Wieliczka Salt Mine and Krakow

On Monday, December 15, our same taxi driver from the day before picked us up at our 17th century, Krakow townhouse and drove us a few miles outside the city limits to the town of Wieliczka where a salt mine has been in operation for 700 years, ceasing most activity about 15 years ago.  Since the 19th century, there have been miners who have carved fabulous sculptures into the salt.  The royal family (I guess the Austro-Hungarian one.) held parties in the mine on the fancy salt floor that was made to look like tile in the banquet rooms.  There are also chapels down there where miners prayed.  Today people can reserve certain rooms for weddings, receptions, and banquets.  A few hundred years ago, revenue from the salt mine accounted for 1/3 of Poland’s income.  Charlie would like me to report that we walked down 54 flights of stairs to start the mine tour.  Luckily, there was an elevator to take us back up.

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JP II:

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St. Kinga Chapel includes salt chandeliers and many Christian scenes and icons carved from salt, including the Last Supper, but I couldn’t get it all in.

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Our driver took us on a tour of Krakow after the salt mine.  We also had several hours to walk around the next day before the long drive to Budapest (with a different driver).

Below is one of several memorials on the site of the former Płaszów Concentration Camp.  Our driver/guide told us that when the Krakow ghetto was “liquidated” (how it’s referred to in the English-language history books I found there also), the Jews were brought here and thousands were killed in a single day.  Some were made to dig a large grave.  Then many stood around the hole and were shot and fell in.  (Behind this statue is the mass grave.)  The Nazis tried a number of methods to kill people as efficiently as possible, and Płaszów was one of those testing areas.

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This is the house where the camp commandant, played by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List, lived.

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We walked around town, including the Jewish neighborhood, on Tuesday, December 16, and stopped in a Jewish bookstore and museum where I bought three booklets and a video, Saved by Deportation: An Unknown Odyssey of Polish Jews.  In August 1939, Germany and the USSR signed a nonaggression pact. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. A couple weeks later the USSR invaded Poland from the east, and each country took their agreed-to portions of Poland. A couple years later Germany invaded Russia, and the USSR joined the Allies in the fight against Germany. The Polish Jews who were interviewed for the documentary that I watched and who had moved to the US said that the Germans were initially telling the Jews as well as Polish Christian dissidents to leave German-occupied Poland. Many of these people moved to Soviet-occupied Poland but then decided they wanted to move back to their families and friends in Krakow. The USSR, instead of allowing them to move back, put them in cattle cars (apparently with some ventilation) and sent them to the Russian north and interior on train journeys that lasted three weeks for some of them. The Jews in the movie were sent to a tiny coal-mining town in a Siberian forest where they worked hard cutting down trees and working in the mine. After Germany invaded Russia, the Russian government told the detainees that they were free to leave or serve in the Soviet army. But only the Christians were permitted to serve. The Jews had to find somewhere to go. They ended up on another train – this time far south to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan where they lived for the remainder of the war. When the war was over and they returned to Poland, they were pelted with rocks and some were shot getting off the trains. The documentary shows photos of coffins being carried through the streets as well as a mass burial. They said as hard as their lives were in Russia and central Asia, it’s what saved them from death in the concentration camps. Every Jewish person they knew in Poland died during the war.  I bought a booklet that I haven’t read yet but that our driver told us something about regarding a Christian pharmacist in Krakow during WWII.  The Polish Jews, like Jews in most European countries, were subjected to discriminatory laws for centuries, forcing them to live in their own segregated neighborhood.  When the Nazis came to Krakow, they wanted some of these nice apartments in the Jewish quarter for themselves in addition to wanting to exterminate the Jews, so they relocated people in a nearby neighborhood that had some natural borders – river and hills – so the Nazis could make that the Jewish ghetto.  The Nazis erected a fence where no natural barrier existed.  That fence was torn down after the war except for one piece of it that was preserved as a memorial.  So back to the pharmacist, Tadeusz Pankiewicz.  The Jewish ghetto was located in his neighborhood, and he didn’t want to be relocated and he wanted to help the Jewish people who were essentially left in the ghetto to die of starvation and illness (but food was smuggled in by some Polish Christians and guards).  The Nazis allowed him to stay, and he remained in the ghetto until the “liquidation” (He was not killed.), serving the Jews with whatever medicine he could get.  In 1983, he was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.  Steven Spielberg featured the pharmacy in Schindler’s List and donated money for its preservation, and it serves as a museum today.

Below: Wawel Royal Castle, built in the 1300’s, is high up on a hill.

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Around town:

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Below: Yes, that’s Kevin Spacey.

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