An excerpt from:
Di untererdishe oytsres
F. Berye’s Untererdishe oytsres (Underground Treasures) begins with this descent into a Carpathian salt mine. The description of the mine abounds with both imaginative metaphors and technical detail. The work was published in 1922 as part of Natur un mentsh (Nature and Man), a series of popular science works in Yiddish.
In the Carpathian Mountains, not far from Kraków, there is a small shtetl, Wieliczka. There are no rich palaces, monuments, gardens, or big factories in Wieliczka. But Wieliczka is known all over the world. Beneath its soil lies a huge shelf of salt, pure clear salt, like ice… Miners extract the salt from the earth, and it is sent all around the world. Travelers often come to see the shtetl and tell the most wondrous stories about the treasures of Wieliczka.
Hundreds of workers dig out the salt, working hard day and night. There are eight deep shafts underground. There are corridors on every side leading into the chambers, where the salt is dug. The corridors lead on into the depths down eight levels, stacked one over the other. The whole of Wieliczka has been excavated, and the mines stretch far beyond the shtetl. The cavern is a town in itself with streets, wide-open spaces, houses… high-ceilinged halls and magnificent cathedrals, statues—everything is made of salt.
To admit the workers, elevators have been constructed. Not long ago many people considered this progress. It was a simple rope with several wooden beams attached at intervals. The worker sat on the beams, held on to the rope, and flew down into the darkness. How many accidents awaited those living corpses! A false grip on the rope was enough to send a worker flying down. Sometimes the rope was not strong enough, and everyone on it perished. Today workers can go down in cages, which is more comfortable, but the cages swing and can hit the walls of the shaft at any moment. Today you can go down in an elevator; it has been nicely arranged for visitors and guests. To avoid dirtying your clothes with the salty dust, you put on a long white shirt and then start the tour. The world of light disappears from sight, and in minutes one flies down into thick darkness. The pale lights of the street shine up the shaft from the beautiful entrance to the cavern. The elevator comes to a halt 210 feet below the earth. In front of your eyes is an incredible sight, a magnificent underground palace. The ceiling, walls, and floor have been carved from salt, pure and clear, like crystal. A long corridor extends in front of you. You take a few steps and stop as though frozen… you see a high cathedral hall; gigantic pillars hold up the dome; there is a chandelier over the altar and two angels flank the entrance, carved from rose-pink salt.
Sarah Prais was born in London in 1972 and lives in Israel with her family. She studied German and Yiddish at the University of Bristol and the University of London. She works as a freelance translator and particularly enjoys translating literature.