Book Review: History of a Disappearance by Filip Stringer

We who live west of the Mississippi are familiar with ghost towns. Just in the northern Great Plains, hundreds of small towns were abandoned when a railroad line wasn’t built. More disappeared when highways and air travel led railroads to abandon lines to and through small communities. Farther west is a multitude of abandoned mining communities. Most of these ghost towns date back no more than 150 years. In Europe, though, abandoned villages and town sites can be centuries old. Such is the case with Miedzianka, Poland, a mountain-top town in Lower Silesia literally obliterated in the 1970s after seven centuries of existence.

The town wasn’t always Miedzianka or part of Poland. It began life in the 14th century as a small mining community surrounded by forest. Initially called Cuprifodina, it spent hundreds of years known as Kupferberg (German for “Copper Mountain”). The mountain area changed hands among various noblemen over the next 100 years, during which some 160 shafts and drifts were dug to mine copper and silver. Mining ceased in 1579 because it wasn’t profitable enough but it would resume, only to cease again, several times over the ensuing centuries. In History of a Disappearance: The Story of a Forgotten Polish Town, Polish photojournalist Filip Springer explores how the town was battered by fate. He suggests that to its inhabitants “history seemed like a beast that knew only how to sow chaos and destruction, though it never found [the town] in its path.”

Each century took its toll on Kupferberg. Before the 20th century, decades of war brought Croatian, Swedish, Austrian and Prussian troops, who often marauded through and killed its residents. The plague made an appearance in the 15th century, killing nearly half the town. In addition to being put to the torch at least twice during the Thirty Years War, Kupferberg was decimated by fires in 1728 and 1824. Yet the town and its inhabitants survived as part of Prussia or Germany, the site of a renowned brewery and with the occasional resumption of mining and a growth of tourism.

The 20th century was even harsher. While its location meant Kupferberg escaped World War I essentially unscathed, its economic aftereffects were devastating. But the Second World War categorically changed the town. In the last year of the war, those of German ancestry begin fleeing with the advance of the Red Army. After the war, Kuperferberg becomes part of Poland and is renamed Miedzianka (“miedz” is Polish for copper). The ethnic Germans are expelled by Polish Communists who want an ethnically homogeneous Poland. Miedzianka and the surrounding area would be repopulated by ethnic Poles who move into the furnished homes the Germans were forced to abandon.

But history was not done with Miedzianka. The Soviet Union discovered it was home to a prized post-war commodity, uranium. Using existing tunnels and shafts and heedlessly creating more, it began mining the ore. In official documents, the mine was a paper factory. In fact, it employed nearly 1,500 people with little regard for their safety. The amount of uranium in the ore meant huge quantities of rock had to be mined. In four years, 25 miles of tunnels were dug. Subsidence had been an issue in some parts of the town for years but the new mine drifts and shafts brought increased numbers of sinkholes, collapsed basements and cracked foundations. So many buildings begin to collapse that by 1969 the Soviets decided it was cheaper to raze the town, relocating residents to cramped housing projects some 30 miles away.

Released in English for the first time in a translation by Sean Gasper Bye, History of a Disappearance traces this lengthy history through the stories of a variety of individuals and families, memoirs, interviews and archival documents. This allows readers to see “the beast” and its toll through the eyes of the town’s inhabitants. Springer blends this history with literary elements using a reportage style. The result of this approach to a unique and sad tale is a small history shaped by the vagaries of much grander history.

The reportage style may be off-putting to some, particularly as Springer has a tendency to eschew attribution. For example, one chapter consists entirely of quotes of residents about events before and during World War II. A footnote advises that four of the quotes are from an unpublished manuscript and the balance are from interviews Springer conducted — but we don’t know who any of the people are. Likewise, two chapters later is a recounting of the expulsion of the Germans and Poles moving into their homes by an unidentified Pole. Still, the story of Miedzianka is one that deserves to be told. Through it, we learn that being far from the center of history does not eliminate its consequences.

And what of Kupferberg-Miedzianka today? Prior to Springer’s book being released in Poland in 2011, a plaque about the size of a cigarette package was mailed to an overgrown plum tree. Erinner die Leute von Kupferberg, it read, German for “Remember the People of Kupferberg.” Springer notes in an epilogue that two years later the plaque was barely hanging on to the tree and later was taken away after falling off. But in its place were informational signs showing how the town looked when it existed. And there’s even talk of a new brewery.

History never well and truly arrived here, but instead roamed around in the vicinity.

Filip Springer, History of a Disappearance

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