That Batman Quote About Heroes – The Mining Heroics of Alija Sirotanović

You know the quote, the one where Batman’s old butler dude says you die and become a hero or live and turn into a villain. It’s a loose analogy to use when talking about the heroic workers of socialist Yugoslavia, the udarniks, but it will have to do, and it also means I can justifiably use a ‘Batman’ tag in an aim to improve site views.

Two of the greatest miners in the history of Yugoslavia (I don’t think there was a hall of fame or anything like that) found themselves featured on money, frequently getting confused with each other. The happier story of the two concerns a man from the central Bosnian village of Orahovo, a man called Alija Sirotanović. Alija eventually adorned the 20,000 dinar note.

What did he do to find himself as currency? He mined a huck of coal, that’s what. Alija Sirotanović was one of nine children (born to the family, not in the world), all of whom ended up working down the mines. Alija worked in the coal mine at Breza, the ancient capital of those Daesitiates, and would have lived his life in relative obscurity if it weren’t for his god-given ability to huck coal.

In 1947, ol’ Alija set a brand new record in coal-extracting, garnering him national attention in the socialist press. Two years later the bar was set even higher, as Alija and eight of his finest men mined 152 tones in a single shift. If you aren’t sure how much coal that is, I can confirm that it is a whole lot of coal. Sirotanović was heralded as the leader of the crew, and became an overnight celebrity.

The whole thing is pretty disputable unfortunately. The late ’40s/early ’50s saw Yugoslavia struggle to establish itself as a socialist worker’s paradise, and propaganda was more valuable than truth. Alija was almost certainly a hard-working miner, but it is possible (if not likely) that his achievements were overplayed in order to paint a picture of a productive utopia. Yugoslavia and the Soviets had a fairly testy relationship (the Tito-Stalin split happened in 1948), so both nations were keen to one-up the other whenever possible.

Alija’s achievements, which sounds like a weekly column in The County Times, did not go unnoticed at the top of the Yugoslav table. Tito himself visited Alija to extend the hand of celebration, telling the boy from Orahovo that he was there to fulfil any wish. Alija was a humble man of humble dreams though. He could have had a house, he could have had a horse, he could have had a fortune, he could have had anything he wanted. He could even have wished to set Tito free. What did Alija wish for?

A bigger shovel. Alija’s mind was focused on the coal, and he dreamt of bigger shovels where others dreamt of bigger bank balances. This obviously tidily fits the story, but truth is irrelevant at this point. Alija’s wish was Tito’s command, and the Sirotanovićka came into being.

Alija Sirotanović was honoured by being pictured on the 20,000 dinar note in 1987, an honour that came just three years before his death. He eventually retired with merits and made an unsuccessful foray into politics, but his place in the legacy of Yugoslavia was assured.

Alija’s 20,000 dinar note was often confused with the 10 dinar note of times past, a note which featured another Bosnian miner. The miner in question here was Arif Heralić, a Bosnian Roma metal worker from Zenica, Bosnia’s Sheffield. Heralić’s image was just as iconic, but his story didn’t quite feature as many positive turns as Alija’s.

Heralić was one of 11 kids, and eventually died in miserable alcohol-fuelled poverty, exacerbated by mental illness and broken dreams. He was reduced to begging on the streets of Zenica, begging passers by for a piece of paper with his own face adorned on it. In 1967 a short film was made about him, a short film titled Devalvacija jednog osmijeha (Devaluation of a Smile, or thereabouts). In the film, Heralić is a rakija-addled mess, rambling and crying in equal measure. It is a rather troubling watch.

Heroes were made, heroes were spat out. Often we forget that history is the story of humans using other humans to make humans feel better or worse about themselves.

‘An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery’ is available for purchase, we swear. To pick up a print copy of the book (€20 plus postage), send us an email at miseryslavic@gmail.com. The digital version is available on Amazon at the link linked here. You can also buy the digital copy through us, if you prefer.

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