NOVEMBER 2012 BACK ISSUE This project pays homage to people who perform hard manual labour. Workers who were once very proud of their positions are now losing their jobs due to the recession. In Upper Silesia, Poland, the work ethos, traditions, and related customs are alive and colourful. But, in recent years, half of the existing coalmines here have been shut down, along with 70% of the heavy industry factories. Very little is done to help those who have lost jobs, including men traditionally accustomed to supporting their families. These photographs depict tasks, places and objects that are fast becoming things of the past. It is a story about Silesia and what it is today. by Tomasz Tomaszewski Everyone in Nikiszowiec knows Rudolf Wróbel. On Flag Day (May 2), he put on his dress uniform and went for a walk around his neighborhood. Older neighbors nodded respectfully. Younger ones watched him curiously. A bus full of tourists from Warsaw stopped at the main square. "Look, a real miner!" they exclaimed. Wróbel stuck his chest out proudly as he posed for photos. Dariusz Szymanski is 34 years old and works at the Jadwiga cokery. He operates a coal charging car, which loads finely ground coal into the coke oven battery. For miners, bathing is a ritual. Showers are often taken with the men standing in line, each one scrubbing the back of the man in front of them. The last one then washes the first man's back. Pigeon lofts can be found in almost every courtyard in Silesia. The practice of breeding homing pigeons originated in the region. The first homing club was founded in 1905 in the Makoszowy neighborhood of Zabrze. Pigeon breeding was mostly popular among miners and steelworkers. Why are Silesians so fond of pigeons? Breeders say that when chicks are taken away from pigeons, the birds don't dwell on their suffering, but instead plan their new nest. The pigeon thus personifies all the traits of the Silesian spirit: forgetting the suffering of the past, patience, gentleness, and caring for one's home against all odds. The bird is also a symbol of the Holy Spirit, which is of great significance to traditionally religious Silesians. Another symbol, simplicity, is the queen of Silesian virtues, one outsiders often mistake for crudeness. In the photo: A pigeon loft in Piekary Slaskie. Smelters at Katowice Steelworks (now a part of ArcelorMittal): Andrzej Stanek and Krzysztof. When the photo was taken, gauges indicated that the temperature of the pig iron inside the furnace was 1479 degrees Celsius. Almost every morning, Sylwester Jagla of Biskupice, Zabrze hitches his horses up to his coal wagon and drives them to the mine, where he joins the line of trucks waiting for their turn to load. He delivers coal to Zabrze and Bytom homes that use coal furnaces for heating. Jagla is one of Silesia's last coal deliverymen that still uses a horse-drawn wagon. In the past, most miners had a trade school or elementary school education, while a rare few did not complete any school at all. A study conducted by the sociologist Marek Szczepanski shows that much has changed over the past ten years. Researchers polled over 800 young miners who had been on the job for no more than three years. It turned out that nearly half of them (44 percent) had a high school diploma or an associate's degree, while 11.4 percent of miners in worker positions had college degrees. Whenever a rock burst or methane explosion occurs at a mine, rescue workers are the first on the scene. In order to be prepared to work in all possible conditions, crews must participate in frequent exercises. There are ten cokeries operating in Poland, of which six are self-contained, while the remaining four are run by steel mills, the main consumers of coke. Employment in cokeries has fallen from 11.5 thousand to less than 9 thousand in recent years. Football is the number one sport in Silesia. Everyone has to make up their mind about which team to root for. While Górnik reigns in Zabrze, the issue isn't quite as simple in Nikiszowiec, a neighborhood split between fans of Ruch Chorzów and GKS Katowice. In the photo: Nine-year-old Dawid practices in a courtyard near the Bobrek coal mine in Bytom. Dawid wants to become a famous football player. The neighborhood of Nikiszowiec was left in disrepair for many years. The historical familok houses slowly decayed while the city turned them into dumping grounds for low-income tenants. The once-burgeoning borough slowly turned into a slum. Anyone who had the means to leave "Nikisz" did so. But young people who managed to get out haven't forgotten their roots. A white limousine parked in front of a Nikiszowiec familok? Why not? The bride and groom live in London, but have decided to throw a lavish wedding in their hometown. Erwin Sówka, once a miner at the Wieczorek coal mine, has been retired since 1986. He completed his first painting at the age of 16, as an employee at the mine's power plant. His masters were Ewald Gawlik and Teofil Ociepka, a well-known Silesian painter/occultist and mystic. Sówka incorporates mining myths and the ancient cultures of the East into his artwork. He mainly paints female nudes against images of Nikiszowiec, allotment gardens, miners, and their homes. His work has been displayed in numerous galleries around the world. Sówka lives in a three-room apartment on the top floor of a high rise building in the Katowice neighborhood of Zawodzie. Bogdan Klos, a retired miner from the Wieczorek coal mine, decided to attend the Nikiszowiec neighborhood festival in his miner's uniform. It was a demonstration of sorts; this part of Katowice has a bad reputation. "We're tired of hearing about how Nikisz is a tough neighborhood. There are proud, honest people living here and they help each other out. Not like in those high-rises where neighbors don't even talk, except for a quick 'hello' on the stairs," says Klos. When coal is heated to a temperature of 600 to 1200 degrees Celsius in an oxygen-free environment, it turns into coke. Chunks of coke resemble dark pumice and are 98 percent pure carbon, compared to the 75 percent in coal. Coke falls out of the coking battery onto a platform on which it is transported to a quenching tower, where it is doused with water, producing enormous amounts of steam. One ton of coal produces about 650 kilograms of coke.
Andrzej Stanek, aged 40, is a smelter at Katowice Steelworks. He has worked at the blast furnace for 17 years. He wears a hood, thick-soled shoes, and aluminized, flame-retardant work clothes that can withstand high temperatures without catching fire. He opens the tap in the furnace. A machine drills a hole 80 cm wide and 2.5 m long. The pig iron squirts out into a runner at 1500 degrees Celsius. In order to extract coal from underground, miners must first reach the deposits. In the photo: Miners drill a gangway at the Pokój mine in Ruda Slaska. The Jadwiga cokery in Biskupice, Zabrze was founded in 1884 as one of the last plants in the Borsig family's steel and mining complex. By 1915, the cokery was producing one thousand tons of coke per year, most of which supplied the company's steel mills. The cokery is now a modern plant that has been modernized to meet EU regulations. Employees have set up their own gardens outside the coking battery - one for each work crew. Each month, they award themselves points for the best-tended garden, and select a winner at the end of the year. Krystyna Zapotocka has worked at the Pokój mine in Ruda Slaska for 25 years, including 10 in the washery, where she separates the coal from the rocks. Back to current issue