April 8, 2014

The Wujek Coal Mine

The two red and white striped stacks of the Wujek Coal Mine stand tall on the outskirts of the city - near the park where we spend a large amount of our leisure time. I was familiar with this area having faced a lot of struggle and that so much of it is quite recent history. However, a visit to the museum located at the still operational mine, left me in deep awe of what was happening in the 1980's. This was a world where the joys of Pee-wee Herman, Donkey Kong and the Cabbage Patch Kids were probably the last things on anyone's mind.

Kopalnia Wujek (Wujek Mine)
   In the last post, I mentioned the formation of an independent and self-governing trade union, Solidarity (Solidarność), that was formed on August 31, 1980. Solidarity was pushing to advance worker's rights and social change using civil resistance to push against the communist government. In an attempt to distroy the Solidarity Union, the government imposed martial law.

   *During Martial Law in Poland (December 13, 1981-July 22, 1983), the authoritarian government of the People's Republic of Poland restricted the normal life and civil liberties of the people while increasing the power of authorities, mainly the army and state power ministries.

The Miners' Cross
    In the summer of 1980, waves of strikes began occurring across Poland. Worker's were fighting against the country's economic situation which was continuing to decline. Store shelves were empty. If items did arrive to stock the shelves, people would have to wait in line for hours to get it. In July of 1980, the government introduced what was another price increase on the cost of meat and the social mood of the people dropped dramatically.

   Society's attempts to protest against the government were ended quickly as the militia and army would quickly disperse crowds. In 1980, workers in large cities became more organized and started occupying work places. Communist authorities were not prepared for the broad range of this nor the greatly increased amounts of determination. This time, the government was forced to engage in talks with the workers.

   As part of these talks, party-independent trade unions were established. Solidarity became a social movement that was quickly gaining millions of Poles. The new breath of freedom that the people saw was providing hope for future changes to democracy. The communist government was not in a good spot and the strength of Solidarity was threatening the PZPR (Polish United Workers' Party). The government treated the signed agreements as a compromise all while preparing to dissolve the Union.

The living area around the mine.
   In the early fall of 1980, preparations for the implementation of martial law began. All power of the country was given to General Wojciech Jurazelski. During martial law, Jurazelski served as the First Secretary of PZPR, the Prime Minister and the Minister of National Defense.

Diorama showing the pacification of the coal mine.
   General Jurazelski introduced martial law in all of Poland on the night between December 12th and 13th, 1981. All activities of Solidarity were suspended, press publishing was limited, a curfew was introduced, the state took control of the post offices and all main roads were blocked. The streets filled with tanks and armed vehicles. Telephone lines were cut off. The only thing being broadcast on the radio and TV was the speech of General Jurazelski. Most of the members of Solidarity had been previously arrested and transported to isolated locations.

Diorama showing the pacification of the coal mine.

    The government had set out to raise fear and uncertainty in the people and destroy the idea that the Polish People's Republic could change. At some workplaces, the workers decided to go on a sit-down strike even though their union leaders were interned. The striking workers demanded that martial law end, union leaders be released, the operations of Solidarity be restored and that the agreements signed in August and September of 1980 be respected.

Diorama showing the pacification of the coal mine.
   During the first few days of martial law, the military and militia, armed with water cannons, chemical agents and heavy military equipment pacified 12 workplaces. The militia forces were entering the workplaces ready to use their guns.

   *Pacification - to forcibly suppress or eliminate a population considered to be hostile.

   At about 11:30 on the night of December 12th, the door of Jan Ludwiczak's apartment (the leader of the Wujek Coal Mine branch of the Solidarity Trade Union) was forced open by militia officers. Ludwiczak was able to alarm his colleagues using an internal landline before he was arrested. His colleagues tried to run to his rescue but were instead beaten severely by the militia. Ludwiczak was cuffed and taken to the militia station. At 1:00 in the morning, word about the arrest had reached the miners. They stopped working and gathered in the dressing room.

   At 6:00 in the morning, General Jaruzelski's speech of martial law and militarizing the coal mine was replayed over the PA system for the miners to hear. The atmosphere grew heated and the rector of the Saint Michael the Archangel parish was brought in to officiate a mass. The miners decided to suspend any protest until the arrival of Monday's first shift workers.

The mine still operates today.
   The workers prepared for a sit-down strike at the mine. Local citizens provided the miners with food and the miners made barricades using coal cars. Military squads, the Citizen's Militia and the Motorized Reserves of the Citizen's Militia entered the mine on December 16. A crowd gathered in front of the mine and the miners gathered at the fence. Water cannons and gas launchers were directed to disperse the crowds. As three tanks and several infantry vehicles were entering the mine, a shift in wind caused a gas launcher to affect the militia officers and one of the tanks got stuck on a barricade. This provided an opportunity for the miners to fight back.

Crosses for the nine miners.
   As the events unfolded and the pacification ended, nine miners lost their lives to gunshot wounds (ranging in ages of 19-48). Militia squads worked to prevent ambulances and emergency services from reaching other miners that were shot or injured. Citizens that tried to get miners to help and the medical staff were threatened by the militia if they dared to aid a miner.

The Miners' Cross
   On the evening of December 16th, citizens stood a cross next to the coal mine wall. Hanging from the cross, they placed nine miner's lamps for the fallen miners. The cross was destroyed on the night of January 27th 1982. The miners threatened with strikes if a cross was not restored and the military commissioner of the coal mine ordered a new cross to be made. In 1991, it was replaced with the memorial monument that stands tall today.

The Miners' Cross

   Information for this post was sourced from The Wujek Coal Mine Museum booklet. If you should find yourself in Katowice, a visit to this museum is a must. Admission is free, the museum is insightful and well assembled. A booklet is available with the English translations of the exhibits. The "tour" ends with a very well-done documentary with English subtitles.


  1. What a good read! Thanks for the history lesson! Hard to believe this happened not that long ago.

    1. Thanks! Even crazier, they just finished up the court trials in 2004..!