Wieliczka Salt Mine, Krakow, and Wadowice

July 4. I had forgotten that it was the 4th of July.  A call from my very close friend Tom reminded me, and hearing his message made me feel like I was celebrating vicariously. With the aid of google translate, I told them my relatives that I felt guilty sleeping in their bedroom, but they only laughed.  That was characteristic.  They are extremely kind.  I felt honored to have relatives such as them. After a hearty breakfast, we surveyed their expansive garden.  What a plot of land! It rivaled many small farms I’d seen on my travels.  They had red currant, raspberries, strawberries (domestic and wild), blueberries, and gooseberries, as well as apples, cherries (tart and sweet), and a large assortment of vegetables.  Their dog Adger had taken to grazing on the gooseberries (agrest in Polish), so I called him Agrest.

We took our time, looking at more photos and having awkward conversations using google translate, which I nevertheless have to thank for allowing us to communicate at all.  Around 11am we left for the Wieliczka Salt Mine.  I had hoped to go to Auschwitz but the English tours were booked for the foreseeable future.  The mine is located southeast of Krakow and is considered one of the most valuable material and spiritual monuments in Poland.  It is located under the town of Wieliczka and has been in operation continuously since the 13th century until the first decade of the 21st century when mining was terminated due to high costs. It is one of the world’s oldest salt mines and was one of the first monuments on the UNESCO World List of Cultural and Natural Heritage.

There are two tours, the tourist and miner routes. We decided to take the classic Tourist Route, which features the Chapel of St. Kinga and presents exhibits on the history of mining in Wieliczka. Unfortunately we were unable to go on the same tour, as I needed an English guide and they a Polish one.  I descended the hundreds (or thousands?) of steps, dizzy when I reached the bottom 10 or 15 minutes later.  We saw all kinds of wonders, chapels and statues carved by devout miners who were amateur, not professional artists.  My aunt had told me about going on the tour in the 1980s on one of her visits to Poland, and the mental image of glistening salt carvings had stuck with me.  I was very glad to have seen the mine, and after looking at examples of gems and crystals at the end of the tour, I waited with a group of tourists to ascend in a rickety elevator.  It seemed like something out of Blade Runner, this noisy contraption that appeared to be held together with bailing wire.  I half expected it to plummet after a few floors.  A baby started to wail.  I was thinking of joining him.

When I finally got to the ground level, I was relieved to breath the clean air.  I headed to the car, but no Paul or Stasia.  I ended up spending the next two hours hurrying between the car and various points in Wieliczka, worried sick and not sure how to reach my relatives.  I approached the tour guides, who informed me that there was no way to contact people below. I had the sickening feeling that we’d gotten our signals crossed, and didn’t know how to reach them.  I didn’t have their cell numbers, so couldn’t text.  I texted their daughter Anna and asked her to contact her dad.  She didn’t answer for some time and then said I should just wait at the car.  I don’t think she realized I’d already been waiting two hours, or perhaps she was used to waiting for prolonged periods and considers it normal, as many people do in Central and Eastern Europe.  During my frenzied wait, I strode through the stare mesto (old town), which has a lovely square and several old churches and Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque buildings, as well as a walled monastery.

Finally, when I thought that they would never surface, Anna texted me that she had made contact with them and that they were headed to the car.  I rushed back and we were reunited.  I tried to explain the misunderstanding.  They were also frustrated, having waited two hours underground, but eventually it passed.  I said I’d like to see Krakow, which I’d seen only once eight years prior. On that visit I’d spent most of my time in Oskar Schindler’s Factory Museum, learning about life in Kraków during WWII. I found out more about my father’s life in Kraków during the war than he’d ever told me.  People tend not to talk about difficult memories.  Kraków was on the way (more or less) to Wadowice.  We parked in a lot that probably only locals know, cheap and close to Planty Park, and walked through the Planty.  At 5.2 acres, it is one of the largest city parks in Kraków, and encircles the Stare Miasto (Old Town) where the Medieval city walls used to stand until the early 19th century.  We walked along the Royal Road (Droga Królewska), crossing the park from the medieval suburb of Kleparz – through Florian Gate – at the northern flank of the old city walls.

Kraków is the second largest and one of the oldest cities in Poland. Situated on the Vistula River (Wisła) in Małopolska, the city dates back to the 7th century. It has traditionally been one of the leading centers of Polish academic, cultural, and artistic life and is one of Poland’s most important economic hubs. It was the capital of the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland from 1038 to 1569; the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth from 1569 to 1795; the Free City of Kraków from 1815 to 1846; the Grand Duchy of Cracow from 1846 to 1918; and Kraków Voivodeship from the 14th century to 1998. It was the capital of Lesser Poland Voivodeship since 1999. The city has grown from a Stone Age settlement to Poland’s second most important city. It began as a hamlet on Wawel Hill and was already being reported as a busy trading center of Slavonic Europe in 965. With the establishment of new universities and cultural venues at the emergence of the Second Polish Republic in 1918 and throughout the 20th century, Kraków reaffirmed its role as a major national academic and artistic center. The city has a population of approximately 760,000, with approximately 8 million additional people living in the greater metropolitan area.  After the invasion of Poland at the start of World War II, Kraków became the capital of Germany’s General Government. The Jewish population of the city was forced into a walled zone known as the Kraków Ghetto, from which they were sent to German extermination camps such as the nearby Auschwitz never to return, and the Nazi concentration camps like Płaszów.

We walked into the main square, which dates back to the 13th century, and at 9.4 acres is one of the largest medieval town squares in Europe.  The square is surrounded by historic townhouses (kamienice) and churches, and dominated by the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice), rebuilt in 1555 in the Renaissance style, topped by a beautiful attic or Polish parapet decorated with carved masks. On one side of the cloth hall is the Town Hall Tower (Wieża ratuszowa), and on the other the 10th century Church of St. Adalbert and 1898 Adam Mickiewicz Monument. Rising above the square are the Gothic towers of St. Mary’s Basilica (Kościół Mariacki).  We walked through the Cloth Hall, then tried to enter St. Adalbert, but it was only open to concert goers. I snapped a quick photo, then we went into St. Mary’s Basilica.  While inside, we heard the broken five-note trumpet motif of Hejnał Mariacki (derived from a Hungarian expression meaning “Saint Mary’s dawn”; also called the Kraków Anthem). It is a traditional, five-note Polish anthem closely bound to the history and traditions of Kraków and is played every hour on the hour, four times in succession in each of the four cardinal directions, by a trumpeter on the highest tower of St. Mary’s Basilica. The noon performance is broadcast via radio to all of Poland and the world.

I marveled at the beautifully plumed horses pulling carriages around the square, and the press of people.  It was a truly lively place! After looking at some buildings in the square, we walked out the Florian Gate and admired the statue depicting the Polish defeat of Germans at the Battle of Grunwald, which the Nazis had destroyed during WWII.  We found an inexpensive restaurant serving traditional Polish fare (kuchnia Polska), and I tucked into a spicy soup and cucumber salad.  Then we headed back to Wadowice, where I was shuttled off to visit Lukasz and Danuta, who live in the apartment complex across the street from Paul and Stasia’s home (originally Paul’s grandfather’s bakery and home).  I really like Lukasz and Danuta, whom I’d visited for the first time two years ago when I’d driven down to Lodz from Vilnius to visit Tomek Janikowski and Hania Harmala, the children of Alicja Karpinska-Janikowska (my father’s cousin).  My father’s family was visiting Alicja and her sisters in Klusczany, Lithuania (now in the Ostrowiec region of the Grodno region in Belarus) when Germany started bombing Poland in WWII.

We ate one of the many decadent Polish cakes and talked memories of my beloved Aunt Lucy, who throughout her life cared about and sent money, clothes, and care packages to relatives in Poland.  She visited Lukasz and Danuta at least four times, and they recounted stories of her visits, including the story of sexy vs romantic vodka.  Apparently Lucy liked to her vodka, but made a distinction between different types (I assume for different purposes).  Though she didn’t speak a word of Polish, she communicated just fine with the Karpinski clan in Wadowice.  Body language is the great underground language.  Without words, there is much we say.  We regaled one another with news until 11:30 or so, when Paul came to take me back.  I was sorry to leave, as I really liked Lukasz and Danuta.  I didn’t see them again.

July 5. I was very tired the next day and had hoped to sleep in. They live on the main road out of town, which was being repaved.  So despite my best efforts, I awoke earlier than I wanted. We had our usual elaborate breakfast of bread, cheese, yogurt, salad, and fruit.  I was glad for the big breakfasts because we often didn’t eat during the day.  It sustained me.  Originally I had planned to leave today, but I realized that I wanted more time to get to know these lovely people.  We drove into Wadowice, visiting the main church across from Pope John Paul II’s childhood home, and took photos of my paternal father Eugeniusz’s home across from the Carmelite Monastery on Karmelicka Street.  Apparently his nickname was Karmelicka as a result. We visited the monastery church, where Karol Wojtyła would often visit with his father, especially after confession. The painting in the main altar features the Pope’s ring offered by John Paul II in 2003. The church contains also John Paul II scapular and the relics of St. Rafał Kalinowsi and blessed Alfons Maria Mazurek.

We then headed to the cemetery, where we lit candles and cleaned the grave sites of our relatives, including Paul’s father Zbigniew Karpinski, Teofila Karpinska (my great great grandmother and the matriarch of the Karpinski clan), Paul’s mother Helen, and several others who I am forgetting.  I took some moss from near Teofila’s grave in order to have a connection to her.  In the ancestor workshop I had attended months earlier, it was suggested to have a material anchor to an ancestor or ancestress.  We visited a bakery to sample kremowka, a Polish cream cake that sandwiches vanilla pastry cream between puff pastry. It was created by a Viennese baker who immigrated to Wadowice and became popular thanks to its appreciation by Pope John Paul II when he was a young student.  Paul was bent on ice cream, so after walking around for 20 minutes, we went to the best ice cream shop in town.  It was very tasty, and I understood the love of ice cream in this region.  I’d worked at Polar Bear Ice Cream in the early 1980s in Santa Cruz while attending college, so I completely understood the attraction.

On the way back to the car, which I’d parked in the cemetery, we witnessed a traditional funeral.  Pole bearers carried the casket through the streets, with the priest leading the way.  I took photos and watched as they entered the cemetery to dig a grave for the recently departed.  I’d attended my father’s cousin Witold Karpinski’s funeral in Włocławek, and watched as a few relatives close to Witold, including his son Janusz, scooped shovel fulls of dirt from the grave.  It was a touching ritual.

We headed home and had lunch, then Paul and I headed to Bielsko-Biała to locate my father’s childhood home and see the liceum (high school) where my paternal grandfather Stanislaw had taught biology.  We walked through the market square (stare rynek) in Bielsko, the Silesian part of the city.  Paul hadn’t been back for 35 years, and the main square had changed considerably.  From there we walked to the Biała portion on the opposite bank of the Biała River.  I admired the buildings along the main street, which had been an important trade route between Lesser Poland and other parts of Europe. We walked into a large cathedral and emerged to a deluge.  Luckily the downpour passed after 10 minutes and we were able to walk without becoming drowned rats.  We drove to the neighborhood where my father grew up, first finding the liceum where my gandfather taught school.  I Liceum Ogólnokształcące im. M. Kopernika is an extremely elegant building and the first high school in the city whose construction was funded in part by Germany.  Paul later attended technical college for mechanics in the same building.  As Paul recalled, my father grew up several blocks away on Piatowska Street near the Bielsko-Biała Główna train station.  We had studied a photo of my uncle Bob and his friend ?? standing in front of the house.  It seemed that the old house number was 311.  The houses have since been renumbered, with many of the older numbers no longer extant. We found a woman whose husband was a conservator of old buildings in the city, and she attempted to help us locate the mystery building.  We searched for over an hour, but no luck.

On the way out of town, we headed to the home of Marylka Rocyzski, a cousin of Paul and my father.  She was born in 1936, so was 4 years younger than my dad, and her mother Janina apparently loved my grandfather Stanislaw very much, and appreciated his violin playing.  Somehow they stayed in touch with my dad’s family after they moved to America. Apparently my grandmother Ilona, Stanislaw’s wife, was less than enamored with his playing, and sometimes got very cross as a result.  Marylka’s father Jan (?) died in 1968, while her mother Janina died in 1984.  She has been happily married since 1977, and I got to meet her husband, who is very sweet. Marylka was a dear.  Through her daughter Barbara’s translation, I understood that she had been a mountain guide in the nearby mountains, and loved to kayak and canoe.  She had taken many trips into the wilderness, and admired my pluck and courage in traveling alone.  I liked her at once.  They invited me to come back, and I spoke with her son Rafael on the phone.  He is studying computer science and lives alone in Bielsko-Biała. When prompted about whether her brother is married, his sister Barbara said he is looking for a wife.  She is married and has 3 kids, a boy and 2 girls.  I told them I would visit again in October and stay for a few days.  They promised to make a big meal (they felt guilty to not feed us), and we parted.  I felt like I had found a family I didn’t know existed, and have to thank Paul for taking the initiative to visit them.

We drove back and arrived late (10pm) at home.  Stasia had prepared a delicious dinner and we ate, then looked at more photos.  Paul was intent on identifying everyone in the family tree.  Exhausted, I finally begged off at 11:30pm.  I had planned to leave the next day for Cisna and Beszczady National Park in the southeastern corner of Poland, and needed all the rest I could get.

July 6. I awoke exhausted, probably in part from trying to learn Polish over the last few days.  I was beginning to recognize words and speak as well.  I told Paul that I would stay until we had identified all the photos and I had made necessary changes to his copy of the family tree regarding the Karpinski clan that had immigrated to the US from England beginning in 1949. We pored over more photos, and I set aside ones that I wanted Lukasz to scan for me.  Finally, around 4pm, I said my goodbyes, knowing I was driving toward Krakow and rush hour traffic.  I drove 2 hours to Tarnow, the town where my father’s oldest sister Marylka’s husband Joe Jedd had been born.  It was a lovely city and had had a sizeable Jewish community before WWII, as had many of the towns I visited in southeastern Poland.  I walked for several hours, admiring a Carpathian wood church and the old market square, as well as the ruins of the old synagogue.  It is a tragedy that very few towns in Central Europe have any synagogues left. I walked through the market stalls in the trading area, then headed on to Rzeszów, which had been recommended to as a nice place to visit.

Rzeszów is the largest city in southeastern Poland, located on either side of the Wisłok River in the heartland of the Sandomierz Basin. It received city rights and privileges from Casimir III the Great in 1354. Local trade routes connecting the European Continent with the Middle East and the Ottoman Empire resulted in the city’s early prosperity and development. In the 16th century, Rzeszów had a connection with Gdańsk and the Baltic Sea.  It also experienced growth in commerce and craftsmanship, especially under local rulers and noblemen. Following the Partitions of Poland, Rzeszów was annexed by the Austrian Empire and did not regain its position until it returned to Poland after World War I. During World War II Rzeszów’s large Jewish community perished in the Holocaust.  Recently, Rzeszów has found its place in the group of the most elite cities in Poland, with growing number of investments, rapid progress and a very high standard of living.  The Old Town, Main Market Square, churches and synagogues belong to one of the best preserved in the country.  It was night by the time I arrived, and was much more hipster and yuppified than I’d expected.  I didn’t like that aspect of the place, and thought the main streets and buildings looked more like Disneyland than a real town.  I found a place to sleep on a hill outside the town, and parked my car in what turned out to be someone’s driveway.


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