Book review: History of a Disappearance, by Filip Springer
“‘Our memories of the town keep getting more beautiful as the years go by,’ they laugh, because that’s how human memory is – it sifts out the bad and only holds on to beautiful images.”
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. It came into being in the 14th century as Coppferberge, or Kupferberg, in German meaning “Copper Mountain”. Its Polish name was an iteration of the same, thanks to its wealth of copper mining, with a much-loved brewery being the village’s other significant business.
Maybe a dark cloud hovered over it from the start, as the village was very early the scene of a fratricide, forever after marked by a notorious memorial, never allowing anyone who saw it to forget what happened there. In a way it was an omen too, as later the Russians took it over and resettled displaced and dissatisfied Poles there, all while reminding them that Russians and Poles are “brothers”. Except that one of the brothers wasn’t allowed to live as himself.
The village existed autonomously as Kupferberg until the end of the Second World War. That’s when Stalin started divvying up his newly acquired postwar territories, and redrew the boundary lines of the Soviet Union to include this village now called Miedzianka. During its Soviet years, Russia ran a secret uranium mining operation in the town, details about which make for one of the book’s most engrossing sections.
Soviet towns weren’t renowned for their quality upkeep, and eventually the poor infrastructure couldn’t hold over the underground uranium mines, leading to the town’s abandonment. The uranium ore was long gone by then, and no reason remained to maintain the little town.
“The town is quickly becoming a ghost, which will haunt the area for another twenty years.”
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.
The narrative is often quite jumpy – though it’s mostly linear in time, so many different figures appear and disappear, opinions and anecdotes are told and looped through the actual events, that despite Springer’s careful attention to detail and vivid descriptions, it can at times be difficult to follow. Otherwise 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.
In 1999, Karl Heinz Friebe, a one-time resident who first appears as a small child and reappears throughout decades of the narrative, returned to place a small obelisk in what used to be the town cemetery, in memorial to the town it once was. In German and Polish, it reads simply, “rest in peace. you are not forgotten.”
Springer’s reporting ensures that the memorial’s sentiment remains true, even though the cemetery was torn apart and desecrated, what buildings remain are crumbling, and the very land is sinking into the old mines that lurk beneath its surface. Something was there once, withstanding tumultuous history for a very long time, and we’d do well not to forget it.
History of a Disappearance: The Story of a Forgotten Polish Town
by Filip Springer, translated by Sean Bye
published in the U.S. April 4, 2017 by Restless Books
originally published in Polish as ‘Miedzanka. Historia znikania’ in 2011 by Czarne
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.