The Culture of a Quiet People

by Ireneusz Krzysztof as published in Karpatska Rus', May 27, 1994, Vol. LXVII #11

The following is a translation of an article published on February 7, 1992 in the Polish newspaper Ziemia Gorzowska. The article was inspired on the occasion of a local performance of the Society of Lemkos' Amateur Theater.1 The article is essentially an introduction to Lemko history, culture and contemporary situation written for a curious but largely uninformed Polish reading public. Aside from providing basic information on recent developments and activities among Lemkos living in Poland, the article provides insight into how Poles view Lemkos. Explanatory notes appear at the end of the article or are embedded within the text in [square brackets].

Lemkos live among us. Few people remember that before the [Second World] War approximately 400,000 Lemkos lived within Poland's borders.2 They were a gentle, poverty-stricken people, but happy in their own way. They are one of the east Slavic groups. In the 14th century they were already inhabiting the southeast reaches of Polish territory.3 Lemkos came from the east in search of grazing land for their sheep and oxen. By the 19th century shepherding was no longer profitable, so Lemkos took up farming and lumbering. The Brest Union of the 16th century took the Orthodox Lemkos and made Uniates out of them [sic]. During the First World War period, many Lemko communities switched their allegiance back to the Orthodox church. In the interwar period, Lemkos became a bone of contention between the Orthodox and Uniate churches. The conflict was so intense that the pope separated Lemkovyna from metropolitan Andrei Septyc'kyj's administration and created a distinct Lemko diocese with its own apostolic administration.

Krynica was the Lemko capital in Poland. Lemko grazing lands and farms covered the gentle hills of the Poprad valley and northern slopes of the Carpathians.

The Lemkos' world disintegrated in 1945. According to the official explanation Lemkos were resettled from the mountains because they, like Ukrainians, supported the Ukrainian Partisan Army (UPA).4 The Lemkos' "Black Spring" came in 1947. During the "Vistula" Operation, whole villages of Lemkos, Boikos, Dolinians and Ukrainians from Terespol to Krynica were removed to the recovered territories.5 The "Vistula" Operation was efficiently carried out. People were notified [of their impending resettlement] only one day ion advance or sometimes only within hours of departure. They were allowed to take with them livestock and whatever they could manage to carry. They were led on foot, often for many kilometers, to railroad stations. The "Vistula" evacuees were then loaded onto freight cars bound for destinations unknown by them.

The "Vistula" Operation affected 150,000 people. The former German territories had earlier been crammed with Poles resettled from Ukrainian territory which had been absorbed by the USSR. They did not welcome, and were sometimes, even violently opposed to anything Rusyn. But the Lemkos, after all, called themselves Rusnaks.6 Some, like the legendary Nikifor tried on their own to return [to the Lemko Region]. They were caught and most often imprisoned in the Jaworzno prison camp set up for those who resisted deportation.

After 1956 a portion of the population returned to Lemkovyna. There they found that their [previously] abandoned farmsteads had now been destroyed. The wheat had gone unharvested; the villages remained desolate. Lemkos frequently had to buy back their own homes.7

Lemkos presently number 70,000 in Poland. They have established the Society of Lemkos [in Lemko: Stovaryshynja Lemkiv], which is headquartered in Legnica; the "Lemkovyna" folk song and dance group, which is based in the village of Bielanka; and a small instrumental band "Chwylyna" based in Lugach and fronted by the prolific and talented singer/songwriter Luba Krynicka (Nikifor had also adopted this same pseudonym). Lastly, Lemkos have the Legnica based Amateur Theatre Group. The Group is remarkable. It takes the form and performs the same function as did Polish folk theatrical groups under the Period of Partitions. The Amateur Theatre [like the Polish folk theatrical groups, functions not simply as entertainment, but] works to preserve the Lemko language and culture.

Lemkos also have their own poets and painters. The above mentioned Nikifor is the best known. His folk watercolors are on display in many of the world's galleries and museums. Among living Lemko poets are Petro Trochanovskij-Murianka, Stefania and Maria Trochanovskij, Vladyslav Hraban, Michal Olesniewicz, Maria [Olena] Duc-Fajfer and Pavel Stefanovskij, who is also a painter. The most important cultural figure, however, is the painter, poet and teacher Ivan Rusenko. Rusenko was born 100 years ago in the village of Krosno in the then Krosno district. After completing high school in Nowy Sacz, he returned to Krosno and worked as a teacher. Rusenko loved music and outdoor excursions. He roamed the Carpathians, charmed by their beauty. Nobody knew Lemkos and Lemkovyna better than Rusenko. He understood their spirit, their thought, their aspirations and their harsh reality. In Rusenko's works, in verse, satire, short stories, songs and stage plays, the Lemko is good and sensitive; and yet, when necessary, he can be steadfast. After World War II Rusenko was resettled to [Soviet] Ukraine, where he settled in the village of Korolik and worked as a teacher. He died in 1970 at the age of 70. Rusenko was at the height of his creative powers in the interwar period. By that time he had already written his play "Vertep w Karpatach"...

I wrote the above text on the occasion of the January 12th visit to Gorzow of the Lemko Amateur Theater. It is not possible to judge [the quality of the Amateur Theatre's performance of] Vertep w Karpatach in conventional aesthetic or professional terms. Its main purpose for being goes beyond entertainment or artistic expression. The performance provided a pretext for some reflections on the fate in Poland of this quiet Lemko people, who do not aggressively fight for Parliamentary representation as do other national minorities.

Many Lemkos live in Gorzow. No statistical records are kept, not even by the Gorzow branch of the Lemko Association. The audience in the "Kolejarz" theater, however, is 3/4 Lemko. As if listening to a Sunday sermon, they drank up every word falling from the stage. At the conclusion of the performance, they stood to honor the performers by singing the Lemko "Sto lat", [mnohaja lita] which is slower in rhythm and more soulful than the Polish version.

And the performance itself? It resembles Schiller's Pastorale which was recently performed at the Osterwa Theater. The play follows the adventures of the main characters in song and dance, without dramatic, sequential plot development. The main characters are a shepherd, richly fleshed out by Adam Barna; a beggar (Stefan Kosowski); a tinker (Jan Dziadyk); the "wise fool", Amroz, subtly portrayed by Andrzej Kopcza; the Jew Moska was oplayed by Jan Kowalczyk. Completing the cast were a dignified old peasant couple; gypsies; merry peasant girls; three kings and the Holy Family. A charming folk simplicity characterizes this Lemko Christmas Play (for in fact this is the meaning of "Vertep" which according to Kopalinski's Dictionary of Myths and Cultural Traditions is a representation of the Nativity scene which wandering carolers carried along Carpathian trail). However, the art and stage direction were hackneyed and unoriginal. The costumes and songs incorporated into the play are interesting, especially the authentic Lemko carols. Familiar melodies such as Wsrod nocnej ciszy could frequently be heard. In the last act, however, there were too many carols. Unfortunately Andrzej Kopcza, the founder and director of the theater, was not inspired to dramatize this rather static act. But more about him later. The stage area of the "Kolejarz" community center was a bit too small. It might have been useful to have some of the actors leave the center stage area and use the front of the stage opposite the manger. Still, it is difficult to demand a fully matured understanding of stagecraft from an amateur theater group which has been in existence hardly for more than one year and whose members frequently have to travel great distances to rehearsals.

The theatrical group is made up of people who were strangers to one another before coming together. Some, however, have family ties. Among those are Stefan Kosowski, his wife Joanna, brother Piotr and Tomek, the son of his broither Jan; Lukasz Wozniak and her daughter and son; Dymitr Rusenko and his daughter Ewa.

The Amateur Theater was created in 1989 at the initiative of Andrzej Kopcza, a graduate of the University of Wroclaw's Department of Cultural Studies. He is also the chairman of the governing committee of the Society of Lemkos. The Theater was established to stage Odciete korzenie ("Severed Roots") the play written by the gifted Mr. Kopcza. It was staged last year in, among other places, Gorzow. Odciete korzenie runs for 3 1/2 hours; nevertheless, nobody left early. It tells the story of one Lemko family from 1914 to 1945, culminating with the powerful final scene in which they are resettled from the mountains.8 The melodic finale (Lemkowina, Lemkowina) acquired among Lemkos the status of a hymn. It was added to the repertoire of the [Lemkovyna] Song and Dance Company directed by Jaroslaw Trochanowski, brother of poet Piotr Trochanowski. The audience spontaneously arose during this song. Andrezj Kopcza, the author and director, said that this single moment was worth the more than six months it took to write and rehearse the play. Odciete korzenie played fore two dozen odd times in different towns and was videotaped for purposes of preservation. Andrzej Kopcza is now writing the second part to his saga, entitled Na obczyznie ("In Exile"). Some scenes are already completed and are being rehearsed. The rehearsals take place in a club room on the second floor of an apartment building at 1 Roosevelt Street. This room is also the site of musical practices and classes in the Lemko dialect. Similar activities, albeit less well developed than those in Legnica, are conducted at other branch locations of the Society of Lemkos where Lemkos reside in sufficient numbers.

How and by hat means can Lemkos prevent the loss of their consciousness? The overwhelming majority of Lemkos now reside in Ukraine, where they are subjected to the powerful pressure of local nationalists. [Relocated] Lemkos in Ukraine no longer regard themselves as Lemko. About 800,000 reside there....9

Has the creation of an independent Ukrainian state affected the mood among Lemkos? Many of them, even those in Poland, are emotionally drawn to Ukraine. They say that they are happy that it [an independent Ukraine] has risen. Lemkos dread, however, any further advances by Ukrainian nationalists. They do not expect an improvement in their situation either in Ukraine or here in Poland, where they are numerically a much weaker presence. There they are threatened by Ukrainization; hence they are threatened by Polonization. For those like Andrzej Kopcza, who regard themselves as Rusnaks, neither alternative is palatable.

How very little we know about the history and daily problems of this people. And there are few places where we can turn to learn more [about Lemkos]. Even the Wielka Encyklopedia Powszechna [the Polish equivalent of Encyclopedia Britannica] devotes to the topic 11 short lines. Lemkos themselves, as a result of their mistrustfulness (?), are not much inclined to help us or even help themselves. An essay competition on Lemko themes mounted by the University of Wroclaw brought in only 15 submissions, our body of knowledge on Lemkos will be somewhat more expanded.

This gentle people, exotic to us despite having lived among us for centuries, has earned a place in our tolerant county. Even if only due to undeserving suffering and opposition to their continuing [attempts to retain their] distinct identity, Lemkos have managed to create a culture unique in the world.

1. See: Ireneusz Krzysztof Szmidt. 7 February 1992. "Kultura cichego narodu," Ziemia Gorzowska, 6.

2. The only sources of demographic data on Lemkos are the two census conducted by Poland in 1921 and 1931. These, however, inquired into mother tongue rather than nationality. Hence, any estimate of the number of Lemkos is at best conjecture. Most scholars place the number of Lemkos residing in interwar Poland at between 150,000 and 200,000.

3. The Ukrainian perspective argues that the ancestors of Lemkos originated further east, in Kievan Rus', hence justifying the Ukrainian ethnohistorical claim to western Galicia. Polish scholars, in order to establish Polish ethnohistorical title to the region, speculate that Lemkos are descended from a mixed Vlach/Rusyn migration of wandering pastorilists who settled among a Polish population already settled in the Carpathians by the 14th century.

Lemko-Rusyns, however, argue that they were the earliest settlers in the Carpathian region, arriving as early as the 5th century. Only later in the 10th century were these "White Croatian" ancestors overrun and subjugated by the ancestors of modern Ukrainians.

This three way contention over Lemko ethnogenesis is typical of virtually all matters concerning Lemkos. This is an example of the way in which a small people residing at the boundary between larger civilizations can become a hotly contested historical and geographical "prize" in the competition between larger neighbors.

4. The numerous nationalistic excesses of World War II prompted the victorious states and vengeful publics to undertake a host of involuntary population resettlements - both planned exchanges and spontaneous expulsions - between the years of 1944-1948.

Polish-Ukrainian conflict at Poland's new eastern border was a local manifestation of this larger European-wide problem of ethnonationalism. In an attempt to "clean up" militarily sensitive border regions inhabited by politically unreliable or despised ethonational minorities, Poland and the neighboring Soviet Republics of Ukraine, Byelorus and Lithuania undertook ostensibly "voluntary" exchanges of populations between 1944-1946.

By 1947, approximately 2/3 of the Lemko population had in this way been forced into exile. Only 35,000 remained at the start of the "Vistula" campaign.

5. "Bojko" and "Dolinian" (the second refers to plains dwellers or lowlanders) are terms used to describe ethnographic groups to the east of the Lemkos and Lemkovyna. The "recovered territories" refers to the regions of southeast Prussia, east Pomerania and Silesia, "recovered" by Poland from defeated Nazi Germany after World War II. Now depopulated after the expulsion of their German population, these regions were to be repopulate by Poles who themselves were displaced after the Soviet Union annexed eastern Poland. The "Vistula" evacuees - Ukrainians, Lemkos and mixed families - were also slated to repopulate the "recovered territories."

6. These Poles from east of the Bug River had just lived through bloody Polish-Ukrainian conflict in their former homes. They mistakenly assumed that the arriving Lemko resettlers were these same Ukrainian "bandits" who had earlier terrorized them. Hence, Lemkos who themselves had just lived through the numerous traumas of war, were met with fear and hostility by another population itself recovering from war. This fear and hostility gradually abated as Poles came to know their new Lemko neighbors as hard-working, honest and pacific.

7. All property left behind by the Lemkos in 1947 passed into state ownership and had since been reallocated to ethnic Poles with the intent of refilling the region with an assumed more politically reliable ethnic Polish population. Hence, Lemkos returned to find that their former homes were now the property of new owners. Due to the harsh living conditions and lack of ancestral feeling for the land, some of the new Polish owners were quite willing to rid themselves of their Lemko properties.

8. The year in which the play ends was 1947. The play closed with the family's forcible removal from their home during the "Vistula" operation population resettlement.

9. This figure is likely a gross exaggeration. There is no concrete statistical data available. An estimated 150,000 - 200,000 Lemkos are believed to have been living in Poland in the interwar period. Two-thirds (or approximately 100,000 - 150,000) of these are believed to have been relocated to the Soviet Union between the years 1944-1946. It is safe to assume, however, that assimilation has been extensive in an environment not friendly to a Lemko-Rusyn ethnic consciousness and that, at any rate, the high level of fecundity required to bring this base population up to 800,000 would not have been possible during the then prevalent conditions of war, scarcity and poverty. Informal guesses generally put the number of Lemkos in Ukraine today at about 200,000.

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