A Town in Two Countries at the Same Time

Filip Springer’s ‘History of a Disappearance’ draws global conclusions about borders and national identity

The place where history and cartography converge can be tricky to navigate. This is something I know from experience, looking back on both my family’s history and how I understood it growing up. As a child, the quickest answer to describing my paternal grandfather’s side of the family was they were Austrian. (My father’s parents moved here in the 1930s.) But in talking with other relatives, I’ve been told that some relatives, several generations back, considered themselves to be Polish. That the national borders of central and eastern Europe have shifted considerably over the last hundred-plus years isn’t necessarily news–especially when you’re talking about the post-World War I breakup of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

I was reminded of my own confusion in terms of how best to think of one part of familial history by Filip Springer’s History of a Disappearance: The Story of a Forgotten Polish Town. Though Springer isn’t writing about the part of Poland from which my family members hailed, he touches on a number of the same questions: what makes a particular piece of land belong to one nation or another? What does it mean to multiple generations of people who think of a place in an entirely different fashion? And how do those of us on the outside of these discussions best process the issues at hand?

At the center of Springer’s narrative is the German town of Kupferberg. Alternately, at the center of Springer’s narrative is the Polish town of Miedzianka. Unlike Superman and Clark Kent, they’re always in the same place at the same time—Kupferberg is located in a geographic region that was handed over to Polish control in the 1940s. Before the book even begins, a map of Lower Silesia shows a series of towns with names listed in both German and Polish; a larger map shows how the borders of Poland, Germany, and the Soviet Union changed after the Second World War. There’s a long and complex history here, one that eludes easy description.

What does it mean to multiple generations of people who think of a place in an entirely different fashion?

Springer’s approach to telling this story juxtaposes the intimate and the international in scale. The long first chapter covers several centuries’ worth of history, concluding in 1929, just before the shape of Germany and Poland will be forever altered. It’s followed by a collection of quotes, some taken from a manuscript, others from interviews. The juxtaposition, a range of voices with sometimes-conflicting opinions on major issues, helps to give the reader a sense of how these questions of borders and nations play out among everyday people.

Springer’s shifts in tone and style work with multiple purposes: he’s able to convey both the scale of the changes that affect Miedzianka/Kupferberg, and he’s able to give the reader a sense of the constant shifts in landscape that befell this place. Sometimes he hones in on particular stories: the tale of a woman named Barbara Wójcik, who eludes death numerous times in post-war Poland, is gripping on its own; in the greater context of the narrative, it speaks to the fragility of life in times of conflict and of the role of chance and luck in simply surviving.

After Communism had taken hold in Poland after the war, a nearby uranium mine became one of the sources of industry for the town of Miedzianka. Springer’s harrowing description of the everyday routine of the mine’s workers–and the devastating effect it had on their health–makes for one of the most gut-wrenching sequences in a book that abounds with them. Throughout the book, Springer demonstrates how governmental policy, interpersonal conflict, and the legacy of war lead to clashing worldviews and a series of broken bodies, environmental devastation, and histories that remain in constant flux.

This is a work that constantly pushes at the boundaries of what nonfiction and reportage can do.

The sociopolitical questions raised in Springer’s book also bring to mind plenty of contemporary political hot spots, including Russia’s recent military actions in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea. And questions of shifting borders and concepts of national identity have shown up in fiction: China Miéville’s The City & The City features a micronation shared by two populations who have trained themselves to ignore one another’s residents and architecture, while Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn is set in a near-future Europe in which nations have become even more granular.

To call History of a Disappearance a work of nonfiction that reads like fiction does it a disservice: this is a work that constantly pushes at the boundaries of what nonfiction and reportage can do. Springer deftly brings together archival research, oral histories, and meditations on what can be learned from the history of this town (or, if you prefer, these towns). The story of how Kupferberg became Miedzianka demonstrates how national conflicts play out against the backdrop of smaller communities, but it also raises themes that are far from specific to the histories of Germany and Poland. In this provocative narrative, Springer raises a thoughtful array of questions that many will wrestle with for years to come.

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