KRAKOW, POLAND. — Krakow, Poland--There was a formal ball last Friday night in the medieval hall at the center of the ancient and immense market square of Krakow's old city.
It was not terribly formal, perhaps there were no long gowns, but many pretty ones; there were a dozen or so dinner jackets or approximations, and even two men in tails, garments no doubt borrowed from musician friends. There were no waltzes.
The band played music that would have worked at a junior prom in the United States in the 1950s. But it was probably the grandest private social event Krakow has seen since tragedy engulfed Poland in September 1939.
The occasion bid a formal farewell to the Paris-based Foundation ''pour une Entraide Intellectuelle Europeenne,'' about to be closed down. The foundation's name could be translated as ''for mutual support among Europe's intellectuals.'' In fact, it is best described as an organization of intellectual gun-runners to Eastern Europe.
The title is also misleading in that Americans organized as the American Foundation for Intellectual Cooperation with Europe have been crucial in the work and financing of the enterprise, the Ford Foundation in particular.
Since 1956, the FEIE has worked in unofficial and often clandestine ways to support a free intellectual life in the Communist-dominated countries of Eastern Europe, and for a time in Spain and Portugal as well, when those countries still were under right-wing dictatorships.
The work was itself undramatic, although risks were often taken, above all by the writers, artists and scholars in the East who benefited from the foundation's work. The principal effort was to keep them in communication with the intellectual life of the West by providing them with books and journals, through the mails when possible, and through unofficial channels.
When people in the East were able to travel to the West, the FEIE helped those who were excluded from official exchange programs, enabling them to get to the West, to survive in the lands of hard currencies, to meet Western artists and scholars, and see the exhibitions and theater and concerts they wanted to see or hear.
The foundation also worked to keep those East-bloc intellectuals and artists from succumbing to isolation and persecution in their own countries, keeping them in touch with one another and nourishing their sense of mutual solidarity in resistance to the power of the Communist state and the official Communist cultural organizations and ministries.
Thus at the foundation's final seminar last week, which culminated with that ball in the great Market Hall, the participants included poets from Romania, Estonia, Latvia and from exile in Paris and Houston. There were professional philosophers from Poland, Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, JTC Bulgaria, Romania, and from All Souls' Oxford and the University of Chicago.
Yesterday's dissidents have become leaders in their countries. The group in Krakow included two advisers to President Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia as well as Romania's minister of cultural affairs, Czechoslovakia's vice-minister of foreign affairs, the president of Hungarian television and four members of national parliaments.
This meeting was a memorial to the obscure but profoundly important work done during the past four decades not only by this foundation, which was first headed by the French writer Pierre Emmanuel and has been directed by Annette Laborey, but by other groups as well.
Some of those were private and informal, as in the case of the largely British circle which helped organize underground universities in the East. Some were formal, such as Allen Kassof's IREX the International Research and Exchanges Foundation, which has handled American scholarly exchanges with the East.
Some were inspired and financed by enlightened officials in the American, British, and other Western intelligence services, as was the case with the extremely important Congress for Cultural Freedom.
That group, organizational ancestor of FEIE, was set up in Berlin in 1950 in reaction to the abuse and persecution of independent intellectuals during the postwar Communist seizures of power in Eastern Europe. It was also a response to Soviet-dominated ''World Peace Conferences'' held in New York and Paris in 1949 on the pattern of the Comintern-inspired writers conferences before the war in the era of the Popular Front.
All of these Western efforts were attacked as ''war-mongering'' by the Communist governments in the East. They were often criticized by the well-intentioned but obtuse in the West as well, as provocative interference in Communist countries to sustain free intellectuals. Some critics simply refused to believe ill of what professed to be the progressive and anti-imperialist camp.
L Now those controversies are irrelevant and the work is done.
Help is certainly still needed by intellectual institutions and individuals in such countries as Romania or Albania, where terrible poverty and political chaos persist; in Serbia, which is reinventing national socialism; and in the Baltic states.
Nonetheless, there has been something very important accomplished, and the Grand Ball in Krakow celebrating this achievement was, in its way, an historic occasion. Those who were there will not forget it.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.