Sunday, October 5, 2014

A Piece of My Heart

The Journey begins

Wujek coal mine or Kopalnia Wujek as they call it, is a huge building which one cannot miss  to notice when crossing the Wincentego Pola street. The word “Wujek” (read as vu-yek) means “uncle” in Polish. This is a coal mine. Mining operations in Wujek began in 1899 by combining 6 mines in the Silesian region which was then part of Germany. By 1995, during 50 years of operations, they would had mined 50 million tonnes of coal and exported to 32 states, which created history. 3.9 million tons of coal mined in 1979 is considered as one of their best production, another history. Maybe then, no one foresaw the fateful day which would take the name of this mine into history, but this time not for their productivity. This is the story behind the still functional coal mine: digging and exporting tonnes of coal day after day.  What is the story hidden in this museum? Is it just to showcase the change in technology in mining coal? No. But the first step by a group of people to show their unity, their thirst for freedom, and creating an awakening that people would remember in the decades to come. 

I am going to take you through this journey of mine to the coal mine museum. I had tried to compile my experience from watching the short film at the museum (titled ‘A life with scars’), reading through the reference materials made available at the museum and the books offered at the museum.

The history

As I share with you this special journey of mine filled with an array of emotions, I need to introduce you to the history of Poland at this point to enable better understanding of what I want to share.

Poland has a long history beginning from 1569. Just keeping the relevance in mind, here is a small bit of it from the recent past. On September 1, 1939 Hitler ordered invasion of Poland and World War 2 began. By the end of the War, the map of Poland changed with some territories added to it from Germany and some of its territories becoming a part of Soviet Union. In June 1945 Polish provincial government was formed establishing communist rule in Poland.

With the western funds inflow, Poland was one of the best economies in the early 1970s. But soon the economy broke down owing to misspend of funds leading to a foreign debt of $20 billion. There was nothing on the shop shelves to buy. Strikes broke out across the country due to further price hikes announced in July 1980. The protests of 1980 were different from the previous ones. During earlier protests people assembled on streets to protest and the militia men dispersed the crowd. Now, the protests were consolidated at the work establishments in the larger cities. The communist rule had to negotiate and finally signed agreements which had the key postulate of formation of free-party independent trade union.

Solidarity became a social movement gathering millions of Poles. The expectations of the participants posed danger to the foundations of the communist government raising hope for future changes to democracy. In the meantime, authorities treated signed agreement as a temporary compromise and were preparing to dissolve the union. On December 12 -13, 1981, Martial law was declared under which the army and the ZOMO riot police were used to crush the solidarity. The solidarity movement gained momentum and the country was declared as the Republic of Poland in 1989.

Fear and fearlessness

The TV and radio stations of Poland fell silent during the snow and frost filled night of December 12 – 13, 1981. Telephones were disconnected. Early next day morning, televisions started showing General Wojciech Jaruzelski (Read as voi-check yaru-zelski) taking full control over the country as head of the Military council and the declaration of Martial law. Armed functionaries of militia and security service units burst into thousands of homes to arrest those who refused to yield. The called it internment. No one was very clear about what the Martial law was all about except that it increased the authorities of the army and state ministers and restricted the civil rights. 

Around 1:00 am on 13 December, the trade union leader of Wujek mine Jad Ludwiczak’s flat door was forced open. His colleagues who went for his rescue were battered. He was one among the 1900 people interned. The news of the arrest reached the workers. The strike at Wujek began almost immediately.  The workers who came in for different shifts on 14 December, Monday joined the strike. The demands of the striking workers included withdrawal of  the Martial law and the release of the interned. The militia and ZOMO were not willing to accept the demands and planned the pacification of the Wujek mine. Actions taken by the authorities were supposed to raise fear of uncertainty and destroy hopes of people. Colonel Jerzy Gruba planned the pacification to be carried out by 1471 militia officers, 760 soldiers with 22 tanks and 44 infantry vehicles.

The striking miners were not new to the thin line between life and death. May be they were the ones who knew it much better than others. As they went for work day after day going down the lift into the dark mine to dig out more coal the only feeling the always experienced was hope and the one they seldom did was fear.


Unpredictable situations make us nervous. As I read through these documents and books, the only set of nerves which were functional in my body were the ones which were making the tears flow down my eyes. I just got to understand what nerves of steel mean when I understood what these striking men and their families faced during the minus 16 degree Celsius December nights.

Families of the striking miners and residents from the neighbouring cities poured into Wincentago Street. They were gathered to help the miners in any possible way. The key action was the keep the militia men and ZOMO away from the mine compound wall. Distract them, split them but limit their access to the miners. The tension grew multi-fold during the following hours until the morning of 16th December, Wednesday. False alarms and rumours sustained the vigilance every minute. Loaded coal cars were placed as barricades.


When the militia men arrived with their troops for pacification, the people gathered on the roads got into action. They threw stones, bricks, metal nuts, all they had at hand to keep the militia at distance. Stones from the coal mine waste were their main supply as the tried to drag the ZOMO officers away from the mine.

Women tried to sit in front of the tanks on the thick layer of snow as they thought the tanks will not crush them and move past. A 12 year old boy was clinging to the canon in an attempt to stop it. His memories were fresh as he spoke about the incident standing in the same spot after two decades. Unable to move past this angry crowd which was willing to do anything to stop the militia men from reaching the miners, they used water canons and gas launchers.

Nature has its own mind and takes different calls at different times. The tsunamis and the earthquakes wipe away lives without partiality of young or old and rich or poor. But this time, the icy cold winter decided to take the side of the ones fighting for freedom as freedom is the identity of nature.

The direction of wind changed suddenly and militia officers were affected by the attack that they had initiated. One of the tanks ran over the barricade and got stuck there. Miners took advantage of the situation and fought back. They threw back the hand grenades and also threw objects from the roof. The retreat angered the officers. Adding strength to it was the firing order.

Pain and cry

This time the militia men and ZOMO advanced with their guns and nothing stopped them from opening fire. The miners had neither protection nor weapons to fight back. All that they had were spades and helmets. But the bullets pierced through the helmets too. There were shot ruthlessly. An eyewitness recollects that the snow was slippery with blood.  The message about wounded and dead miners spread quickly. The militia men beat the ambulance drivers and paramedics stopping them from treating the wounded or taking them to hospitals.

The doctors and paramedics emotionally recall the condition of the wounded miners and how they were threatened when a few of them were brought to hospital. One of the paramedics succumbed to one strong blow that he was unconscious for the next coupe of days. Seeing the wounds of the miners who survived and the pains that their families went through during the following years are as horrific as the ones of the dead.

Totally 9 miners died, the youngest being 19 years old. The same evening people put a cross and hung the miners lamp on the cross representing the dead miners. Some of them were married and had young children. The families held themselves together to continue their fight for freedom and find answers to this inhuman act.


How many times did I manage to be in the other person’s shoe to understand a situation? How difficult is it? Does it get better with age, practise or with the seriousness of the issue? I do not have answers. But, I learnt how best it can get when I saw this lady who is the wife of a surviving miner. The miner in his late 70s had been hit by 3 bullets on his back. He can barely walk. He was also affected by the gas shells. During the last 30+ years, he has been hospitalised 70 times for various illness. The list did not spare any known organ of the human body. When his wife spoke about how they have managed to carry on with their lives, had a word for the families of dead miners which left me chocked. She said “with all that we have endured, my husband survived but there were 9 of them who did not”. If I were her, I am not sure if I would have been able to look beyond myself.


The solidarity movement gathered momentum. The hope increased inspite of threats. As the wounds healed,  they left behind the scars of unforgettable memory. The cross with nine lanterns stood near the Wujek mine gate reminding the sacrifice and the duty of other Poles to achieve independence. Miners enter their job with the hope that they will get back home alive at the end of the day’s work. This hope was bigger and had the future generations at stake. They achieved what they set out to achieve, an independent Poland.

Sigh of relief

The initial appeals at court did not yield justice to the miners. Given the hopeless situation that may not yield results doctors hid the autopsy reports of the miners deep in the woods. They waited for the time when a fair law and order situation will prevail to reveal the truth. A young miner’s daughter visited the court during each of its hearing and made notes of each and every word spoken in the court waiting for the day when her father’s murderers would be punished. Finally in 2007, the judgement came in favour of the miners. Many of the convicts had died during the course of the case. 


Today a huge steel cross stands in the place where the original wooden cross stood as a memorial of pacification. There are nine crosses representing each miner who lost his life with an electric lantern in the centre of each cross. The mine shares the wincentago street with a residential area. Among the zooming cars and the mine trucks, there is a silence that surrounds this place.

Currently the mine produces sub-bituminous coal with a typical energy content of 30000 – 31000 KJ/KG, volatile content of 30-31%, ash content of less than 5% and sulphur content of less than 0.6%.  Lot of things have changed, but the memories remain.
As I left the museum, I wrote in the visitor’s book that I leave behind a piece of my heart.

I was 3 yrs old when this happened, just as old as one of the deceased miner’s kid. Just reading about this and seeing people talk onscreen made me go through several feelings. All along my visit and the days when I sat down to compile it, they continued. I don’t even know the names of few of them. Strange jerks ran through my body. My hand turned icy cold though the temperature outside was 20 degree Celsius. I know history has more than enough stories of misery. And given the kind of person I am I may continue to leave a piece of my heart at every such place I see. But I if could have a measure for my courage, empathy, patience, and hope, I bet they would have measured higher from the minute I just stepped out of this museum. I am thankful for all that I have and more thankful to all others across the globe who helped me in having what I do.

1 comment:

  1. Hema, it feels like i 've also been to the Kopalnia Wujek by reading your article !! it's interesting and detailed oriented !! Great !! I love it !! pls continue to write more about your findings and life in Katowice in Poland !! :-)
    p.s I am happy to be first who leave comments here ...


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