Tag Archives: Pope John Paul II

Wroclaw, Communism, Martial Law and Freedom

“When Pope John Paul II kissed the ground at the Warsaw airport he began the process by which Communism in Poland – and ultimately elsewhere in Europe – would come to an end.”  – John Lewis Gaddis, U.S. Cold War Historian

On a recent visit to Iceland  we learnt about the elves and trolls that live there in the mountains and the valleys but we didn’t see any because they are invisible but here in Wroclaw we very soon came across the dwarfs because they are not nearly so shy and can be found posing outside buildings and along the footpaths all over the city.

Dwarfs have long held a place in Polish folklore and their current iconic status as symbols of Wrocław  has political and subversive origins. Under communism they became the rather unlikely symbol of the Orange Alternative – an underground protest movement that used absurdity and nonsense to stage peaceful protests. Armed with paint cans the group specifically ridiculed the establishment’s attempts to censor public space.

During the communist era any anti-establishment graffiti or troublesome public art was quickly painted over by the authorities but upon seeing fresh censorship the Orange Alternative quickly painted over them yet again…with dwarfs.  The first in its modern statuette form was placed on a busy crossroads near a subway where Orange Alternative demonstrations often took place in 2001.

We began in the Market Square and at first it all seemed incredibly easy and within a few minutes we had spotted at least twenty or so using our guide pamphlet as a sort of I Spy Book’ that we used to have when we were children but then the going got tougher as we were forced into the adjacent streets to go in search of our quest.

To the south of the Market Square we walked as far as the old city moat and then back to the centre via the Four Temples District and then we went north again back towards the University searching high and low for the little fellows.

We walked to the river and then walked east but there was a chill wind blowing down the river valley so we abandoned the route almost as soon as we had started and headed back to the centre and along the way came across ‘Jatki’ which is the only preserved medieval street in Wroclaw and has a corner of bronze sculptures of animals, a pig, piglet, goose, duck, rooster and a rabbit at the entrance to the street.

As well as the dwarfs we were looking for a sculpture called ‘The Anonymous Pedestrians’ and found them at a busy road junction where there are fourteen statues of ordinary people going about their daily business but on one side of the road they are sinking into grey obscurity into the pavement and on the other  are rising back out into the sunshine in a form of social resurrection.

It is a wonderful piece of street art and I am prepared to say that for me it was one of the highlights of Wroclaw.

The statues are a reminder of the introduction of martial law in Poland on December 13th 1981 and a memorial to the thousands of people who disappeared (‘went underground’) in the middle of the night courtesy of the militia. In a symbolic statement the fourteen statues were erected in the middle of the night in 2005 on the twenty-fourth anniversary of the introduction of martial law.

In 1981 the Polish Communist Government was having a hard time, there was a troublesome Polish Pope who had visited the country two years earlier and given people hope of liberation, there was a severe economic crisis, workers were striking and there was the growing influence of the workers movement Solidarity, and under pressure from the USSR, General Jaruzelski decided on a brutal and violent solution.

Early in the morning Martial Law was declared, several thousand opposition campaigners were interned, it is estimated that approximately one hundred people were murdered and strikes were crushed with the help of the army and special riot police units. Many members of the opposition and underground trade-unionists were sentenced to prison terms, others were forced to emigrate.  Normal life was severely restricted with curfews and rationing, the independent trade union Solidarity was banned and its leader Lech Walesa was imprisoned.

Although martial law was lifted in 1983, many of the political prisoners were not released until the general amnesty in 1986.

Jaruzelski and the other instigators of the martial law argued that the army crackdown rescued Poland from a possibly disastrous military intervention of the Soviet Union, East Germany, and other Warsaw Pact countries similar to the earlier ‘fraternal aid’ interventions in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 but history generally disagrees with this defensive interpretation and even today some of the leaders of the action await formal trial and punishment.

This is probably the most striking and powerful memorial depicting ordinary people that I have ever seen that perfectly captures the moment and visually records the suffering and the inhumanity, the desperation and the hope of the time and the military regime.

Humbled by this memorial and growing tired of looking for dwarfs it was just about now that we abandoned our search and returned to the Market Square to find a bar with tables in the sunshine and to settle down with a beer.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Depth – Krakow, Wieliczka Salt Mine

“Wherever he saw a hole he always wanted to know the depth of it. To him this was important.”                                                                                                                           Jules Verne –  ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’

Down in the mine we walked for three and a half kilometres through a succession of chambers, carved chapels and exhibits that explained the history and the operation.   The route took us to a depth of three hundred and twenty-seven metres and down a precise total of eight hundred steps.  Almost at the bottom was the star of the show where an entire cathedral complete with a statue of the Polish Pope, John Paul II, had been craved into one of the largest caverns.

Read the full story…

Krakow, Wieliczka Salt Mine

Entrance Tickets – Krakow, Wieliczka Salt Mine

Krakow, Wieliczka Salt Mine

It wasn’t all that long ago, certainly within my lifetime, that people were sent to carry out hard labour in salt mines as a punishment.  They probably still are.  The Soviets especially liked compelling people to go deep underground (usually in Siberia) to mine the precious commodity but today things have changed and we were actually paying for the privilege.

Read the full story…

Weekly Photo Challenge: Inside

Inside the Wieliczka Salt Mine, Krakow, Poland

The mine is a tourist attraction and about one million, two hundred thousand people visit every year.  This might seem like a strange sort of place to visit but the attraction is a collection of statues and an entire cathedral that have been carved out of the rock salt by the miners over the years – presumably during their tea breaks.  So impressive are the sculptures that in 1978 the Wieliczka salt mine was placed on the original UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

Read the full story…

Weekly Photo Challenge: Mine

The Wieliczka Salt Mine, Krakow, Poland

Well, it means something special to me…

The mine is a tourist attraction and about one million, two hundred thousand people visit every year.  This might seem like a strange sort of place to visit but the attraction is a collection of statues and an entire cathedral that have been carved out of the rock salt by the miners over the years – presumably during their tea breaks.  So impressive are the sculptures that in 1978 the Wieliczka salt mine was placed on the original UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

Read the full story…

Krakow, Wieliczka Salt Mine

Going Underground at Wieliczka

“Wherever he saw a hole he always wanted to know the depth of it. To him this was important.” –  Jules Verne –  ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’

It wasn’t all that long ago, certainly within my lifetime, that people were sent to carry out hard labour in salt mines as a punishment.  They probably still are.  The Soviets especially liked compelling people to go deep underground (usually in Siberia) to mine the precious commodity but today things have changed and we were actually paying for the privilege of dropping down towards the centre of the earth.

The hotel clerk tried to persuade me to book a personal taxi tour but at forty zlotys more each (£10) this seemed an unnecessary expense so I booked the regular tour instead.  This meant that to begin with there was a couple of shuttle bus journeys to reach the final rendezvous point across the river Vistula on the western side of the town where we separated into two groups, one for the Nazi concentration camp tour to Auschwitz and the other to the salt mines just a fifteen minute ride away on the outskirts of the city.

It was still rather overcast as we drove the short distance but it was much warmer today and the sun was beginning to compete with the milky clouds by the time that we arrived at the Wieliczka Salt Mine where we left the bus and walked to the entrance to meet our guide for the tour. We were soon to be swallowed up underground so the weather was actually rather irrelevant.

The mine is in the suburb town of Wieliczka that is now part of the greater Krakow metropolitan area and since the thirteenth century has continuously produced high quality table salt.  It has been one of the world’s oldest operating  mines producing salt for seven hundred years until commercial mining was discontinued in 1996 due to low prices and flooding problems, followed by formal closure in 2007.  It now produces just sixty tonnes of salt a day which sounds rather a lot but this is only a by-product of routine maintenance operations.

The largest underground salt mine in the World is in Goderich in Ontario Canada which produces twenty-five thousand tonnes of salt every day, which might sound like an awful lot but is only about 5% of Worldwide production!  That is a lot of salt!

Journey to the Centre of the Earth…

 

Today the mine is a tourist attraction and about one million, two hundred thousand people visit every year.  This might seem like a strange sort of place to visit but the attraction is a collection of statues and an entire cathedral that have been carved out of the rock salt by the miners over the years – presumably during their tea breaks.

So impressive are the sculptures that in 1978 the Wieliczka salt mine was placed on the original UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

After we were assigned an English speaking guide who welcomed us on the tour and then the visit began with a long descent down a vertical shaft which meant negotiating over three hundred vertiginous wooden steps that zigzagged past fifty-four platforms down to the first level.  From here we were about to enter a labyrinth of tunnels and interconnecting chambers that are over three hundred kilometers long and probably puzzling enough to confuse even the Minotaur of Greek legend.

The Underground Pope and a Cathedral…

 wieliczka salt mine

We walked through disused and exhausted chambers, passing by whole forests of timber props and retaining walls and through heavy wooden doors to reach the first of the sights, the Copernicus Chamber, where for those of us who were expecting statues similar to white marble we were disappointed by the rather lack luster grey of the rock salt figure and the guide explained that this was due to clay impurities and other contamination in the rock.

Down in the mine we walked for three and a half kilometres through a succession of chambers, carved chapels and exhibits that explained the history and the operation.   The route took us to a depth of three hundred and twenty-seven metres and down a precise total of eight hundred steps.  Almost at the bottom was the star of the show where an entire cathedral complete with a statue of the Polish Pope, John Paul II, had been craved into one of the largest caverns where there was a light show accompanied by a rendition of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, which to all of us seemed to be a rather strange choice of music.

After that there were a few remaining tunnels and chambers and the inevitable gift shops and then thankfully a lift to take us back to the surface, which was preferable of course to having to climb back up the eight hundred steps.

Wieliczka – Discover The Treasure…

Wieliczka Salt Mine advert

Back on the surface of the earth the sky was clearing nicely now and blue patches were rapidly replacing the unwelcome clouds and by the time the coach dropped us off on the edge of the old city centre the sun was shining and the temperature was rising nicely.

In the square we selected a restaurant for lunch based on the contents of the menu board outside but then managed to find ourselves in the wrong place.  We really wanted the Krakow specialty of soup in a hollowed out bread bun so we had to do the embarrassing thing and leave as soon as we had realised the error and relocate ourselves in the correct place next door.

Here we were served our preferred lunch where it was fun trying to anticipate how long it would be before the hot liquid would leak through the crust and end up spilling the scalding liquid spectacularly into our laps.  We wondered if we could attempt this at home but I certainly wouldn’t recommend trying it with a loaf of thin crust supermarket ‘economy’ loaf..

Krakow, Wieliczka Salt Mine