I always have a hard time explaining the phenomenon of Polish reportage to non-Polish people. The word itself, ubiquitous in Polish, is a bit of a rarity in English. While in Poland reportage has its awards, festivals, dedicated shelves in bookshops (or even entire ‘reportage bookshops’), in the UK or US those books are spread between various categories, such travelogues, essays, history or just general non-fiction. In Poland there are publishing houses dedicated mostly to publishing ‘reportage’, and every self-respecting publisher will have a reportage imprint, so most Polish people assume that the term ‘reportage’ is recognised everywhere. It’s not. If you want to know what Polish people mean when they say reportage, think of Kapuściński – the father of Polish reportage (there have been others before him, but he really started the franchise), think of some of the New Yorker pieces (‘reporter at large’) or think of any non-fiction book which uses many techniques normally reserved for fiction writing. The subject of your reportage could be anything: a place, a person, a phenomenon, an industry, a crime – it doesn’t matter, what matters is that it is a reportage, the pinnacle of literary achievement in Poland, where fiction writing is treated as a frivolous and trivial pursuit.
Springer did what every good reporter should do – he spent two years researching the story, found the documents, photographs, newspapers and talked to the people. He then blended it all together and produced quite a beautiful tale of a small town of Miedzianka in south-west Poland, which disappeared almost entirely, and that, ironically, is its claim to fame. Miedzianka literally fell on itself, and now there is only a church left sticking out like a sore thumb from the grass and shrubs. But once upon a time, there was a thriving little town here, with cafes, hotels, a brewery, even a cinema, and mines, of course.
The story of Miedzianka is pretty much a miniature version of Polish history. It has it all: Germans, Jews, Polish, Roma, partitions, wars, repatriation refugees* and communism. This tale starts about 700 years ago in a biblical way – with fratricide. And to this day there is a cross with the word ‘Memento’ on it, commemorating the event. Maybe that was what put the curse on the town? Or maybe it was people’s greediness in trying rip out the treasures from the mountain: silver, copper and, finally, uranium.
Whatever it was, Miedzianka is no more. There are 82 people left there according to the 2008 census (and honestly, God knows where they’re hiding – just look at those photos, taken by Jacek Zych)
Coppferberge, later Kopferberg, later Kupferberg, later Miedzianka (all meaning, more or less, Copper Mountain) burnt down many times: during the Thirty Years’ War it was burnt down by Croatians fighting against Swedish-French alliance in 1637. Six years later the Swedes did it again. There were more fires in 1728 and 1824 but surprisingly the two big world wars passed it by. They made the best beer in the region there, and it was for a short time a popular tourist destination. Now, all of it disappeared.
After WWII, when Poland shifted to the West, Kupferberg became Miedzianka. Here was Poland now! The Germans were unceremoniously kicked out by the Poles, who in turn were kicked out from the Eastern parts of former Poland. The newcomers were poor and did not care to preserve the German heritage. What they found in their new homes they often destroyed, or left it to waste. There was a sense of transiency, the fear of the ‘German’ returning and taking back what was his. It’s when Springer talks about Miedzianka’s postwar history when the book really picks up. The town comes to life with its vibrant cast of characters.
The chapter that followed was the most fascinating one to me – probably because of my fixation on the history of communism in Poland. It was discovered that the Copper Mountain had something more valuable than copper to offer - uranium. A super secret mine was set up. There were no signs of it in official documents, even the cans to store uranium were manufactured on site so as not to give anyone any clue as to what is being dug up there and how much of it exactly. Once dug up, the uranium quietly disappeared in the USSR. The whole operation was overlooked by the Soviets and the Polish government had little say in it and of course didn’t see any profits from it. Many of the people hired in the mine were the so called ‘enemies of the state’ of various kinds and no one told any miners about how dangerous their work was and there were basically no safety measures to prevent radioactive contamination. Sometimes a friendly Russian would warn his favourite miner not to eat his lunch underground but come up instead. Some miners disappeared when they became somehow inconvenient but by then Miedzianka was used to disappearances of all sorts. At some point there was even a Belgian spy working underground. He was discovered but could’ve still escaped if he didn’t foolishly fall in love with one beautiful resident of Miedzianka. He didn’t want to leave without her, was captured and sentenced to death. That should teach you to fall in love with Polish women.
In 1969 all of it was just a memory. All that was left of all the mines of Miedzianka were just holes in the ground that would sometimes swallow up a cherry-tree in your garden, or a cart and two horses, or part of your house if you were particularly unlucky. Therefore the government ordained evacuation and relocation of all its inhabitants to the newly built estate on the outskirt of the local town of Jelenia Góra (formerly Hirschberg). But was that the real reason or did the government just want to literally bury their shameful uranium secret? And who really ruined Miedzianka? Germans said it was the drunk Poles and the Poles said it was the wild Roma gypsies, and so it goes, just like in many other Miedziankas all over Poland.
I enjoyed this book, especially the second part, although Springer’s style gave me a bit of vertigo occasionally. It was too chaotic, zooming in, zooming out, speeding up and slowing down. Nonetheless I’d like to praise the author for his objectivity. I read an interview with him where he reveals his very angry feelings (deservedly so) towards the actions of the new postwar inhabitants of Miedzianka, who not only completely destroyed the German heritage but also desecrated the old German cemetery (playing football with skulls, anyone?). I’m surprised he kept that anger in check in the book.
*- “The term repatriation was often used by Communist governments to describe the large-scale state-sponsored ethnic cleansing actions and expulsion of national groups. Poles born in territories that were annexed by the Soviet Union, (referred to by Poles as the Kresy) although deported to the State of Poland, were settled in the annexed former German territories (referred to in Polish as the Regained Territories). In the process they were told that they had returned to their Motherland.” As per Wikipedia