Books Book Reviews

'History of a Disappearance' tells the story of a once vibrant Polish town

This imaginative reconstruction of the life of a centuries-old town is 'a superb work of intelligence, originality, and tremendous enterprise.'

History of a Disappearance: The Story of a Forgotten Polish Town By Filip Springer (author) and Sean Bye (translator) Restless Books 320 pp.
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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 20th 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-19th 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.