Tuesday 15 May 2012

Rock and a hard place

Rock salt. Who knew it was made from rock? Actual rock, that's hard and can be carved, and polished - and tunnelled through, for hundreds of kilometres, several hundred metres deep. We only went down to 135m in the salt mine this morning, and covered a mere couple of kilometres, just 1% of the total. It was interesting, and fairly spectacular, and nicely warm on a cold drizzly day. There were tunnels, and impressive timber shoring, and teeth marks on the walls, and long flights of steps, and an incredibly snug lift, little chapels and big halls, the Last Supper and Pope John Paul (a Krakow local) and even Goethe - all carved out of salt. Lot's wife, however, didn't make the cut.

Then we walked round Krakow's old town in the drizzle - unlike so many of these old European cities, it's all original, unreconstructed; though that's not to say it hasn't suffered destruction during its many occupations. Still, what's left is lovely and well worth a wander, even cluttered with school parties and undisciplined umbrellas. The street food looked good, the market stalls were appealing - even better at Christmas, I bet - and every side street offered some new discovery of something old.

I headed downhill, in both senses, and walked through the former Jewish quarter and over the Vistula River to the Jewish ghetto, where there's a square with rows of chairs, symbolising the furniture and possessions left there by Jews on their way to the ghetto, who'd been told they were simply being moved, and so brought all their things which they then had to abandon. Then I carried on to what was Schindler's factory and is now a museum: probably the best-presented I've ever been into. Of course the occupation of Krakow, the walling-in of the ghetto, and Schindler's list is a powerful story, but it was told so well, with video, photos, touch-screens, radio, artefacts, reconstructions, symbolism, art - full of variety but simply done, the facts standing for themselves. And what facts they were: almost unbearably shocking and sad and terrifying. We all know roughly what happened, but it's the individual testimonies that make it so real.

Tonight there was a jolly evening of Polish food, dance and song - but tomorrow we go to Auschwitz.

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