What happens to people's memories when their town disappears? We asked Polish author Filip Springer, who writes about the lost village of Miedzianka in History of a Disappearance: The Story of a Forgotten Polish Town.
'Have you seen this?', asked Natalia, who lived in Mniszków, one of the two closest villages to Miedzianka. She pulled a poor-quality computer printout of a black-and-white photograph out of her notebook. It was a picture of a small, uphill street with houses placed evenly along it. Trees grew on the left-hand side and a steeple protruded above their lush tops.
I knew all the cities, towns, and villages in the area. I was familiar with every nook and cranny. But I couldn’t connect this picture to any specific location.
'Where is that?'
'That place doesn’t exist anymore,' said Natalia, rummaging through her papers.
'Where doesn’t it exist?' I asked.
Two hours later, I was there. No trace remained of the buildings and streets. There were only a few shacks scattered across the hill and a solitary church.
'The town is gone,' I thought. If not for seeing that photograph, just now I’d have walked past this spot on my way to the train and probably wouldn’t have even stopped there. As I was walking down the mountain to the station, one thought lingered in my mind: 'A town is gone and I feel nothing.'
That was how it all started.
At that time, I had been working for a few years as a freelance journalist for Polish newspapers and tourist magazines. Sometimes I took pictures, sometimes I wrote pieces to go with them. Honestly, I hated the job, mainly because it forced me to be constantly on the lookout and in a hurry, but offered no reliable support. If two of my emails went unanswered, I’d start stressing about not having money.
But what did I feel when I stood in that meadow—which once had been Kupferberg, which later became Miedzianka, which even later disappeared? No, it never occurred to me back then that I had stumbled upon a subject that would alter my destiny. I just wanted to find out why a whole town had disappeared and to feel something because of that disappearance.
I got home and typed the word 'Miedzianka' into a search engine. It spat out a few results, including a couple of German sites: there were a few references whose meaning I more invented than understood, because my German is too poor. But already I could tell these texts were overflowing with longing for beautiful, green Kupferberg.
Before long, I’d learned that, since the 14th century, Kupferberg had been a mining town—German until 1945, then Polish—and that mining damage had plagued it from the beginning. I also learned that at the start of the 1940s, the Germans had found uranium there, but did not manage to extract it. It was the Russians who finally did that. They’d found some archives in Berlin and arrived in Miedzianka by 1947. There, they quickly opened a uranium mine, one of many in Lower Silesia, but the only one that would have so strong an influence on the fate of the people living there. They didn’t mine for long, barely for three years, but showed not the slightest regard for the houses standing above the mining drifts. Then they left, and the town began literally to fall apart. The Polish authorities attempted to rescue it but were unsuccessful. There was a lack of ideas, technology, and money.
At the end of the 1960s, it was decided that all the inhabitants of Miedzianka would be resettled elsewhere and the town would be razed to the ground. In 1973, the bulldozers went in. Only buildings on solid ground were spared: barely a few small houses and a church—the Catholic one, because the Protestant one had been blown up back in the 1960s.
Those were the facts—enough to write a short piece. But there were more myths, legends, lies, and misunderstandings concerning Miedzianka. It was when I started to ask former residents—both Polish and German—about the place that I first encountered these. People’s stories were full of them: Kupferberg/Miedzianka appeared as a land of universal and complete happiness, flowing with milk and honey, a place brutally taken away from them. It didn’t take long to see these myths were much more interesting than the facts. I gathered them diligently. They spoke more about the people and history than the simple geological fact of the town caving in, which was dramatic but explained little. It was people adding on their own interpretations and meanings that made it exceptionally interesting.
Before heading into the field, I spent time in libraries, reading literally everything about Lower Silesia, the Jelenia Góra Valley, uranium mining in Poland and the villages and towns of the Rudawy Janowickie mountains. Then I moved to Jelenia Góra, the largest city in the area. There, I rented an apartment in the neighborhood of Zabobrze, a short distance from the three inconspicuous buildings where the town’s inhabitants had been resettled. Every morning I rang their doorbells, apartment by apartment, floor by floor.
I’d say: 'My name is Filip Springer, I’m a journalist. I’d like to learn something about Miedzianka.'
As soon as I spoke the town’s name, the door would open—every time. No one turned me away. I conducted nearly two hundred interviews for this book, the majority on location, in Jelenia Góra, Janowice Wielkie, a few in Miedzianka, a bit in Germany or with Germans. No one refused. Everyone wanted to talk about the town. Some, especially the Germans, approached these conversations with a certain amount of mistrust and fear. But they quickly became convinced I was only driven by human curiosity, that I wanted to find out why an entire town had disappeared. Then they opened up and told me their stories.
It took me some time to realise I was really working on a book. After all, to start with, I was just collecting facts. A book is a serious thing, much more serious than an article in a newspaper. An article survives one day before it ends up in the litter box with the cat. A book ends up on a shelf: it stays, leaves a trace.
It leaves a trace on its subjects as well. I came across Barbara Wójcik, who worked in the mine in Miedzianka, at the end of my research. Hers was one of my last interviews. She patiently told me about how in the workers’ hostel near Wałbrzych where she’d lived, secret police officers would rape the women. She told the story precisely, very vividly, in detail, just as one must for literary journalism. How they would come down the stairs, how the stairs would squeak, how they would force the doors open, how the women would scream.
At a certain point, I realised that as a journalist I should ask if they came into her room as well. But I immediately realised I wasn’t a journalist here—I simply wanted to find out why Miedzianka had disappeared. To this day, I don’t know what happened to Barbara Wójcik in that place. Though I learned much in writing this book, I felt responsibility not only for the words, but also for the questions. Some I consciously did not ask; no story is worth calling up certain memories.
Though it sounds like a cliché, History of a Disappearance changed my life. Since it came out, I no longer had to work as a freelancer. I have since written six more books and am thinking about ones in the future. I’d never have thought in my wildest dreams that my life would look like it does now.
In April, the English translation came out in the United States. The discussion about the book in the US was focused on its environmental themes—problems of the degradation of landscapes and open space through exploitation of land. The translator, Sean Gasper Bye, even found parallels in the history of his own family, who come from a small town in a mining region of Pennsylvania.
For me, this has been a considerable surprise. Indeed, these themes made no appearance in the Polish debate on the book. Instead, everyone discussed the huge demographic change that took place in Lower Silesia, its influence on the fate of those territories, and the disappearance of this 'secret town', itself shrouded in mystery.
There were even some who considered my book anti-Polish and protested against the staging of a play based on it. All that because I dared to write that, in the last years of the war and shortly thereafter, Germans had been victims too. For those who define their Polishness in opposition to others, such a thing was unimaginable. But I wasn’t writing about Germans or Poles. They were simply people, compelled by the great forces of history to give up their homes. That’s all, nothing more.
Filip's article was translated from Polish by Sean Bye.
Listen to Filip speak about his book History of a Disappearance: The Story of a Forgotten Polish Town, on Friday 26 May at 19.00 at The Cube at Hay Festival.
Filip's talk is part of a programme that continues after the Poland Market Focus at the London Book Fair 2017. The British Council is a global partner of the Hay Festival.