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Fading Into Irrelevance

Macro- and micro-history are adeptly intertwined in an absorbing story of a small Central European town.

by Martin Ehl 6 November 2017

History of a Disappearance: The Story of a Forgotten Polish Town, by Filip Springer. Translated from the Polish by Sean Gasper Bye. Restless Books, 2017.

 

 

Since the revelations that some passages in the books of famed Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski were invented fabulations or else based on secondhand accounts, I have been wary of products of the respected Polish reporting school. But with History of a Disappearance, my curiosity prevailed over initial doubts. Entitled Miedzianka in the original Polish edition – the Polish name for an originally German town in the center of Europe – the book promised to tie together the history of an entire region in one package, replete with countless details and tangled threads, historical background, and the voices of the townspeople themselves.

 

Filip Springer, a young Polish reporter and photographer, walks a tightrope between fiction and history, at times taking a small kernel of reality – like a piece of glass – to spin out invented scenes from the life of what was originally called Kupferberg, a mining town in the mountains of Lower Silesia. To the question of whether he steps over the red line, I believe he does not.

 

Springer is a skillful writer, changing the rhythm to match the different requirements of each chapter, working with telling details, personal memories, and archival sources. A reader might question how he could have reconstructed some of the older stories of the town’s German past, but unlike Kapuscinski, Springer supports his narrative with lists of original sources, literature, and interviewees.

 

History of a Disappearance is not exactly a work of history, although there are parallels with, for instance, the monumental history of the Silesian capital Breslau/Wroclaw co-authored by the British historian Norman Davies. But while the local metropolis carries enough weight for “big history,” telling the life story of a very small town gives Springer the opportunity to uncover detailed and personal stories from the last 100 years of its existence, with brief sketches concerning previous centuries. To some extent it compliments Davies’s book. In both, the transformations Central Europe has undergone in economic life, religion, politics, and national identity are brought down to the micro-level of a city or town.

 

The town’s names, both German and Polish, contain the word for “copper,” the original source of its wealth. After World War II, the previously German town was transformed into a Polish one occupied by Russians mining not copper, but uranium. Rather than the mines, however, the book’s focal point is the town brewery, an institution that survived all changes except the final one, when almost all of Miedzianka’s residents were moved from the dilapidated and literally undermined town to blocks of flats in a new suburb of a nearby larger town.

 

This view of Kupferberg appeared in a volume about the cities and towns of Silesia published in 1819. British Library image via Wikimedia Commons.

 

The Kupferberger Gold beer brewed in the Franzky family’s brewery became famous for miles around. The brewery supplied beer to inns and taverns all over the region:

 

They include the beautiful Rosenbaude hostel across the river, the mountain hostel not far from Fischbach, and taverns in Waltersdorf, Rohrlach, and Rudelstadt. So every day, horse carts filled to the brim with barrels and clinking with green bottles set off from Kupferberg on the road down the hill to provide the inhabitants of the region with the best beer in the Giant Mountains.

 

The Final Stages of Relevance

 

Under socialism only one part of the picture was allowed to be shown in regards to the life of people in eastern Germany and the German islands of Central Europe, how they survived the war and how they were expelled. By now, however, that is a familiar story all over the lands of Poland and the former Czechoslovakia. There are now books in Czech, for instance, fiction as well as nonfiction, which show both faces of the story. For his part, Springer in this book tries to reconcile the present to a troubling past through detailed description of the daily lives of the townspeople.

 

He uses the same method to recount how Poles moved westwards into the new lands granted the country in compensation for the Soviet Union’s absorption of the eastern parts of prewar Poland. The story of the uranium mine and those who came to work it is the story of how a communist government was introduced in Poland with all its postwar hardships as well as hope for a new life.

 

Springer’s microhistory-cum-narrative method constructs an intimate, site-specific case study of how the Soviet Union exploited its satellites. In these sections there is no background or context for those readers who may be unfamiliar with the Soviet quest to find uranium all across the eastern bloc, and the reasons they were so desperate to find it. The chapter on uranium mining in Miedzianka is short, like this period in the town’s history, and reflects the brutal reality of Stalinism.

 

“People said there were two cemeteries in Miedzianka,” one ex-miner wrote years later: 

 

“A German one, up the mountain, which by that time was already overgrown with bushes, and a Polish one, underground. Dozens of people were buried alive in that mine – they’d disappear overnight, along with their entire families. You’d just come to work and someone would be missing. And then after work it would turn out their house was empty or somebody new had moved in.”

 
Harsh though it was, the brief uranium phase marked the town’s last golden age. Afterward, the slow death process began. First, the disappearance of the old German cemetery. Then, other manifestations of the sometimes very surreal life under “real socialism” with its daily struggle for so many things, perfectly drawn in Springer’s telling.

 

The sweeping history of Central European nations and the prosaic details of daily life under socialism are skillfully stitched into one fabric, although I would have made some cuts in the final 100 pages. Springer here captures in perhaps too much detail the withering and literal disappearance of the town. Episodes of corruption, forced relocations, random destruction and theft of anything valuable from the ruins – familiar from other accounts of the period – are told and sometimes repeated.

 

Springer begins the story of Kupferberg at the brewery and ends with the dismantling of this local institution and emblem of the town. It sounds like a cliché, but it works. He concludes with some thoughts about memory and how to preserve it, how Germans and – surprisingly – Poles return to the place, bringing with them oft-told stories of hidden treasure along with intangible family and social bonds to their old home. For Central European readers this may carry familiar echoes; others may find it fresh. But it is always welcome when a new voice arrives to show and help us remember how harsh that history was and how fortunate we are to be living in the Europe of today, and how fragile all that living is.

Martin Ehl is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny. He is the author of TOL’s Middle Europa column, and tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.

This review was kindly supported by the Fund for Central & East European Book Projects, Amsterdam.

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