/ 10 April 2019

The Week of the Festival: Gdansk, Poland

“Bringing back. A story of a town that disappeared”


A curiosity of a reporter

“I was nearby gathering information to a completely different story and by accident got to know about Miedzianka. I came here, paused in the meadow and thought that if it hadn't been for the pre-war picture I was shown the day before, a picture of a town standing here some decades ago, I wouldn't have felt a thing – I'd just turn around, strolled down the hill to a railway station in Janowice Wielkie and forgot about ever being here. But I had seen the picture and simply couldn't agree with this lack of emotion I felt standing in the meadow. After all, a whole town disappeared and it's a huge deal even when town's seemingly irrelevant. I got back home and started digging for information. After a few months of spending my spare time on googling Miedzianka, it dawned on me that this material deservs a larger literary form. That's how it all started. My first encounter with this place – with its void, silence and my lack of emotions around it – simply made me feel curious, and curiosity seemed to me like a good beginning.”

Past Perfect

Located in Lower Silesia town of Miedzianka (ger. Kupferberg) steadily carried its inhabitants through seven centuries, many land owners, ups and downs of local copper mining industry and a few wars that had barely skimmed over its surface. A bit lost in the mountains, provincial town had lived its modest life away from big-world politics and big-world problems – at least until 1945. With the end of the WW II, history – 'the Beast' as the book calls it – came crumbling a longtime order: within the new post-war borders, the old German town was placed under Polish administration. Germans who'd lived here were expelled or fled with the outbreak of Poles coming here after their homes and lands were incorporated into Soviet Union. New inhabitants inherited a neat, but poor town with characteristic triangle-shaped market, a famous brewery, two churches, a school, pharmacy, an inn and a centuries-old mansion nearby. Soon they were to discover that wealth – and destruction – of their new neighborhood lies under its surface...

The book

In 2011, after two years of researching and writing, “Miedzianka. Historia znikania” (“Miedzianka. A History of Disappearing”, published by Czarne) was published. The next year it was nominated to prestigious Nike Literary Prize, Gdynia Literary Prize and Ryszard Kapuściński Prize. For Filip Springer, a curious reporter, journalist and photographer, “Miedzianka” was a literary debut followed by six successful books published to date. Springer's observant eye and talent for portraying the right details – those that really seem to make a difference – earned him a solid position among Polish reporters. He is famous for his interests in architecture (especially the ill-born buildings that Poland inherited from the Communist-era), urban visual absurds and portraying life of the off-centre towns and cities.

Past Simple

The post-war development of Miedzianka was closely connected to a mine that Soviets opened here in the late 1940s. Officially operating as a paper factory and secured by Red Army soldiers, the mine employed town's newcomers. As secret as it was, everybody knew what the mine was about: during only a few years ca 600 tons of uranium was acquired here and transported to USSR. Most miners didn't have a clue of how radioactive this chemical element is – in later years many of them payed the highest price for these few years spent under Miedzianka's grounds. The town itself was soon to pay as well: extensive mining caused many damages, as old, not secured tunnels under the ground started to collapse. The mine was closed in the 1960s when deposits of uranium got too poor to make further mining cost-effective. Unemployed workers fled and Miedzianka slowly started to resemble a ghost-town. During next few years – due to town's devastation caused by irresponsible mining – local authorities decided to relocate Miedzianka's inhabitants. The majority of town's buildings collapsed or were destroyed. Until now a church, some parts of an old brewery and a few houses remained. The rest is a meadow.

More to come

„What's done, is done. I don't live with the stories I write about. I complete a project and move to the next one” says Springer. And yet, the ball that his “Miedzianka” set rolling in 2011 came back to him some years later. It seems that by telling a story of the site, Springer revived its narrative energy and served as a zestful Coryphaeus to a dormant chorus.

Soon after the publication enthusiastic readers started to visit the place looking for sites and atmosphere that Springer so vividly conveyed. Due to a growing number of visitors, local authorities installed in Miedzianka informational boards that brought back the memory of a former town; the meadow is not only a meadow any more. In 2013 a theatre in a nearby city of Jelenia Góra dramatized Springer's text and presented it on its scene and in Miedzianka itself during open-air performances. A mural celebrating the town appeared in Jelenia Góra, guided walks were organised, various texts were written and published, a new brewery combined with a guesthouse and a restaurant was built here and it seems like there are still more changes to come.

Present Continuous

In late August of 2017 Springer together with his reporter-friends and supported by a few publishing houses came back to Miedzianka. A spontaneous, low-key festival of reportage that they organised was a success. It brought together some of the Polish best non-fiction writers and built a familiar situation between authors and visitors – the site itself invokes that there are no pedelstals, stiffness and distance. As small as it is, Miedzianka gathers people and lets them truly be festival's participants, rather then objectified spectators. This lack of strict division and role playing is a great value in today's highly festivalized and institutionalized culture, where a real encounter seems to be just as desired, as it is rare.

To date, a team led by Springer put together two MiedziankaFests (the latter was crowdfunded) – both of them had a rich and not taking itself too seriously formula. What's especially important, the town seems to be a true hero of the festival – this approach is visible in how Miedzianka orchestrates meetings, walks, workshops, readings etc. Nothing seems separate from the venue and its specific ambient.

More or less at the same time as MiedziankaFest, at least two very interesting literary festivals were created in small towns in the south of Poland: Góry Literatury (Mountains of Literature) in Nowa Ruda (12 000 inhabitants) and its neighborhood, and Stolica Języka Polskiego (The Capital of The Polish Language) in Szczebrzeszyn (5 000 inhabitants). There are things all of those festivals seem to have in common: programmes that proof their authors are not afraid of exploring new possibilities; guests who are experts in their field; open-mindedness in the way particular events are located and/or structured; respect to the local inhabitants and their borough. And one more thing – all three are shaped by a fruitful collaboration between prominent members of the Polish literary world (writers, reporters, literary critics) and local cultural animators / activists.

The theme

When I first heard of an idea of putting together a series of texts about 'Polish culture' I immediately started to think about finding our way in this huge maze of possible paths. The theme of widely understood 'centre/off-centre' came to me as an interesting filter that could both, set a general direction of texts and leave their authors necessary freedom.

The tension between centre and periphery can be investigated with many different approaches – as a political, social, cultural issue; it can be seen as a metaphorical and/or geopolitical question. In my own text I wanted to examine a possibility that an encounter of these two dichotomies can bring.

Springer himself claims that all his book did, was speeding up processes that would have occurred here anyway fueled by the story itself, by beauty and potential of the place. Maybe. But what he modestly doesn't mention is a huge visibility that his book brought to the former town. Periphery, often overburdened with complexes and seeming irrelativity, needs validation that in modern culture is often related to visibility and clear message: 'hey, it deserves your attention'. For this beam of light directed on Miedzianka – just as on Nowa Ruda or Szczebrzeszyn – towns pay back with their natural wealth: specific pace, sense of community, and an organic relation to a venue. In a reality of a growing number of expensive, big-city festivals that seem to be putting form over content, this kind of cultural exchange between centre and periphery comes as a blow of fresh air.

Perfect Future?

My admiration is not blind though. In the world there are loads of examples of cultural events that ruthlessly colonised, trampled and objectified their venues. It's easy mathematics: the smaller the venue is, the easier it is to exploit it. A talk about fruitful cultural exchange between centre and off-centre cannot go without emphasizing a need for clear boundaries that should be set by responsibility and mutual respect. In this sense I do hope that Miedzianka is safe in Springer's hands – after all, by telling a story of town's disappearing, he took the spell off and let it reappear. Opening a proverbial 'new chapter' is a responsibility worthy of a curious reporter.

By Ola Halicka (b. 1981), editor, producer of cultural events.

MiedziankaFest website: