The salt of the earth

Krakow's Wieliczka mine is fascinating evidence of man's initiative and ingenuity.

cave mine 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
cave mine 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Had anyone told me before I went to Poland that I would agree to descend some 150 meters into the bowels of the earth, and be fascinated when I got there, I would not have believed them. More than a little claustrophobic, I don't mind sitting in the front row in a movie theater because it means that I can quickly get out of any seat. Anywhere else, I make a point of taking an aisle seat, even if it means having to stand up 20 times or more for people who want to get past. Ditto on an airplane. The window seat is not for me, nor the center seat. Only the aisle will do. But when you're someone's guest and they've gone out of their way to make your visit interesting, you have to swallow your hang-ups, put on a smile and say you're having a great time. That was the scenario for my visit to the famed Wieliczka Salt Mine, some 10 kilometers from the center of Krakow. All my previous visits to Krakow had some kind of Jewish connotation - hardly surprising since Krakow's Jewish heritage trail is a must for any Jewish visitor with roots in the city, a sense of history or a need for sanity after an inspection of Auschwitz (which is approximately one hour's drive away). In summer, Krakow has a multifaceted Jewish festival which attracts Poles from all over the country and Jews from all over the world. Some of the performers are Jewish, but the vast audiences are largely non-Jewish. Nonetheless, one gets a feeling of coming back to a Jewish world that was and is no more. Krakow suffered less physical damage under the Nazis than most other places in Poland, and although many of its Jews perished, Jewish community property remained standing. In recent years there have been renovations, and new buildings dedicated to the preservation of the Jewish legacy have sprung up. Of course I did the Jewish heritage trail again. I never get tired of it, and there's always something that wasn't there the time before - like snow in the ancient Jewish cemetery. Last time I was there it was summer and the ambience was different. My hosts, the Polish Information and Investment Agency, a quasi government entity, were quite happy for the three Israeli journalists they'd brought to Poland to do the Jewish thing, but they wanted them to see another side of Poland as well. They let us wander through the scenic medieval market square to our heart's content, and put us in a delightful old hotel with a caged elevator, period style furniture and storybook architecture. They also took us to quaint, ethnic restaurants. Though Krakow is an historic university town that draws visitors from all over Europe, especially since 2004 when Poland joined the European Union, the real tourist attraction is Wieliczka, which has been mined for nearly nine centuries. It boasts a breathtaking underground city and has been recognized by UNESCO as a natural cultural heritage. Of our trio, one had already been there before and was disinclined to go again, so there were only two of us, which actually made it a more awesome and pleasurable experience. We two could pay more attention to our guide and to our surroundings. When we were three, we were more inclined to talk than to listen. Marek, our guide, is a high school teacher who moonlights in the mines. He loves to tell some of the many stories that have been handed down, and he feels a sense of mission because his father and grandfather worked there, as did earlier generations of his family. "How do you feel about going down 680 steps?" he asked. Being Jewish, we answered a question with a question. "Do we have to walk up again?" He assured us that we would resurface in an elevator. What he didn't tell us was that it would be like traveling in a shaky tin can. It was a bit scary, but since close to a million visitors each year make use of these clanking metal elevators, the ride was obviously safe, and something that we could chalk down as an eerie experience. We didn't do the 680 steps in one fell swoop. Marek led us down several narrow flights of wooden steps and through a series of shafts and tunnels. The walls looked like limestone, but Marek said they were salt. Heaven knows how many people he and other guides have told this to, but simply hearing such information is not good enough. One has to run one's finger down the wall and then take a lick. My mouth tasted of salt for three days, regardless of what I ate or how many times I cleaned my teeth. We didn't descend the whole nine levels of the mine. Had we done so, we would have reached a depth of 327 meters. We went down approximately 150 meters, but the truth was that we didn't feel it. Aside from Marek's fascinating anecdotes that captured our attention, we were breathing clean healthy air. When we mentioned to Marek how good we felt, he told us that Wieliczka runs an underground sanitarium. That's not all it has underground. THERE ARE lakes, concert halls, restaurants, shrines, chapels, gift shops and even a post office. A hotel is planned for this year. The events areas feature magnificent chandeliers which are made from salt crystals. Over the centuries, many of the miners proved themselves to be skilled sculptors. Because Poland is such a Catholic country, most of the sculptures have a religious connotation, and numerous chapels have been built around them. Aside from that, Marek told us, miners are very superstitious, so they created statues in honor of their patron saint, St. Kinga (Kunegunda), a daughter of Hungarian King Bela IV and niece of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. There are several statues and chapels in memory of the Hungarian princess, who is greatly revered in Wieliczka because she requested that the salt mines be part of her dowry when, at 16, she married King Boleslaus V of Poland. He wanted to give her gold and jewels - but according to legend, she declined, saying that she wanted a gift that would provide a form of livelihood for the Polish people. So he gave her a salt mine in Marmaros, as well as a valuable engagement ring. Princess Kinga, it is said, threw the ring into the shaft of the mine. Later, en route to Krakow, her entourage stopped near Wieliczka and she ordered a well to be dug. However, instead of finding water beneath the surface, the diggers found salt, and legend says that Kinga's engagement ring was embedded in the first lump of salt that was taken out of the mine. At that time and for centuries afterward, salt was a form of currency because of its many uses, particularly as a food preservative in a pre-refrigeration period. The sculptures in the salt mines include those of gnomes, which are supposedly lucky symbols for women in search of husbands. The idea is for women to kiss the moustache of a gnome, and in doing so to somehow send out vibes to the man who will one day be her life partner. Far-fetched though the idea sounds, women have been coming to the mines for centuries to kiss the moustaches. In fact, they've been so fervent in their desires to find a mate, said Marek, that some of the gnomes have had their moustaches kissed off. If all the gnomes lose their moustaches, he suggested, as he pointed to his hirsute upper lip, "there's always the option to kiss the guide." DURING World War II, the Nazis rounded up Jews from the Plaszow forced labor camp and pushed them into the mines, where they assembled armaments. One of these Jews carved a Star of David deep into the wall. For years it was covered by some wooden structure, and no one knew it was there. Then, when renovation and excavation work was being carried out in the chamber where this Jewish slave worker had left his imprint, or rather the imprint of his people, the wood was removed, and the Star of David was discovered. It remains on view for all to see - a permanent reminder that Jews worked here too. The mines contain evidence of much older history, including the ancient clay vessels in which salt was stored in bygone days. There are so many chambers to see that a single visit is not enough. The wonder of it all is that so much of what is contained in the salt mines was created before there was modern machinery and technology. What one sees is the triumph of man's initiative, ingenuity and faith.