27 July 2018

Singing Mansards, or the Reclaimed Life of Miedzianka

In our corner of the world that is Central Europe, there is no shortage of ghost towns and villages. History here has been rather munificent in meting out decay and destruction, not only to individuals and their communities but sometimes to entire settlements. From Pripyat next to Chernobyl to the deserted barrack towns of Hungary, through the abandoned mining and industrial installations of Borsod County and the ghost villages of the Gömör region (now in Slovakia) where only a handful of the hundreds of houses remain inhabited, to the immersed village of Bözödújfalu in Transylvania, purposely inundated from a reservoir – there is no end to the examples anyone with a pretence to knowledge of local history could enumerate. More exceptional is the case when an entire town of several thousands of souls simply disappears from the face of Earth practically in one fell swoop, so quickly that its former dwellers remain among us to offer an accurate and vivid portrayal of the place where they had once lived – where the lay visitor today will only see a vast field just like any other.

 

Karl Heinz stands in the middle of a plot overgrown with nettle, pointing this way and that with the tip of his umbrella: This here was Breuer’s restaurant; Haenisch had his pharmacy over there. Right here where I stand is the spot where my grandmother’s drawing room used to be. You would go this way to reach the forefront, then out into the garden with its fine apple tree. Kupferberg was charming and green once. Today, it’s green only (p. 257).

 

Kupferberg–Miedzianka is one of these rare places. A Lower-Silesian hamlet with a history of seven centuries and three thousand inhabitants, it took only two decades to be effaced from the planet. As such, it can be regarded as a special amalgam of the victims of time mentioned above, with which it shares a fate of utter undoing. Filip Springer, the Polish journalist still in his twenties at the time, made the history of the town the focus of his research. And what a rich, rewarding research topic it has been – in spite, or perhaps because, of all the tragic overtones , inasmuch as the ruin of Kupferberg–Miedzianka offers a bowdlerised chronicle of our inhumane 20th century. That is, to the extent that Springer’s History of a Disappearance: The Story of a Forgotten Polish Town can indeed be considered a chronicle. In a Freudian slip, the relevant entry on a Hungarian website hosting amateur book reviews erroneously cites the title of the book as “The Life of a Vanished Town”. In reality, the only time we get a chronology of any sort in Springer’s book is in the first chapter, which traces the history of the town from the foggy beginnings to the symbolic moment when a resident’s house first fell victim (literally caved in) to the mining operations underneath the hill of Kupferberg. Following this near- mythic overture, however, Springer switches to a different perspective. The brief second chapter accords a central role to a chipped porcelain cap from a swing top beer bottle bearing the enamelled name of the Kupferberg brewery, which soon finds its mate in a bottle with a broken neck. “This is history chuckling, as if the verdant Kupferberg, this non-existent town, taunted me by hoarding all this rubbish at my feet from which I am supposed to reconstruct its history” (p. 24), the author muses over his “find”. Some time later, on board a bus bound for Jelenia Góra, he fantasises about the hands and circumstances the bottle passed through before its neck got broken. The conclusion he comes to might well serve as the creed for the entire book:

 

None of this matters now, for all my sympathy and adoration for these two objects comes from something extrinsic to them: from what I happen to know about this little town. Yet they are all I have that remains from the verdant Kupferberg. They had better serve me right by justifying my enthusiasm as an amateur archaeologist (p. 25).

 

Indeed, Springer’s reconstruction of the past is a feat of an inverted archaeology. What I mean is that, while archaeology proper uses found objects to conjure up the reality and stories that surrounded them, our Polish author seems to go about the same process backwards, as it were. Specifically, he employs oral history and documents (which frequently contradict that history by reflecting the point of view of decision-makers rather than of those who bore the consequences) in an attempt to virtually recreate a town of which the only mementos still standing are the miraculously visible church building and the entrances to mine shafts and galleries punctuating the green monotony of the field.

The official papers (or the lack thereof) are best put to use by the author as evidence for how the powers that be unmask themselves. The tragic afterlife of the Second World War is encapsulated in a few sentences describing an order issued by the Chiefs of Staff of the Second Polish Army on 24 June 1945:

 

The Czechs knew how to deal with the Germans so that they flee from the area of their own accord. We must be equally tough and firm in performing this task, in order to make sure that no German vermin remain hiding in our houses, but all flee of their own, so that when they get to their own land they can thank God for getting away with all they did. Bear in mind that a German will be a German forever. As you go about fulfilling this mission, you never make a request; you issue a command” (p. 83).

 

This text, ruthless precisely because of its dispassionate tone, is juxtaposed in the book with the re-enacted daily life of Kupferberg and the recollections of the driven away.

Springer’s work stands as more than just a work of local history: it is an act of facing a less than glorious chapter of Poland’s past. Relying on various records, documents and, mainly, interviews with former residents, the author brings an incisive objectivity to his account of the town’s history from its heyday during the first decades of the 20th century, through the years of its morphing from Kupferberg into Miedzianka, to the incident when unknown perpetrators ripped the tombstones of the former German cemetery with ropes attached to tractors. The stones were later sold after the engraved names had been chiselled away. Local kids were seen playing soccer in the street with a baby’s skull unearthed from between the thigh bones of a buried woman who had probably died during the last phase of her pregnancy. No razing of the cemetery could prevent her from haunting the place from behind the grave, as attested by ghost stories passed down from father to son, and depositions such as the following:

 

When Germans began showing up in town after a while, this was the first place they would visit. Always the cemetery first. They would walk about, without seeming infuriated at all. They never even asked why what happened had happened. They simply walked about, up and down between the rows. And, you know, the worst part of it all was they never asked a question (p. 169).

 

In various guises, the motif of treasure-hunting weaves through the text. Sometime in the 19th century, the Franzkys concocted the brand name of Kupferberg Gold for their family brew, known far and wide in the world back in the day. Ironically, “pioneers” around the middle of the next century came in search of actual gold hidden in the town, picking up brick tiles and digging up gardens. Just as ironically, indeed in a devilish travesty of the very idea of local treasure, the fate of the town was ultimately sealed by uranium, of which some six hundred tons were mined in the span of a few years, for the benefit of the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons programme. According to the official version, the miners toiled for the local paper mill, but the walls began to crack and the mansards to sing. Eventually, slowly but steadily, the town was engulfed, house by house, by the earth riddled with mining shafts. By the time the book was written, even the few remaining bricks and stones had been spirited away by nearby looters.

I tell myself, as I will tell anyone asking this question, that I wrote this book in order to feel in my bones that ‘certain something’ as I stand in this field”, says Filip Springer in the epilogue about what prompted him to tackle the story of Miedzianka.

The response to the book, recently published in Hungarian in the excellent translation of Zsuzsa Mihályi, and now in its fourth printing in Poland, proves that this collection of accounts has made “that certain something” tangible for more than just the author seen as standing in the field of Miedzianka. Since the publication of Springer’s book, the story of the town has been described in a historical monograph and inspired a play. A handful of private investors, bent on resuscitating the Franzky family heritage, established a small brewery within the perimeters of what used to be the town. After a hiatus of some forty-plus years, the casks are once again filled with the local golden brew, as if to corroborate Springer’s verdict that “Miedzianka may have vanished, yet it is here to stay” (p. 279).

This is the story of a requiem that effectively resurrected the dead, attesting to the power of reporting to shape the destiny of its subject.

Can any writer of nonfiction aspire to a laurel wreath greener than this?
 

Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel






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