Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Carpatho-Rusyns of Poland - the Lemkos


John J. Righetti

From the Madzik Collection:  Hospodari (Farmers)1930s
Many times when people are at Carpatho-Rusyn gatherings in North America, someone will proclaim “Well, I’m a Lemko.” What does that mean?
The Lemkos are the Carpatho-Rusyns who lived in what is today southern Poland, a region known as western Galicia.  They are the same Rusyns as those that lived in Hungary, but they lived first in Poland, which later became the Austrian portion of Austria-Hungary, so their history and influences were a little different from the Rusyns in what is today Slovakia and Ukraine. But their language, music and religion were the same.
The word” Lemko” is a relatively new one, though. Lemkos didn’t call themselves Lemkos until the early 1900s. Before that , they simply called themselves Rusyns or “Rusnaks” just like all the other Carpatho-Rusyns in the Carpathian Region of Eastern Europe (we’ll explore why later).
They were formed, like all other Rusyns, from the merger of the three tribes of White Croats, Vlachs and Rus’ . And the Rus’ tribes that helped make them up came to the northern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains from the 1300s-1500s. They settled the valleys there and built incredible wooden churches. They were very different from their Polish neighbors in speech, appearance and faith-since they spoke an East Slavic language(Polish is West Slavic) they were smaller in build and they were Eastern Christians (Poles being Roman Catholics).
Because they were so different, there was little chance of assimilation or “becoming Polish,” the dominant nationality.
From the Madzik Collection: Vasyl Hbur, Bortne 1932
But because they lived on the northern slopes in what was Poland, not Hungary like the rest of the Rusyns, they developed some distinct cultural traits. For instance, Lemkos did have a church choral tradition, and in fact, became noted for their choirs—both in church and in their villages. To this day, there are many Rusyn choirs among the Lemkos in Poland and Lemko immigrants in the North America. Everywhere there were Lemkos, there were folk choirs. Communities like Yonkers, NY, New York City, Toronto ,Canada, and others had well known Lemko folk choirs.
And because they did not assimilate with Poles and the western-influenced culture of the Poles, they kept a stronger tie to the East. Saints which played a key role in Lemko life included Paraskeva, Dimitri, Panteleimon, Barbara, Cosmas & Damian. This is reflected in the names of their churches and the names of their children. Even in America, these saints can be seen often on the icon screen, on the walls or in the stained glass windows of churches founded by Lemkos.
In 1772, Poland was dismantled by three European powers and disappeared from the world map until 1918. The region the Lemkos lived in, Galicia, became a part of Austria. By the mid-1850s, Austria was one of the great world powers. On its border was another world power—Russia. And where Russia met Austria was in Galicia. By the late 1800s, Russia had decided it wanted to expand into Europe and the most logical place to do it was Galicia. Russia’s plan was to convince the Rusyns they were “Russians from the Carpathians.” They believed that if they were successful, they could invade Austria, saying they were liberating their “own people.”
Russia began to operate Russian reading rooms in Lemko Rusyn villages where literature could be placed and teachers brought in to teach the Rusyns about their true “Russian” heritage. Austria decided to counter this by backing the new Ukrainian movement out of L’viv. With Austrian government support, Ukrainian reading rooms were opened in the Lemko region to convince the Rusyns that they were not Russians, but “Ukrainians.” This “battle for the Rusyn soul” even came across the ocean to America, where Lemko communities were split into “Russian” and ”Ukrainian “ communities and churches. But the Lemko peasants were neither –they were Carpatho-Rusyns.
In 1914, Austria opened a concentration camp in a town called Talerhof in Austria and the Austrian government began to imprison there any Lemko Rusyns who advocated for a Russian or a Rusyn nationality. The purpose of the concentration camp was to take away any teachers, leaders or priests who the Austrians thought could be an enemy of Austria – anybody teaching the people that they were of Rusyn or Russian background. About 14,000 were imprisoned in Talerhof and about 4,000 died or were executed there. The Carpatho-Rusyn Lemkos were therefore in a concentration camp  more than 20 years before Adolf Hitler and the Nazis placed anybody in a concentration camp during World War II!
Because of the great trouble among the Rusyns about whether they were Russian or Ukrainian, a new neutral term came into being –Lemko. It didn’t necessarily favor one orientation or another ; in fact if sort of inferred that Lemkos were a distinct people. Where did this word come from?
Believe it or not, the Carpatho-Rusyns in southern Poland were the only people in that area that used the word “lem” for “only.” The Slovaks, Poles and Ukrainians did not have this word. And so it was used as a root to describe these people –the ones who say ’lem’.
After World War II, the Communist Polish government decided that it wanted its minority groups out of Poland. In 1946, it moved many Lemkos voluntarily to Soviet Ukraine, but the Lemkos who refused to leave their Carpathian homeland were forcibly resettled in 1947 in a n event called the Vistula Action. The Lemko Rusyns were told to sell their things and pack what they could. They were not told what was happening. They were then taken to cattle cars and moved to Ukraine or small former German villages in western Poland. The goal was to denationalize the Lemko Rusyns by scattering them among other peoples.
The Lemko Rusyns are a resilient people though. They began to get together in Poland at events called “Vatra,” which means bonfire. They would travel great distances and reunite at these events, and used this to revive their culture in Poland. They were enormously successful. Today, there are Lemko Rusyn cultural organizations, dance groups, writers, publications, radio, and Lemko Rusyn language taught in elementary schools and at the university level.  About 10,000 Lemkos have returned to their homeland in the Carpathians of southern Poland. The Polish government recognizes the Lemko Rusyns as a distinct ethnic group different from Russians and Ukrainians. And in the last 10 years, the number of people who identify as Lemkos in Poland has increased  from 6,000 to 10,000!
In America, the Lemkos were very active in keeping their culture alive. In the1920s the Lemko Association was founded in America and grew into a national organization. It created the Carpatho-Russian American Center in Yonkers ,NY and  retreat grounds in New York as well. Lemkos ran a Rusyn language radio program back in the 1930s and many Lemko records were made for immigrants to listen to. In just the last few years, The Lemko Association has been revived in the U.S.
Lemko Rusyns have certainly left their mark on America. The actress Sandra Dee and the jazz composer Bill Evans were both Lemkos. And the wedding scenes in the movie “The Deerhunter” were filmed at the Lemko Hall in Cleveland and St. Theodosius Orthodox Cathedral, a church founded heavily by Lemkos.
But because of the nationality confusion created intentionally by Russia and Austria, there are many Lemko Rusyns in America today who still think of themselves as Russians or Ukrainians.
 Despite the most challenging of circumstances, the Lemko Rusyns have survived until this day and are continually reviving their precious Carpatho-Rusyn culture.

Copyright  John Righetti, 2013
Map: Courtesy of the Lemko Association