Saturday, 30 September 2017

Miedzianka by Filip Springer

Been a while since I reviewed a book here! The book is Miedzianka Historia znikania, (In English: History of a Disappearance: Story of a Forgotten Polish Town), a reportage by Filip Springer. Big thanks to daughter Moni for passing it to me.

If Norman Davis and Roger Moorhouse's history of Breslau/Wrocław was titled Microcosm because it encapsulated an entire region's history by focusing of that one city, Miedzianka could be titled Nanocosm. It tells the story not of Lower Silesia's capital but of a Lower Silesian village - one of thousands, caught in the ebb and flow of history, at the interface between Teuton and Slav - but a village with a very specific nature.

I've been caught up in the story of the Nazi Gold Train in nearby Wałbrzych; Miedzianka tells a similar tale, of dark secrets, tunnels and excavations. But here the element being searched for was not gold - but uranium.

It was in 1948, shortly after Polish communist authorities exerted their control over Lower Silesia in the wake of the Red Army's advance into Nazi Germany, that the Soviets began looking for uranium. All over this region, wrested from the Third Reich, Soviet geologists were hunting for sources of uranium ore that could be refined into atomic weapons. And in Miedzianka, the former German copper-mining village of Kupferberg, they found it.

Since the earliest days of this Silesian settlement in the 14th Century, copper (and some gold, silver and tin) was being extracted from the hills. The village of Kupferberg grew over the centuries, surviving fire, pestilence and war, rebuilding itself after successive disasters. By the end of the 19th Century, the mining had all but disappeared, and the village was a modestly prosperous, attractive resort with a castle, two churches, a brewery and several hostelries and restaurants (below).

While WW1 left Kupferberg unscathed, its aftermath - hyperinflation, social unrest, the coming of the Nazis, hastened its end. Drawing on first-hand accounts and German-language histories of Kupferberg, Springer paints a portrait of a community that, like the whole of Germany, was dragged to its fate by the seductive power of Fascist ideology. The coming of the Nazis had two faces; on one hand the economy was recovering strongly from the Great Depression through public works, on the other, the regimentation of society sowed fear and mistrust among the villagers of Kupferberg (map from 1937 below)

Then came the war; many of its sons were lost on the eastern front. People disappeared. The Hitler Youth terrorised the village's old establishment. As the front line drew ever nearer, waves of refugees passed through Kupferberg fleeing the Red Army rapists and murderers. The village was not spared the trauma. With the Red Army came the communist Poles, ready to administer these lands as part of a new Poland. Kupferberg became Miedziana Góra - and then just Miedzianka.

The German population was deported - not all at once, but in waves (interesting details here - for the first few years after the end of the war, German and Polish children studied side-by-side in Polish schools in the newly acquired territories). By 1948 there were hardly any Germans left. And the Poles in their new homes were obsessed with finding hidden German treasures.

Stalin's breakneck quest for an atomic bomb was helped by information acquired from Nazi scientists, who were also working on such a weapon. They knew where to look for uranium. The Red Army was hot on the trail. When Soviet geologists confirmed the presence of radioactive ores within a mountain that had already been riddled with tunnels since the Middle Ages, the village was rapidly turned into a production centre for the Soviet A-bomb project. It was sealed off from the outside world, guarded by Red Army soldiers and NKVD and UB goons. At the same time, workers were lured to the mines by promised of high pay (the equivalent of around 8,000 zł a month in today's money). They came from all over Poland. Some from the east, lands that had now become incorporated into the USSR. Some were fleeing their partisan past, others were in search of a new life, new adventure, excitement - none knowing what they were letting themselves in for.

Very quickly mine shafts were dug, tunnels extended in the direction shown by clicking Geiger counters, and the radioactive ore brought to the surface and taken by trucks towards secret facilities deep in Russia. There was a heavy cordon of secrecy around the whole project. The cover story was that this was a paper factory. People who spoke too much disappeared; questions were not to be asked. Miners leaving the premises were searched by Geiger counters to ensure they weren't smuggling uranium ore out of the mines to pass onto Western intelligence, which was eager to glean any information about the Soviet A-bomb programme. Polish miners who'd returned to the fatherland from the coal mines of northern France and Belgium were particularly watched. They spoke French among themselves and many, who had had enough of the realities of communism, wanted to return to France, and were in touch with the French embassy.

The UB and NKVD were observing the miners closely for any sign of disloyalty to the communist regime. The book describes how one raucous, vodka-fuelled names-day party turned ugly as the UB waded in, suspecting the miners of shouting political slogans. One miner was beaten to death at the local militia station. Meanwhile, miners were complaining of ill heath due to their exposure to radioactivity. They disappeared. Did they get sent to sanatoria and then to work in far-off parts of Poland? Or were they disposed of by the NKVD? Springer suggests we'll never know.

By 1952, after extracting over 600 tonnes of uranium ore, it was decided to close down the mine. Meanwhile, the hurried way in which this had been done was resulting in holes appearing in fields and roads, buildings collapsing or cracking. Officially, there had been no uranium mining going on. The mine closed, the village of Miedzianka began slowly to die. Over the next two decades, more and more houses yielded to subsidence, inhabitants were moved to nearby villages or to the city of Jelenia Góra. By the early 1970s, a decision was taken to level Miedzianka with the ground and make it disappear. The walls of a few houses and one of the churches remain today (Google Earth satellite map of the place from 2015, below).

[Click to enlarge; opening the images lets you to compare then and now, by toggling between the two.]

Springer approaches the subject in a style similar to that used by legendary Polish journalists Ryszard Kapuściński [see here] and Jacek Hugo-Bader [here and here]. It is a free-flowing text drawing in quotes from different voices, without the quotation marks and attributions that give accuracy but slow down the pace. He lets witnesses (many in their 80s when he interviewed them) give their often-contradictory accounts; some are sensationalist and conspiratorial, others matter-of-fact, others still claiming that nothing much untoward was happening.

It is a great story. The geopolitical shifts at the interfaces of great powers, and the human victims. I was particularly gripped by Springer's depiction of the Nazis' rise, in a small sleepy village known then for its tourism and excellent beer, far from Hitler's power base. It shows how that madness crept up and infected a whole nation - and the price that nation had to pay.

The book is available in English (History of a Disappearance: Story of a Forgetten Polish Town, translated by Sean Bye). There is good precedent - much of Kapuściński's work has been translated, and both of Jacek Hugo-Bader's books I review (see links above) are now available in English - Biała gorączka as White Fever and Dzienniki Kołymskie as Kolyma Diaries. I saw both on sale at Gdańsk Airport last week.

In the meanwhile, a trip to Miedzianka and the surrounding area is definitely in the diary for next year! But first, a download of prewar German maps of the Kupferberg is in order.

This time two years ago:
Out of the third, into the fourth

This time three years ago:
Inverted reflections

This time four years ago:
Observations from London's WC1
and Observations from the City of London

This time five years ago:
Civilising Jeziorki's wetlands

This time six years ago:
Warsaw's Aleje Jerozolimskie

This time seven years ago:
Melancholy autumn mood in Łazienki

This time nine years ago:
Autumn gold, Zamienie

This time ten years ago:
Flamenco Sketches - Seville

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