GB No. 12, winter 1994
Nobody knows how many people have worked in the uranium mine and processing plant. The statistics, if they exist at all, are kept confidential. Nobody knows how many of the workers are still alive, either.
The mine was closed in 1963. The people who had worked there were no longer needed, so they had to leave. Since then, however, many of these people have died. The reason for many of the deaths, according to doctors, is cancer. Only the families of the deceased have a clue to its origin.
They live in the area of Kowary. Those who are lucky enough to still be alive mention the names of their colleagues: Szczur, Dutkiewicz, Hyc, Piotrowski, Matsik, Praszczyk, Walczak. There are also others they know nothing about. Several of them have settled in Lublin. A few of them were able to start working in the copper industry. The rest receive disability pensions.
When the war ended, a migration of prospective settlers to the western part of Poland started. Many of them settled in the charming little town of Kowary, which had somehow managed to avoid destruction during the war. They were "lucky." They managed to find quite well-paying jobs pretty quickly. A state owned enterprise called "Kowary Mines" (Panstwowe Przedsiebiorstwo "Kowarskie Kopalnie") came into existence on January 1, 1948. One of the people who worked there was Stanisław Jasiński. He was employed as a miner, although he was not a specialist by any means. Nobody asked about qualifications after the war. Besides, hardly any technology was required there: output was extracted with a hack and a shovel.
Stanisław Jasiński had no idea what he extracted there. However, it must have been a very important ore, because there was a great number of Soviet specialists in the offices, and the whole enterprise was protected by the KBW - Army Security Corps. On his very first day of work, he had to sign a document in which he promised to keep all the information relating to his work confidential. Strangers we met on the train, he says, often asked us what we did. But I did not spill the beans. My friends, when drinking vodka, sometimes talked about it, and then they disappeared in mysterious ways.
Stanisław Moszkowski worked there for five years. He spent the last two in the sorting room. He took pieces of ore in his hands and put them against an apparatus which the Russians called "pietiorka." If the arrow of the indicator moved noticeably, he put the ore on the right, if not - on the left. He was very suprised to find out after a few days that flakes of skin were peeling off his hands.
Franciszek Urban came to work in the mine straight from the Army Security Corps. At the beginning the miners considered him to be an informant, but as he did the same things as other workers in the sorting room, they finally approved of him. At the beginning he worked side by side with Tereska, a girl he was sweet on. There were many more young women working there, but all of them were dismissed after a year.
Zdzisław Podolak became a Kowary miner at the age of eighteen. He installed lighting and ventilators in the mine and maintained the equipment. He also visited the sorting room and watched the ore being put into containers. The army supervised the preparation of every single transport. Soviet soldiers sat on those containers holding guns in their hands.
Anatol Moszkowski also started working there at the age of eighteen. Somebody trusted him and he started working in radiometry. He made friends with Winogradow, a Soviet engineer, who told him confidentially, "If you want to live, keep close to the places where the meter ticks less intensely."
Marian Michałek spent fifteen years in Kowary. All those years he worked in the mine. He remembers ore sills and pockets. It was easy to extract the ore from pockets. You just struck the roof with a stick and the ore fell down into a container. It looked like grain. If you stood under a pocket, your hair went stiff and you felt a sweet taste in your mouth.
Bogusław Florkowski worked with Soviet specialists most of the time. He could not understand why they wore special outfits when accompanying him in the mine.
Mieczysław Król remembers a conversation that took place in the infamous institution. "You must understand that you extract an ore of special importance. That is why soldiers have to take care of you."
Jerzy Żejmoda, Józef Nowak, and Władysław Rutkowski have similar life stories, similar experiences.
In 1919 a radioactive substance was discovered in the iron ore mines of Kowary. Several years later Germans specialists found out that it was possible to extract uranium there. For the time being it was stored in mine-dumps. In 1943-44 some of the uranium was transported to Oranienburg. However, the Germans did not manage to put their schemes into existence.
At the end of the war Soviet specialists arrived in Kowary. An exploratory group was established first. Every six months they had to sign a document in which they promised to keep all the information relating to their job confidential.
In 1956, when Gomułka came to power, they were granted protective means for the first time. They were ordered to wash thoroughly after finishing work. Army Security Corps disappeared, and specialists from wierk started coming to Kowary.
It was only then that they learned what substance they extracted. At that time uranium ceased to be the most important strategic substance, and the quality of the ore provided by the Kowary mine was deteriorating, so Soviet specialists moved to our southern neighbours to assist them in building "the emerging atomic science."
Basically, ore extraction stopped there in 1963, and the people who still worked there at that time were suddenly granted disability pensions. Anatol Moszkowski says that everything was arranged in a hurry, without doctors' opinions being given about their so called "general state of health." In 1971 Stanisław Moszkowski learned that he had a blood disease and was sent to the Wroc3aw clinical hospital. He told his doctor that he had worked in Kowary. The doctor advised him confidentially not to tell anyone about it. When Stanisław Moszkowski thinks of Kowary, he remembers that rabbits were kept in cages in the plant. They lived only three weeks.
Stanisław Jasiński was granted a disability pension officially because of his dust disease. A doctor friend of his put him right. It is difficult for him to breathe and even a very low level of radiation could kill him.
Franciszek Urban was to act as a blood donor for his wife. They did take his blood, but later on he was informed that he should not do it in the future. Your blood is simply useless, they said. Where did you work? In Kowary? Well, that explains everything...
Bogusław Florkowski is waiting for his turn. He has read everything he could about radiation sickness in the encyclopaedia. He knows that it may be revealed even after thirty years from being exposed to radiation.
Zdzisław Podolak says that a doctor friend of his was suprised that his body still functioned relatively well after being exposed to such high levels of radiation. He has also read the encyclopaedia.
Edward Worosz recalls that on some anniversary of the mine he was sent to the ministry with a large piece of ore, carefully polished by his friends. Upon his arrival he was given a warm welcome, but when they saw what he had brought they ran away from the office. "I stood nailed to the ground, he says. I was holding it, just like everyday, and they escaped."
For many years the survivors made pilgrimages to offices and hospitals. Those most desperate even went to the courts.
They just want pecuniary remuneration for the health that they irrevocably lost. From whom, they do not know. An office dealing with the former employees of the Kowary ZPR-1, situated in the United Atomic Plants (Zjednoczone Zakłady Urządzeń Jądrowych) in Wrocław, does no more than issue certificates. Doctors do not want to give them any certificates stating the true origin of their illness. Uranium? No. It is forbidden to talk about it. You had your own doctors, let them talk about it.
According to the former workers of the plant their doctors acted under pressure. If a worker's health deteriorated, he was granted a disability pension. Halina Dominas, a doctor who used to work in Kowary and now lives in Warsaw, claims she does not remember. "So many years have passed!" All the documents describing the state of health of the employees of Kowary have disappeared.
The former miners of Kowary who are still alive provoke an air of impatience and irritation in hospitals and offices with their mere presence. Few of them have been granted higher pensions as a result of a court verdict. The new wave members of the Sejm (the lower chamber of the Polish Parliament) have not taken up the subject, either. The only person who has attempted to do something was Mr. Piesiak of Jelenia Góra - a member of the upper chamber of the Polish Parliament (Senate). However, his activities during the first term of Parliament were not successful. Some of the available documents were disclosed and a registration office for the former workers of the uranium mine was established. Around the middle of the year news came out that there might be some money available. However, each person must visit his GP first, and then present a certificate of occupational disease issued by medical authorities (SANEPID - an abbreviation for Stacja Sanitarno-Epidemiologiczna - the Office for Hygiene and Epidemiology).
Everything is simple at the top. But at the the lower levels nobody will dare to sign a certificate of occupational disease without knowing the result of examinations made by specialists. These examinations, however, do not always reveal any changes in the bodies of the people who had worked in the uranium mine. But we can still have hope.
translation from Sztandar Młodych 11/93