Not far, but worlds away from the unending charm of Kraków, are two of Poland’s most cherished sites. Both are Unesco heritage listed. Both attract dense crowds each day, and both are portals to alternate realms of experience. The Wieliczka salt mine is 10km from Kraków and descends 327m underground. The Auschwitz-Birkenau museum is 40km from Kraków, and descends into one of the darkest crevices of human history.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
A cross-section of Wieliczka Salt Mine would reveal an intricate ant-farm of passages, chambers and underground lakes distributed over nine levels. Enormous cavities dug or discovered by miners and explorers since the 13th century interlink to form an underground city with bulging grey boulders for clouds and bible-black tunnels for roads. Less than 1% of the mine’s 300km is open for public exploration, but this tiny fraction takes in restaurants, chapels and halls so large they regularly host balls, art exhibitions, music concerts and even soccer tournaments.
The transporting three hour journey through the spooky labyrinth of chambers and corridors begins after a dizzying descent down a wooden scaffold of 380 steps tattooed all over with ‘I was here’ scratchings. Down here, internal compasses are thrown off-course by the third dimension of depth. As you clamber up and down skewed staircases and along imperceptible gradients, you lose all sense of how far you are trespassing below normal human habitation.
The zenith of experiences below ground is the Chapel of St Kinga, the first glimpse of which shocks reverence into even the most devout atheist. The intricate details of the altarpieces, frescoes, chandeliers and tiled floors in this 54m long, 12m high place of worship are all the more impressive for having been meticulously hand carved entirely from salt over 30 painstaking years.
The tour ends with caged lifts hurtling up a 135 metre shaft to the surface of the earth, which to bewildered visitors seems slightly altered by their new knowledge of what lies beneath.
Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
Few sites in the world can inspire advertising executives to quit their jobs to become humanitarian workers, but the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum is one of them. A shudder rips through your core when you pass under the callous words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (work brings freedom) and never quite leaves.
If it were possible for a person to conceive of the scale of what happened in the town of Oświęcim, they would be standing at the Birkenau section of the Museum. It was here where more than 300 horse stables were used as prison barracks for a turnover of up to 200,000 people at a time, who with calculated efficiency would be exterminated in purpose-built gas chambers.
Many of the barracks were destroyed by the retreating Nazis, but some still stand, thick with time-trodden dust and heavy with eerie air. Walking below the iconic watchtower and along the train tracks which delivered so many to evil, images flash to mind of the mass pandemonium and private terror that took place at this site over and over again, as families were severed and their members sorted for labour or death by asphyxiation.
The scale of the atrocity is unfathomable even when you see the machinery of murder sprawling out before you to the skyline; 1.6 million deaths might just as well be countless. Instead what becomes vivid are the individuals who left evidence that they were once alive here on this brutalized piece of earth.
Some of the surviving brick buildings of the Auschwitz complex now house exhibits documenting what happened between 1940 and 1945. In Block 5, battered suitcases are unceremoniously heaped, each bearing the name of the person who was stripped of their possessions and their dignity upon arriving at the death camp. Shoes piled harrowingly high tell stories that ended here; a conservative leather lace-up perhaps for a conservative middle-aged man, a red high-heel for a well-groomed woman, and a tiny palm-sized shoe with a rusted buckle, perhaps belonging to their daughter.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and Wieliczka Salt Mine are both reachable by train, bus or minibus from Kraków. Long queues at the latter mean that visitors are well-advised to buy tickets in Kraków in advance.