In 1969, Wilhelmina State Mine was closed after having operating since 1906. On the location of the former mine in Landgraaf there is a memorial chapel. It is situated in the former morgue. Here miners who had died in mine accidents were brought. Also Polish miners.
A memorial chapel is dedicated to all miners who died in the South Limburg mining industry and Saint Barbara is a patron of the chapel. There is a Barbara statue on the altar, made by former miner Sjef Drummen. The stained glass windows are created by Ger Bäumler. You can read ‘Gluck Auf’ on two glass medallions. It was a greeting, miners exchanged with one another to wish each other a safe return from the mine.
Around the chapel you can find plaques with the names of miners who died underground. The names of miners who died above ground are on a plaque inside the chapel.
When you give a closed look at the names you will find many international names, including many Polish names.
The Poles had a significant impact on the economic situation of Limburg, including South Limburg and the Parkstad region. The Poles came to work in the mines and settled here from the beginning of the twentieth century. If you open a phone book, you will immediately see many Polish names that stem from the immigrants who came to the Netherlands in the early 20th century.
The beginning: 1900-1920
Until 1910, several hundred Poles moved to Limburg to work in the mines. The majority of these had already lived and worked in Germany before that. Reasons for moving to the Netherlands were both political and economic. Some of them fled from Prussia because of the anti-Polish sentiments there. In addition, many contract workers, who previously worked in mines in the Ruhr area, moved to Limburg. They could do the work that many Dutch people did not want or could not do. There was a great shortage of skilled mining personnel among the Dutch. Many Dutch people were also unhappy about the inadequate social facilities that were offered. In the period 1914-1918 many Poles living in Germany moved to Limburg in order to avoid the German conscription. They crossed the border illegally in the hope of being able to work in the mines. In 1920 there were about 1000 Poles working in the Limburg mines. However, these are only Poles who considered themselves part of the newly established independent Polish state. Many Poles from Germany are therefore not included in the above mentioned number.
Even after 1920, the majority of Poles who moved to Limburg came from Germany. The Treaty of Versailles stipulated that Poles from Germany were obliged to opt for Polish or German nationality. If they opted for Polish nationality, they had to leave Germany before January 1, 1923. Many of them chose not to return to Poland, but to go to France, Belgium and the Netherlands. The economic situation in Poland was still very bad and there was still plenty of work in the mines in Limburg, among others. The labor shortages in Limburg were so high that various recruitment campaigns were held from the state mines in the period 1926-1931. Polish miners were transported from the provinces of Posen and Silesia to Limburg on special trains. There they were guaranteed a year of work -often underground, housing and social facilities. Most of them came to work in the South Limburg towns of Brunssum, Hoensbroek and Geleen. By 1930 the number of Poles in Limburg had increased to about 6000. When the economic world crisis also became noticeable in the Limburg mines in 1931, it was mainly the foreign miners who were the victims. In five years, the number of Polish miners halved. After their dismissal, if they were members of a trade union, they received a few more weeks’ salary. They were then taken to the station in Aachen to take the train to Poland or another destination. A small part of the laid-off miners went to Scheveningen to train as sea fishermen. This was possible because of a collaboration between the Polish and Dutch governments using Dutch fishing boats. During the Second World War, many Poles had a hard time. They were seen by the German occupier as an inferior people. Many of them went to France at the beginning of the war to join the Polish army.
Polish associations in Limburg
The Poles in Limburg were well organized from the start. In 1910, Ignacy (Ignatz) Patelski (1871-1936) and Tomasz Woźniak (1883-1959) took the initiative to establish a Polish association in the Netherlands for Poles living in Heerlen and its vicinity and working in the mining industry. About 25 Polish miners took part in the inaugural meeting at Café De Zwaan. The aim of the association was to integrate Polish emigrants into the life of the Catholic community and to preserve their own language and tradition. The association receives the name of the Polish-Catholic Society “Unity”, under the patronage of Saint Adalbert.
The full name turned out to be quite difficult to use on a daily basis, and therefore it was shortened: first it was St. Wojciech (Polish Society of St. Wojciech) and then “Wojciech”. The association settled in Café Zwaan at 84 Geelenstraat in Heerlen. The first Polish processions were also held from the Heerlen Pancratius Church on the Pancratiusplein.
Not much later, several music and sports associations appeared. There was also a union for Polish workers and a political party for an independent Poland (before the independence of 1918). In 1929 the Dutch Association for Polish organizations was founded. All local organizations came under this association and it organized national and church festivals. The Polish government paid for a Polish school, which was founded in 1929 in Brunssum. When the money tap was turned off in the 1930s, it became a Dutch school where Polish language and history was taught in the evenings. In 1937, with the help of the Directorate of State Mines, a Polish House was even built in Brunssum.
After the war
The political discord that erupted in Poland after the war also had repercussions on the Polish community in Limburg. A struggle broke out between supporters of the communist government in Warsaw and the supporters of the Polish government-in-exile in London. This led to dissolution and mergers of certain associations due to declining memberships. New workers were soon needed in the mines. These were recruited from the various Polish military divisions outside Poland in the first ten years after the war. For example, Polish soldiers who had fought in the liberation of Breda and soldiers from Germany came to work in Limburg.
Currently, many Poles come to Limburg to work in greenhouses, factories and various other industries which are greatly supported by Polish immigrants. It is estimated that there are approximately 1,500-2,000 (temporary) first generation Polish immigrants in the Parkstad region, whose work is essential for the local economy.
Source: Land van Heerle
Author: Beata Bruggeman-Sękowska is an award-winning international journalist, TV correspondent, author, chief editor of international journalism centre, Central and Eastern Europe Centre, president of the European Institute on Communist Oppression and a sworn translator. She was born in Warsaw, Poland and has also Armenian blood and roots in Lvov, which is part of Ukraine. She has been living in Heerlen, the Netherlands since 2005.