been demanding greater discipline from the press even before martial law.

Szumowski describes the ideological verification process as "a great mistake" since it undermined, with a single stroke, the credibility that some newspapers gradually had built with their readers. In Gazeta Krakowska's case, the credibility was based on such journalistic practices as reporting all sides of a story as well as airing issues that had previously been taboo for the Polish press.

Before his appointment as editor of Gazeta Krakowska following the strikes of August 1980 that gave birth to Solidarity, Szumowski was a well-known television director. He already had incurred the wrath of the authorities by producing a series of investigative documentaries, including a remarkably candid film about the 1970 workers' riots in Gdansk during which at least 50 people were killed.

Before August 1980, editors of party newspapers in Poland were regarded as spokesmen for the country's rulers. But Szumowski ignored instructions from PAP, the official news agency, about what to put on his front page and he started exercising his own journalistic judgment.

In March 1981, for example, Szumowski sent his own reporter to the northern town of Bydgoszcz, the scene of a violent confrontation between Solidarity and the police. While nearly all other Polish newspapers relied solely on official accounts of the incident, Gazeta Krakowska printed the police version, Solidarity's version and the results of its own investigation side-by-side on the front page.

In Krakow, the newspaper helped uncover local corruption and campaigned against an aluminum plant that was polluting the air and allegedly causing the city's beautiful buildings to crumble. Szumowski also ran a series entitled "Blank Pages in Modern Polish History," which included articles on such sensitive topics as Polish-Soviet relations.

Relations between Szumowski and local Communist officials, who were theoretically responsible for Gazeta Krakowska, had their ups and downs. At first the party leaders showed alarm at the changes he was introducing, he says, but they later accepted it as part of the process of helping to restore public trust in the party.

Szumowski says his relations with local officialdom deteriorated again in the final weeks before martial law--a period when attitudes were hardening on all sides. He refused to swing the paper behind the tougher party line and was criticized when he wrote in support of the president of the Association of Polish Journalists, Stefan Bratkowski, who was expelled from the Communist Party in November because of his reformist views.

As Poland's cultural and intellectual capital, Krakow always has been considered a bastion of tolerance, a reputation that has withstood the harsh conditions of martial law. The local party leadership has attempted to find other jobs for journalists dismissed from their posts. Szumowski himself has been offered a post on Kuznice's monthly theoretical journal (circulation 3,000) but he has not decided whether to accept it.

He has also remained a member of the Communist Party despite his objections to martial law. If he had lived in Warsaw, he says, he would have been thrown out of the party some time ago.

But he sees it as his duty to remain in the party to protect his colleagues. If he resigned, he says, it could provide an additional weapon for longtime enemies of the paper who claim that Gazeta Krakowska was never a true party organ, and the dismissed journalists would find it even harder to get new jobs.

"Every place abandoned by a wise and principled journalist or scientist gets filled by a mediocrity capable of any compromise whatsoever. This is a real threat to Poland," he says.

For the future, Szumowski sees some cause for optimism in the fact that the martial-law chief, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, still is resisting calls from hard-liners for even greater repression. The ideological purge has not yet spread to the universities. But, in his view, the military crackdown represented a tremendous blow to the vision of a socialist system accepted by the people for whom Gazeta Krakowska had fought.

"It's only idiots in the party who think martial law was a victory because it helped to keep them in power," says Szumowski. "Perhaps it's possible to argue that it was a necessity--but not a victory. In fact, it was a tragic defeat for everything we believed in." .