The Wieliczka Salt Mine

The Wieliczka Salt Mine

This morning (6/24/15), we had the rare opportunity to visit the Wieliczka salt mine. It is an incredible experience, and one I recommend.  Ironically, I first heard of the Wieliczka Salt Mine in the eighth grade English book selected for me to teach.  The article was used for students to practice summarizing, but described in great detail the beauty of this mine.  Now, 13 years later, I get to see it in person.

This was a working salt mine until salt production stopped in 1964. Now, they just use the brine from the mine for bath salts and other beauty products.  When it was time for our tour, we were escorted to a miner elevator (claustrophobic–it was built for the miners, but is actually more like a 3x5x6 cage.  Still, an incredible experience!).  We descended several floors to start the tour.  In the normal tour, there are 800 steps, but a few of us were blessed to take the “handicapped tour” because of our knee problems (heart for me.) there were about 20 stairs. Additionally, in one area, we had a ramp of 100 meters with about a 30 degree incline.  We discussed the difference between the American definition of handicap accessible and that of other countries.

Salt Sculpture in the mine

Salt Sculpture in the mine

Down in the mine, it is a constant 57 degrees (constant 14 Celsius). They used oak or pine wood to reinforce the walls because they are hard woods.  The salt statue in the main chamber is from the Second World War. Inside the mine, there are 2,350 chambers with 240 km of corridors.  And, in 1978, UNESCO placed the Wieliczka salt mine on its list as a world heritage site. With its rich history, it’s easy to see why.

In the 18th century, kings owned the mine. At the time, it was a treasure.  Due to the lack of refrigeration, salt was valued for its preservative properties and its ability to mask the taste of that which had not been preserved well enough. In fact, In the 14th-15th century, it was more expensive than gold.  In one chamber, there is a statue of Johann Wolfgang van Goethe who had visited the mine (right). It was carved by miners just outside of the only chamber excavated with explosives. In addition to the amazing sculptures, in the lower levels of the mine, there is a Sanitarium for people with asthma or a spa to enjoy as the air is supposed to make you look two years younger.

Salt chapel--carved entirely out of salt

Salt chapel–carved entirely out of salt

The mine averages over one million visitors per year, and tourists started visiting after the First World War.  Our tour guide shared the legend of the patron saint of this mine. The Hungarian Princess Kinga knew that Poland was rich but had no salt. King Bela took her to a mine in Hungary. She threw her engagement ring down the shaft to claim it,  When she arrived in Poland, she asked miners to dig down deep.  According to legend, they found salt, and when they split it open, her engagement ring was inside, claiming the mine for herself.  She then became the Patron saint of miners.   Mining is dangerous, so miners prayed a lot in the chapel–and it’s incredible!  This chapel is floor to ceiling salt (Trust me, one of our tour members licked the floor…)  The amazing artistry is incredible, reproducing such greats as Da Vinci’s Last Supper,  other incidents in the life of Christ, a statue of Pope John Paul II, and a salt chandelier!  It is breathtaking!

Salt Crucifix from the chapel area

Salt Crucifix from the chapel area

There are three masses held in this chapel every year:  One at Christmas, one July 24 (Polish Independence Day), and the fourth of December, the day of St Barbara, the patron saint of miners.   This entire room was carved by three Polish miners who were also artists.  I can’t even imagine what it took to create a thing of such lasting beauty.

In addition to the caverns and chambers, the mine also boasts a restaurant and two bookstores where you can purchase a variety of salt and salt related items.

From the mine, we headed into town where we were able to spend time just walking around the market, having conversations with our group, buying souvenirs, and enjoying the horse drawn carriages and the variety of street performers always doing something on the streets of the square.

After an incredible dinner at Wesele on the square, we headed back to the hotel to hear one of our tour members share about his trip to North Korea three years ago.  I have included my notes from his lecture.  Please realize that this is North Korea as seen through his eyes.  His views may be accurate–they may not be.  With the current lack of information about North Korea, I appreciate the opportunity to learn, even if I take it with a grain of salt.  Most of it has already been discovered by the UN or other organizations.

He began his talk explaining the ideology of North Korea.  He compared it to a religion of Kim family worship. These men are held in such regard that there are a variety of myths surrounding them such as rainbows appeared at their births or they don’t have to use the bathroom.

He got to visit North Korea because they invite a group of Harvard grad students to visit, and he wanted to attend.  He explained in this ideology that the government has absolute control over information. People are taught that their first loyalty is to state. Children will even spy on their own families, just like in Nazi times.  He had written his thesis on North Korean prison camps.

After explaining that the Kims have been In charge of 20 million people for 60 years, he delved into previous history. Before WWII, Korea was colonized by Japan. Japan tried to get rid of Korean culture. Then, after World War II, it was split into two parts:  one controlled by the Allies, one by the Communists. Both sides put in puppet government. So, the Koreans came from a unified people–one people group. The politics were imposed not chosen. North Korea had been controlled by the USSR, so when Communism fell, they needed new benefactor. They chose China, another close Communist nation, but they never had the relationship with China they had with Russia.

So, what is life like for a North Korean?  He asked us to remember they controlled what he got to see. First, he commented that they had a hard time feeding the group. The food they received was either inadequate or sub par. At end of trip, all members had mouth sores and were weak. After first experiencing inadequate nutrition, the feeling is intense. Then, it subsides. At the peak of their hunger season (day 2-3), they went to restaurant. Their minder told the group North Korea was paradise on earth.  In the middle of making the statement, the lights went out. It was a rolling black out.

He also reminded us that, depending on what you do with interacting with locals, you won’t end up in jail, but they will. We talked about the Holocaust prisoners strong sense of familial responsibility–it’s the same In North Korea. There are three classes in Society. Your class determined food, information, ability to be in government, etc. The three classes are: those loyal to Kim’s, people who were wavering, or people determined to be disloyal. Because of this, there is such a culture of fear. They don’t want to be sent north.

There is a dual function of the prison camps: Get rid of people they don’t like permanently and inspire so much fear that everyone wants to obey. These aren’t death camps like Auschwitz. If your cousin does something, your entire family may get sent. When you arrive, you’re told you’re scum, and you will work for the regime until you die. They call it being plucked up by roots.  You have to eliminate the whole family to get rid of the root of disloyalty.  Estimated numbers in the camps were 150,000-200,000. Most of the information we have comes from people who escaped. There’s a story of one man who was born in camps because “good” prisoners may be allowed to have sex with other prisoners. Like the Nazis, guards are told prisoners aren’t people. Starvation is rampant. It’s so bad there were people searching through dung to find undigested kernels of corn to eat. There are extensive rapes and forced abortion. Guards also use people for live target practice or lock them in cells where they can’t stand or stretch. Survivors say there are no pictures, but if you want to see, look at Holocaust.

So, what can we do? How do we make sure we’re not just the same as those who knew the Holocaust was happening and did nothing about it.  First, we can raise awareness, especially with people in power. But, the question remains:  What do you do to make people across the world care? Our speaker’s suggestions?  North Korea is dependent on China to feed their people. Why does China support North Korea? His speculation is for China, It is better to have Korea divided than united and leaning toward the US. China has a lot to be proud of and to offer the world. They also want to save face with the world. When things get too bad in North Korea now, China turns off oil for 24 hours–they yank the proverbial chain. We need to ask China to use their leverage to bring change.

Still, the question is far from easy.  What would North Korea do with all those people if the camps closed? He doesn’t know.  But the US government isn’t the one to raise pressure. We need advocates. We can’t throw our arms up and saw there’s nothing we can do.

Another interesting thing he shared was that everywhere they went they saw actors. They were allowed to visit a maternity hospital named for the Kims. On the trip, they had a neonatal doctor from the US. After touring the hospital and seeing all the mothers and babies, he said none of the babies were newborn, and none of mothers had just given birth.  It was all an act.  Also, they went to a library to see people typing on computers. When they walked by screens, they were all off.
They also came across a wedding in park that they “happened” upon. Every building had pictures of Kim’s. People have been sent to camps for not respecting the portraits.

Someone asked what does China get out of North Korea? Apparently, there is long history among the countries there. People believe if armies are coming to attack China, they’ll go through Korea. Having the buffer zone is good for them.  Also, the two countries fought together against Japan in WWII. He feels that in China, there is a diversity of opinion: Some ask why are we in this? Others say we are brothers in arms, loyal to the end.  Another group asks at what point do we break ties?  Having North Korea, though, also deflects resources and interest to something else when China needs it to.

As to the future, he shares he thinks North Korea was better under Kim il Sung. He really was a war hero. Under Kin Jong Il, things got worse. People hoped things were going to change with the new regime. But he thinks Kim Jong Un is being the most brutal, executing even his own family. Everyone’s hoping for reform. China did it successfully.  Maybe Korea can too.  For past 60 years, people have been predicting the collapse of North Korea, and yet it holds on. He does not think solution is military. There is a pessimism in the region. Most of the region doesn’t want to take on the issues associated with thousands of refugees and their health problems, etc. feels like leaders think it will be over soon so haven’t tried.
He recommends reading The Hidden Gulag by David Hawk.  It contains testimonies of people in the camps.

Finally, he shared a few stark details.  The kids are malnourished, so South Koreans are on average are 5-6 inches taller, despite being from the same heritage. He saw schools and orphanages where the kids were malnourished with rashes. He didn’t see a single old person in North Korea. People had also converted cars to run on steam for when there’s no gas.  He stated that people have same clothes and haircuts. The number one thing studied in school is the wisdom of the leaders. This is all people know. Only ruling elite are allowed outside education. There is smuggling out of North Korea, but they’re clamping down on it. One final story he told was when they had been in North Korea for six days.  Suddenly, a noise broke into their sub-consciences, and everyone on the team stopped.   It was the sound of a bird. They had seen and heard no birds or squirrels in the whole time they’d been there. When 1/5 of country died, they ate them all.

The first step is being informed.  Now, we have the opportunity to be an advocate.