A VILLAGE MUSEUM AND THE PROBLEMS OF LEMKO CULTURE IN CONTEMPORARY POLAND
The following article, authored by Antoni Kroh, first appeared in Carpatho-Rusyn
American, Volume 10 #2, 1987
copyright © 1987 and is used here with permission
The following article, written by Antoni Kroh, the curator of the state-supported Regional Ethnographic Museum in Nowy Sacz, Poland, was first published in the Polish journal Polska Sztuka Ludowa (Warsaw. 1985). Kroh is one of a small group of contemporary Poles who sympathize with the current plight of Lemkos living in their midst - Editor.
Director Fedir Goc at the entrance to the Lemko Museum in Zyndranowa. (Photo by Mykola Musynka, 1987)
The museum in Zyndranowa is unique. but not because of its wealth. In reality, it is a modest establishment. What distinguishes Zyndranowa from many other museums in Poland, including famous ones that have funds of several millions at their disposal and that are visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, is the role it performs and the range of social needs it tries to satisfy. For this is a museum greatly needed by both Lemkos and Poles. The swarms of tourists brought by buses to other museums does not visit here, but people seeking the truth about the past and present Lemko Region do come. They come because they need this truth, and they hardly have any other means of finding it.
The museum is modest, because it is completely supported by private funds without any external financial, or organizational aid. When we realize this fact, and at the same time observe the impact of the museum's work, we will understand how very deserving of respect are the people who brought this establishment to life and who bear the burden of maintaining it.
It seems that the example at the museum in Zyndranowa may be of interest not only to lovers of the Lemko Region, but in general for sociologists of culture, ethnographers, historians, and in particular for proponents of the regional movement and folk culture all over Poland. The latter especially can learn much here.
The village of Zyndranowa lies in the east-central Lemko Region, south of the town of Krosno on the very border with the Slovak Republic and just a few kilometers from the Dukla Pass. An important passage through the Carpathians, the Dukla Pass was once one of the busiest trade routes of the old Polish Republic. Famous markets were held in the nearby town of Dukla, which were also visited by Rusyns traveling from northern Hungary. In other words from what is today the Presov Region of eastern Slovakia. Thus, the area around the Dukla Pass is a region where contacts between Rusyns from the northern and the southern slopes of the Carpathians were for centuries very close and multifaceted, exerting a strong influence on folk culture and especially on ethnic self-consciousness. The feeling that the lands on both sides of the mountains constitute a single unit and that its inhabitants are kinsmen was and is continually alive. This was also favored by circumstances in which the Rusyn population was surrounded by peoples of different languages, religions, cultures. Poles, Slovaks, Hungarians, Jews.
During World Wars I and II, the front rolled through this area many times, since the Dukla Pass constituted a key strategic point. Terrifying struggles took place for control of the pass in which hundreds of thousands of soldiers from different armies, as well as many local people, lost their lives. The infamous "Valley of Death" between the Iwla and the Hyrowa Rivers, one of the largest battlefields in this part of Europe, is located near Zyndranowa. After 1945, the area became almost completely depopulated. First, this was the result of military activities, then of repatriation of part of the population to Soviet Ukraine, and finally as a consequence of the tragic "Vistula Action" during which the Polish Government forcibly removed the remaining Lemko population.
Beginning in the mid-1950s, when Lemkos began to return to these parts, a legend of quite recent origin (yet already deeply rooted in Polish society) arose. This legend spoke of the area as a land belonging to no one, a kind of "Wild West" suitable for romantic experiences and manly adventures in the style of Jack London. The whole area was considered a wasteland with a severe climate, predatory game, and overgrown sites of former forest fires, cemeteries, and mysterious graves. Unfortunately Polish literary works, films. and newspaper articles, which were too often characterized by a kind of moral color-blindness, contributed to the rise of this superficial, and therefore false, legend. There was even a song in vogue about the Bieszczady Mountains where one could "be a cowboy".
Hence, adventurers, romantics, trappers, restless souls, and common criminals from all over Poland came here, whether for profit, for biding their time, or for colorful self-creation. Polish peasants from the lowlands, generally driven by life's pressures, also settled down here, since for various reasons there was no place for them in their own native regions. But nothing at all grew for them in this foreign mountain climate, so after a few years of drudgery they most often fled. Although there are many commendable exceptions to this sad rule (for instance, the village of Kamianna splendidly managed by its new Polish inhabitants), the general picture is not edifying. In the end. many Poles have passed through the Lemko Region, but not many have remained.
From the beginning, it is only the Lemkos who have considered these parts their home. They have done so without reservations, despite everything and everyone. It may be a home which they did not choose, but one which they carry in their hearts their whole life long. That is how it is for Lemkos this is Lemko country, for Poles - post-Lemko country. That's the difference.
In this and other respects, the Poles settling down in the Lower Beskyd and Bieszczady ranges were, culturally speaking, a none too active element. Even the mountaineer Poles from Podhala. who came and settled in quite close-knit centers in Banica near Izby, Czarna, Mochnaczka and other villages, and who experienced the least amount of trouble in adapting to their new conditions, even they -relatively speaking - lost in large measure their distinguishing Podhalian characteristics.
On the other hand, the returning Lemkos began their cultural activity almost immediately upon unpacking their bundles. One could see that they considered it an essential element of their existence as a society. Already in the fall of 1954 a folklore ensemble of thirty people, founded and directed by Fedir Goc, came into being at the Solidarity Production Cooperative in Zyndranowa. A spectacle, the "Lemko Wedding", was produced, and in 1955, Polish television recorded a program, "With the Lemkos in Zyndranowa," featuring this ensemble. At the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, other song and dance groups came into existence in Bielanka, Komancza, Grab, Olchowiec, Tylawa, and Polany near Dukla. Orthodox church choirs were also active in a few villages. The villages of Bartne, Hanczowa, Konieczna, and Zdynia stood out because of their cultural activity.
Looking at the history of eastern and southern Europe in the nineteenth century, one can see that the energetic cultural activity of a small group of people has more than once provided the beginnings of national consciousness for many modern nations. Precisely in this way the Czechs, Slovaks, Ukrainians, Romanians, and some South Slavic nations began to be transformed. Indeed, the first stages were often modest and the sphere of influence small. For instance, the first Czech awakeners used to gather in one small room, and a saying circulated along the Vltava River in Bohemia that if the roof had collapsed on this room, the further development of modern Czech literature would have been questionable. The Sturites. a group centered around the first Slovak ideologue L'udovit Stur, comprised only a handful of romantic youths, while the advocates of the Rusyn Triad, who laid the foundations of modern Ukrainian culture in Galicia, could also have been counted on the fingers of both hands. Similarly. the Slovenians, called Illyrians at that time, began their modest activity by publishing almanacs and bee-keeping handbooks.
Of course, in mentioning this, I do not intend to suggest that the Lemkos' cultural activity can in similar fashion constitute a national consciousness. After all, the processes which I have just recalled took place over a century and a half ago in very different social, political, and governmental conditions. I am only concerned here with drawing attention to the remarkably integrative and representative function of collective cultural activity among regional and ethnic minority groups which desire to protect their identity. For it is well known that cultural activity serves a predominate and integrative function in communities which do not exhibit national aspirations (Podhalians. Tyrolians), but who only wish to preserve their distinct character. It is also well known that local patriotism does not lessen national or state patriotism: quite the contrary. one enriches the other and gives it life.
The East German government, for example, understands this by supporting the Lusation Sorbian cultural movement. Even closer to them, the Lemkos are impressed especially by the example of the Ukrainian Museum at Svidnik in northern Slovakia, which has about 30 employees, a skansen, an icon collection, rich ethnographic collections, and which publishes scholarly and popular works.
In contrast, the Lemkos living in Poland have at present only two extra-religious cultural institutions serving them in a representative and integrative capacity. These are the Lemkovyna Song and Dance Ensemble based in Bielanka (Nowy Sacz district) under their artistic director Jaroslav Trochanovs'kyj, and the Regional Museum of Lemko Culture and War Memorial in Zyndranowa (Krosno district) founded by a group of activists, among whom Pavel Stefanovs'kyj, Michal Dons'kyj, and Fedir Kuzjak were prominent, and whose director is Fedir Goc. In this context, it is interesting to note that Stefanovs'kyj ran a Lemko Regional House in Bielanka for many years, although it has had to struggle to survive. This house is presently inaccessible to tourists and it was decided to move its collections to Zyndranowa as soon as conditions for exhibiting them are provided.
The Lemkovyna Ensemble and Zyndranowa Museum have a common feature which constitutes the source of their strength, and at the same time is the cause of unending troubles, vexations, and a feeling of uncertainty. Namely, they are not supported by state funds (as most other cultural institutions in Poland), but are maintained by a handful of people whose dedication and hard work sometimes creates the impression of hopelessness and other times of heroism. The single driving force behind these people's activities is faithfulness to the Lemko tradition. They are simply fighting desperately for their lives, for their community existence, for their right to group pride. Others may not understand this, but Poles should.
These Lemko institutions, however. are not connected with the so-called vertical structure of culture. The vertical structure is a closed system devised and administered from above, just like health service, for instance. Here everything has its place, hierarchy, budget, work plans, and posts of employment. Everything is foreseen, grasped, and then realized and summed up in reports. This system can successfully tolerate superficial activity and can support it even for an extended period of time, just so long as that activity is properly categorized. But it cannot incorporate into its structure a phenomenon which is not sufficiently named and classified. And, looking at the museum in Zyndranowa and the Lemko cultural movement in general, neither can be classified in official terms.
This is because the Lemkos are not officially recognized as a separate national minority, but are included with the Ukrainian nation. For various reasons, which I will not write about here, this situation does not suit many Lemkos, since they feel strongly about their separateness both from the Ukrainians as well as the Poles. Although the Ukrainian Socio-Cultural Society (USKT) active in Poland takes into account the cultural needs of the Lemkos (in accordance with its statute), a situation has arisen in which the Lemkos do not enjoy all the conditions necessary for their development within the framework of that society - simply put, Lemkos do not feel completely at home there. I do not intend to write at length on Lemko-Ukrainian relations in Poland, especially since they have taken on different shades during the last forty years: nevertheless, it is a fact that many Lemko activists have remained outside the Ukrainian Socio-Cultural Society. Therefore, the museum in Zyndranowa, operating independently of the Society, is - officially speaking - not a museum of a national minority.
At the same time, it is also not a museum of an ethnographic region, such as Podhale or Orava, since one of the most difficult of Lemko problems is the question of self-definition. Despite their distinct character, Podhalians are Poles, and no one questions this. Some Oravians are Poles at heart. others Slovaks, yet there is no Oravian national problem. On the other hand and for obvious reasons, Lemkos do not consider themselves a part of the Polish nation, whereas belonging to the Ukrainian nation is for them a complicated and often painful issue. Hence it is difficult to treat the Lemko Region exclusively as just another region of Poland. In this sense, the museum in Zyndranowa is not a regional museum, it is something more.
How. then, can this establishment be classified?
When encountering a phenomenon which we do not fully understand and which destroys our established mental patterns, we can approach it in one of the following ways: (1) ignore it and simply not take note of its existence: (2) squeeze it into a compulsory framework, that is. "draw it Into" known established patterns: or (3) attempt to destroy and annihilate it. Fedir Goc, one of the founders and the director of the museum from its beginnings, learned perfectly all three of these ways at his own cost during the sixteen years of the museum's existence. Let us hope that one day he will write down and publish his experiences it will certainly be an extremely interesting document from which we will learn many surprising things.
Continue on to part 2