Today, like yesterday started out clear and remained so for the entire day! Two days without rain. Limited sunshine, but no rain. After so many consecutive rainy days, I had about begun to doubt that we would see sun again. I’m so glad to have had those fears dispelled. Today we headed off to the Wieliczka Salt Mine which is about 20 minutes outside of Kraków. I must admit that despite references in history books we read in school, to salt mines, I had never really thought of salt in mines. When I was teaching middle school in Orlando, I taught about trade in North Africa and caravans coming to purchase the salt which was found on the surface – it was literally worth its weight in gold. When we were on Île de Ré, an island off the west coast of France, we saw the salt marshes and the salt being harvested.
This was a whole different ballgame. The parking lot led to a beautiful park which included a hotel and spa in addition to the mines. The mines go 135 meters deep and it takes 700 steps down ever-winding staircases to get to the bottom (at least I think it’s the bottom).
Each level had a plaque with information about when the area was excavated. The walls are all wood logs carefully fitted together. Apparently the mining operation generates a lot of methane and explosions of course were deadly – there was no way out of the mine. the passageways were very narrow. Salt was brought to the surface for centuries by a rope and pulley system operated by people – there was no room for a long time for horses or even mechanical devices. Later on both were used. The wooden walls in many places were painted white – the mine was very dark and whatever light the miners had with them only illuminated a small area – the white walls helped extend the visibility. The salt air dried and preserved the wood so there was neither mildew nor rot.
The shiny walls are salt. In some places, everything was salt – walls, floor, ceiling, sculptures and even chandeliers in more modern areas which are used for receptions and weddings!
All that walking was exhausting and we headed back to Krakow for a gelato lunch at Papa Gelato – conveniently right next door to the Hotel Europolskie where we have been staying.
Marek and I headed out shortly after to walk down to Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter, to pick out a restaurant for dinner. I had something particular in mind, given what we plan to do tomorrow, Monday – go to Auschwitz and Birkenau. I wanted to have dinner where klezmer music was being played and Jews of the area once lived in large numbers. Where, as is the case in so many places, we had a vibrant community, contributing to the economics, culture and very existence of the larger places in which our communities were located.
Although neither Marek nor I remembered the restaurant we ate at last summer with Lindsay, Lina, Ola and Gabriel the night we arrived in Kraków, and the street, Szeroka, has one restaurant after another, glancing at the menus soon pinpointed Max 14. I remembered that one of our group (it might have even been me) ordered tagliatelle with smoked salmon. A moment of glancing around, and we realized it was the place, we checked and a klezmer group would be playing beginning at 5:40 PM. The restaurant is in the building in which Helena Rubinstein lived, and right next door to a Judaic Bookstore.
By the time we returned to the hotel, hot and sweaty, after walking about 16,000 steps, we were ready to change and head out to dinner. Thankfully the weather had cooled down a bit, and the outdoor seating at Max 14 hit the spot. So did the perfect perogie ruski that I ordered, dessert and drinks. Marek even found his favorite beer on the menu – Warka strong.
Tomorrow of course is another day. After years of writing curricula teaching the Shoah, watching hundreds of movies reading many more books than that on the topic, working with teens and adults, I don’t know if I am ready to be in the place. I feel obligated to stand there. I know many of you have been to a lot of the camps. I never have. I’ve walked the streets of Ukraine where blood ran like rain in the wake of the horrors perpetuated by the einsatzgruppen, read accounts of survivors, spoken with survivors and done research in the records from the International Tracing Service, Yad Vashem and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. The very thought of the words Auschwitz and Birkenau fill me with horror.