Characteristics of the People

The physical appearance of Lemkos has been described as fair-haired, short of stature, and of dark complexion.34 35 36 Being mountain people, the Lemkos were distinct from lowlanders in psychology, way of life, and cultural type.37 Their isolation from other cultures promoted a tradition of conservatism that is typical of mountaineers. This manifests in a reluctant acceptance of anything new, resistance to foreign influences, and rejection of things untried or unknown. The things in life they hold dear are their faith, language, rituals and customs.38 Attempts to assimilate Lemkos over the centuries were unsuccessful, and these traits may well explain the success with which they have managed to preserve their culture to this day.

The Lemkos, living in the mountains, had only limited contact with the Poles (Roman Catholic, Western Slavs) to the north and with the exception of the villages in the eastern Lemko border areas, quite limited contact with the Bojkos to the east. This explains the marked differences in language and culture between the Lemkos and the Bojkos.

However, the Lemkos have over the centuries developed a strong affinity with their Eastern Slavic (Rusyn) brethren living on the southern slopes of the Carpathians, in the "Presov Region" of present day eastern Slovakia. These Rusyns a classified by ethnographers as part of the Lemko group, although the term "Lemko" is not part of their self-identification - only "Rusyn" or "Rusnak." Because the rise in the mountains' elevation is graded that it was easily traveled by those horse-drawn carriage, contact between the Lemkos and the Subcarpathian Rusyns was rather easy and frequent.39

Centuries ago, both groups would go harvesting together on the Hungarian plain, especially in Hajdu county. Also, at the beginning of the 19th century, many larger Hungarian estates employed Lemkos as swineherds. In fact, in the Lemko Region village of Mszana/Mshana (Krosno county), several families had the name Kondash; if a Kondash is asked where the name originated, he or she might say, "One of my forefathers was a swineherd in Hungary; swineherds there are called kondas."40

Many Lemko last names are found in villages on both sides of the border, especially near the mountain passes. In the past many Lemkos were married in Hungary as well.41 Furthermore, names of Hungarian villages and towns are mentioned in Lemko folk songs. The most frequently mentioned is Debrecen, the capital of Hajdu county. This type of song is well illustrated by the following:

Shedding her tears, sobbing was Hanchusha

From Tokaj she didn't get an apple from Andrusha.

Don't cry Hanchusha, don't be sad,

I'll bring you an apple from Nowy Sacz.

(From the village of Olchowiec/Vilchovec, Krosno county)42

The Subcarpathian Rusyns frequently traveled to the Lemko Region to buy things and amuse themselves. This activity led to another significant cultural exchange: the purchase of a church. In 1724 the Subcarpathian Rusyns from the village of Venecija (Saros/Sarys county) bought a Lemko wooden church built in 1654 in the village of Nowa Wies/Nova Ves (Nowy Sacz county). The church was dismantled, moved and rebuilt in Venecija where it serves the village to this day.43

Although they were cut off from their brethren in Slovakia and Ukraine's Transcarpathian Oblast by geographic and political borders, Lemko writers and political activists since the first national revival in the late 19th century always emphasized their cultural affinity with all Eastern Slavs of Rus', and in particular with those living along the southern slopes of the Carpathians (who even shared with the Lemkos the local name "Rusnak").44

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