Until Filip Springer's
History of a Disappearance: The Story of a Forgotten Polish Town came into the house a few weeks ago, I had never heard of Miedzianka. The little mountain town was in Lower Silesia, a region that has over the centuries been part of Poland, Bohemia, the Hapsburg Monarchy, Prussia, Germany (German Empire, Weimar Republic, and Third Reich), and Poland again. Today, Miedzianka is still in Poland, but it would exist only in the memories of its increasingly few former inhabitants, were it not for Filip Springer, a young "self-taught journalist." With persistence that may amount to obsession, he has recovered the story of the town's life and times and chronicled the melancholy history of its several disappearances. In a nice tactical move, he has set the place and its people before us in the present tense, an approach that has truly taken distance out of the past. Miedzianka, called Kupferberg until 1945, has its roots in a medieval mountain settlement named Cuprifodina and owes its existence to mining, first for silver and copper, later for other elements that would come to obsess the modern world. The hectic proliferation of tunnels, drifts, and galleries beneath the ground has been one agent of the town's disappearance, as, over time, portions of it have simply vanished into sinkholes. But there were other forces at work: war, fire, pestilence, and the cartographer's pen. The Thirty Years War brought destruction from both sides of the conflict, first, in 1634, from the Catholic Hapsburgs, in the shape of Croatian troops who burned down the town and massacred everyone who had not managed to hide in the forest. A few years later, the Protestant Swedes appeared on the scene, pursuing their own righteous and bloody mission. In this case, as Springer remarks in his characteristically dry way, "if Kupferberg does not disappear for a second time, it is only because they have hardly managed to rebuild it." History gives the town a buffet or two in the next couple of centuries, but accidental fire, plague, and cave-ins get in some good licks. The town escapes the Great War's devastation, losing only a half dozen men on distant battlefields. Economic forces, however, are another matter: The mines, which frequently change hands over the years into the twentieth century, always promise more than they yield. They go in and out of production, with the town's well-being and population fluctuating accordingly. On the other hand, Kupferberg is the site of a more reliable and, indeed, convivial resource: Kupferberg Gold, a beer of regional renown. Founded in the mid-nineteenth century by Wilhelm Franzky, the brewery sends horse carts out across a wide territory every day, "filled to the brim with barrels and clinking with green bottles" of "the best beer in the Giant Mountains." The excellence of this celebrated brew is said to derive from the mountain water; though, to be sure, that supply is sometimes interrupted when underground chambers and corridors from abandoned mining operations collapse and damage the aqueduct. We are introduced to the brewery through seven-year-old Georg Franzky, grandson of the founder. The boy is smuggling a bottle of Kupferberg Gold to Max Sintenis, "a ne'er-do-well reveler and carouser" locked up in the town's jail for bad behavior. (Max has, and not for the first time, promised Georg a pet monkey for this service.) This vignette burgeons to include the story of the brewery; of the tavern and its bathtubs; of the famous "Underwear Ball"; of Max's brother, a celebrated naturalist; of the pastors, Catholic and Lutheran; of artisans, shopkeepers, and councilmen. Drawing from interviews, newspapers, books, and archival sources, Springer moves through the generations, in a great leafing-out of the little town's unique character. Kupferberg is still part of Germany after the Great War, but times are hard during the ensuing periods of hyperinflation and economic depression and in 1936, the Hitler Youth come marching through town: "The powerful, measured step of hobnail boots. Pounding them on the pavement. Singing songs . . . Black shorts, mustard-brown shirts, handkerchiefs tied around their necks with leather rings. Armbands. Knives at their belts." Most of these boys are from a nearby town, though a couple are sons of Kupferberg: as a group they halt before the priest's house to shout slogans and abuse. "The town stands stock-still. People stand at their windows watching, or go out to the back garden, not wanting to see anything. But they listen." Shortly after, townsmen begin to disappear, drafted into the Wehrmacht. Racial registration is introduced, and Kupferberg's few Jews disappear. The priest disappears. With war, the church bells disappear, to be forged into guns. Refugees from the Russian advance begin to arrive, and as these terrifying troops draw closer, Kupferbergers evacuate their town, moving west though many are forced back, finding only destruction. Springer follows the heartbreaking journeys and appalling hardship of several refugees, German and Polish. When the Russians enter Kupferberg in May 1945, beatings and rapes commence. By the end of the war, Kupferberg is part of Poland and has become Miedzianka. The remaining Germans are deported and the town repopulated, over a period of years, with Poles. Some houses remain empty, however, and they are dismantled bit by bit for fuel as indeed are many of the houses in which people are actually living. Fuel is scarce, floorboards are abundant. Household goods and furniture left by the former owners are taken over or looted; or, because Communist strictures on private property prevail, a large piece a piano, say will be dragged out and left to molder until it is eventually chopped up for firewood. But the mines are open again, this time as a source of uranium, under Soviet supervision. Prosperity of a sort comes to the town, reflected in the hustle and bustle of a new set of characters vividly captured by Springer. But uranium mining brings radiation sickness and further damage, including the collapse of buildings from heedless tunneling below: "Of course nothing was said officially," says one township leader quoted by Springer, "because then we'd have to say our Soviet friends' overexploitation caused the whole town to cave in." Here I will leave what is a mere sketch of a very rich narrative; suffice it to say, the account continues and teems with neighborhood events and the doings of people we have come to know. It also includes many ghoulishly absurd tales of Soviet enterprise a genre in itself. One such episode involves mining supervisors arranging periodic explosions to give the impression that underground extraction is being conducted while, in fact, workers are sifting uranium ore out of waste tips. Some of the most striking parts of this wonderful book are interstitial sections of personal testimony concerning various events and situations. It is testimony infused with fear, prejudice, hope, evasiveness, and denial and there is much contradiction. Some reflections are filled with the yearning sense of loss felt by the town's former inhabitants, people who live in its memory or have returned to view the vanished places of their vanished youth. I call this a great book, a superb work of intelligence, originality, and tremendous enterprise. Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.
Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers
The Barnes & Noble Review
History of a Disappearance: The Story of a Forgotten Polish Town is a searching work of historical journalism that tracks the life and death of a tiny Silesian mining village. Translated from Polish, it is a memorial to a town that seemed constantly subject to the brutal whims of history, a force that Springer memorably visualizes as "a beast that knew only how to sow chaos and destruction.”... Thanks to his fascinating history, Kupferberg seems unlikely to fade from memory.” —Hank Stephenson, Shelf Awareness, starred review “With persistence that may amount to obsession, [Springer] has recovered the story of the town’s life and times and chronicled the melancholy history of its several disappearances. In a nice tactical move, he has set the place and its people before us in the present tense, an approach that has truly taken distance out of the past.... Characters [are] vividly captured by Springer.... a very rich narrative.... the account continues and teems with neighborhood events and the doings of people we have come to know. It also includes many ghoulishly absurd tales of Soviet enterprise — a genre in itself.... Some of the most striking parts of this wonderful book are interstitial sections of personal testimony concerning various events and situations. It is testimony infused with fear, prejudice, hope, evasiveness, and denial.... I call this a great book, a superb work of intelligence, originality, and tremendous enterprise.” —Katharine A. Powers, Barnes & Noble Review “The desire to uncover the truth about why Miedzianka, a provincial mountain-top town in Lower Silesia with a history stretching back 700 years, literally vanished from the face of the earth between the 1960s and 1980s, turns a journalistic search for documentary evidence into an existential quest of epic proportions. Was the town simply swallowed by the mountain beneath it, the victim of extra-ordinary geology, or was it deliberately demolished by politicians with dark secrets to hide? Written in the popular Polish reportage genre, rather than as literary fiction, the book nevertheless possesses many features of a thriller: mystery, tension, suspense, horror – all of which are admirably conveyed by the English translation. History of a Disappearance is a tale of traumatic loss for the people who once lived in Miedzianka.... The book’s most significant achievement is therefore its restoration of individuals—not normally the focus of writers of history or ideologues of change. A town forgotten by the end of the 20th century has been resurrected.” —Ursula Phillips, European Literature Network “I chose the winning translation of Filip Springer by Sean Gasper Bye because I found the subject matter totally gripping—it’s set in 1944, when the Soviet counteroffensive has reached the Vistula River—and the prose itself is satisfyingly dense, and it has what I look for in any good translation, a very convincing voice.” —Margaret Jull Costa, Judge’s Citation, Asymptote’s 2016 Close Approximations Translation Contest “Although he is trained as a journalist and photographer, Filip Springer’s work offers an example of how truth can be even more enthralling than fiction. In his most celebrated piece so far, History of a Disappearance (Polish: Miedzianka. Historia znikania), he delved into the stories of a small town that has been completely wiped off the face of the earth, as though it had never existed. By exploring the deeply personal and moving stories of this town and its former inhabitants, Springer gives readers an illuminating journey through the challenges that Poland has faced as a country as well.” —Lani Seelinger, Culture Trip “What happened to Miedzianka? That’s the question the Polish journalist Filip Springer set out to answer in History of a Disappearance: The Story of a Forgotten Polish Town. Springer combs through archival records, hunts down personal correspondence, and collects a series of interviews to try to preserve the history of a town that history erased. It’s a very thorough examination, oscillating between big picture historical/geopolitical context and telling the stories of the individual lives, stories that almost sound like segments from This American Life. Despite the thorough research, Springer does not limit himself to a dry, distant reporter’s writing style—he inserts himself into the reporting at the occasional appropriate moment, he comments, he guesses, he uses artful metaphor and repetition. It’s obvious on the page that Springer has fallen in love with the town, with its story. Some chapters read like a brochure for a place that no longer exists.” —Graham Oliver, Ploughshares “It’s a strange but true facet of history that for several periods of many years, Poland didn’t exist. Situated between Germany and Russia, it occupied an unfortunate position, caught between two aggressive, ambitious nations. On multiple occasions, it was occupied and absorbed by one or the other in one of their expansive incantations, for all intents and purposes ceasing to exist as an independent country in its own right. History of a Disappearance looks at this phenomenon from Poland’s tricky history as a sort of microcosm, through the lens of a single town in Lower Silesia, called Miedzianka.... Journalist Filip Springer writes a researched, detailed work of “reportage”: a popular form of Polish nonfiction literature that uses elements of fiction writing (what we’d consider narrative nonfiction) in a long-form, journalistic reporting style. It’s an excellent translation of a sad if hopeful story. Springer creates a detailed picture of the little town and its big personalities, showcasing the character of both place and inhabitants, both of which could so easily be swept under the rug of a long history in a tumultuous region.... It’s a wonderful read, rich and strange, shining a light on layer after layer of dusty history in a place that’s seen, and been, so much.... Something was there once, withstanding tumultuous history for a very long time, and we’d do well not to forget it.” —What’s Nonfiction? "Americans needn’t look abroad for stories like that of the village of Kupferberg. We’ve got plenty of places like Centralia, Pennsylvania, to keep us awake at night. But there is something about layering those stories over a history that extends far back beyond the the reach of American cultural memory. For Americans our ecological disasters are part of our ongoing and glorious zeitgeist, deeply felt, but quickly forgotten, as one might expect of a people with no past (or a past kept locked in the back of a deep, dark closet) and an overblown sense of manifest destiny. It’s Sean Gasper Bye’s unpacking of the before and the burden of memory that struck this reader square in the chest." —M. Bartley Seigel, Words without Borders
An evocative study of a town in Poland's outback, one scarcely known even in its day.Miedzianka in Polish, Kupferberg in German, is a place off anyone's map: "history never well and truly arrived here," writes freelance journalist Springer, "but instead roamed around in the vicinity." And did it ever: the town was already old when, as the author puts it, "armed hordes begin to make their way across Europe," some of them the soldiers of the Thirty Years' War, others members of the SS, rooting out Jews and other undesirables in a region known as Silesia. Thanks in part to German excesses, the town became part of Poland after the war, but it had already begun to disappear, parts of it caving in thanks to the collapse of abandoned mine shafts, its streets deserted after the mining companies went under, so that even in 1840, only nine villagers identified themselves as miners. Springer points out the various enemies, structural and human, that have come calling on Miedzianka only as "the beast," and the beast has many forms, such as the rockets of Joseph Stalin's invading Red Army—ahead of whose arrival some villagers headed west, while the Nazi stalwarts of the town tried to escape but found no place to run. Now, writes Springer, "Miedzianka is simply gone," marked by a rather nondescript memorial to those who lived and worked there over the centuries, a small obelisk to record the fact that here there once stood a town and a miniature civilization. Yet, amazingly, this book, published in Poland in 2011, sparked a modest revival of the town: a theater company has staged a performance of a play based on the book, while private investors have banded together to open a brewery in a place once renowned for its beer. The result, writes the author, is that "what once seemed an absolute end was only a pause." Lucid and literate: a brilliant model of historical writing about place and a beguiling treat for armchair travelers as well.