Iwona's Sources - Lemkos

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Lemkos, an ethnic nation in the Carpathian Mountains

The name Lemko comes from the word lem, which means "only" in the Slovakian language. The people from the region of the Bieszczady Mountains area jokingly used this name for the group. It was used the first time officially by Polish ethnographer J. Lewicki in 1834, who described the Lemkos as a distinct people. It was at this time the Lemkos realized their own separate nationality and distinguished themselves from the Polish, Slovakian, and Russian-Ukrainian nations. Males and females were referred to as Lemko and Lemkini.

The Lemko dialect is mainly Ukrainian, with a tinge of Slovakian, Polish and Hungarian. The language and culture arose from different immigrating families' coming together to form a homogeneous group. They put their empty land under cultivation, even though it was a rather difficult mountain area; they took life in stride and made do. They grew corn, potatoes, and flax, and raised sheep, cows and horses. The forest gave them timber for houses and fuel for heat in winter. They also engaged in stonework and cloth-making, and traded by-products of the distiller's art.

The Lemkos were set apart not only by their dialect, but also by their clothes. The most characteristic part of Lemko dress was a shepherd's coat with a turned-down hood, referred to as czuchanie. The Lemko typically wore blue waistcoats, lejbyle, and felt caps with turned-up cuff, called uherskie or hungarish.

Lemkini used a black bodice, white and blue skirts with thick folds. During special events they put on white and red coral beads. Embroidery appeared later, under the influence of eastern Galician examples.

The layout of Lemko villages was typically a chain-like series of houses with strips of land behind them. A long, one-building house contained a vestibule, a reception area, living quarters, room for corn threshing, and a barn.

The Church was their major contact with civilization and higher culture. In the beginning it was the Eastern Orthodox Church, and later the Greek Catholic Church. The first specifically Lemko parishes were established in the early 17th century; the churches were built by local carpenters.

The first Lemko writer was Wolodymyr Chylak, known also as Lemko-Semko. He was a priest who served in various parishes, including Bartne and Izby. The Lemkos were rather isolated and had no contact with the outside world until the first teachers arrived there, and brought with them the first newspapers and books.

An important event in Lemko life occurred in 1849 when the Russian army marched into their territory. Lemkos were surprised how similar they were to the Russians in their language and religion. They were viewed by the Russians as their far-removed "russki" compatriots. The quiet life in their land, called Lemkowizna in Polish, started to change under continuing political pressures. Tsarist Russia wanted to include the Lemkos' land under their Orthodox scepter. They treated Lemkos as Rusyns. The Lemkos didn't even realize they were considered part of the Russian group and never heard about their Ukrainian neighbors. But the influences of the Czarist Empire forced their way into the Lemkos land slowly and systematically, despite resistance from some inhabitants.

A significant step in Lemko life took place at the end of the 19th century when the Lemkos began to emigrate in large numbers to America. The first immigrants went away for a short time, to save money and return, as they were not used to working in industry. They still preferred to live in their motherland and reside on the farms. Journeys to America were very useful, not only because of the dollars, but also because it was then they found out that they were not Russians, not Ukrainians, not even Rusyns-that they were a separate ethnic nation, Lemkos.

At the beginning of World War I the Lemkos' situation changed for the worse. The Austrian government systematically persecuted all Pan-Russians. The Lemko nation was treated no differently than Ukraine or Russia. Military offensives pushed the Lemkos to escape to the East, following the Russian army. Many of them were put in internment camps, without any justification. The 10,000 inhabitants of the Carpathian region who were arrested included 3,000 Lemkos (several score of whom were killed). Most of them, about 2,000, were held in Thalerhof near Graz. They came from 150 different places; the largest number came from the village of Losie village - 33 persons; next were Sanok and Krynica - 27 each; Zdynia - 25; Wysowa and Labowa - 22 each.

Years of war created havoc for the Lemko homeland, but the people came back home at the end of the war, although life had changed for them significantly. Ukrainian political organizations were growing, and their influence divided the Lemko society into opposing groups. On one side was the Russkaia Country, the Republic of Lemkos that would include this land as a part of Great Russia; on the other side, the High Committee of Lemkowizna pushed for annexation of the Galician part to Czechoslovakia. The Polish government intervened in 1921 and arrested all leaders, though they were acquitted in a short time.

During the years between the great Wars, the developing intelligentsia of the Lemkos was responsible for creating their first magazine, called Lemko, published in Krynica with financial help from the Lemko Diaspora in the U.S.A. This periodical was anti-Communist and anti-Russian in nature. The Ukrainian society answered with their own newspaper, Our Lemko, published in Sanok. The Polish government tried to keep the Ukrainians from integrating with the Lemkos and at the same time tried to Polonize both groups.

The Lemko society had approximately 100-130 thousand inhabitants before World War II. They were divided into two groups; the first sympathized with the Ukrainians, the second wanted to establish their own separate nation. There were still those who spoke of themselves simply as "the locals."

World War II

World War II deepened these divisions, but brought suffering to everyone. And it did unite all Lemkos, to some extent, against a common enemy: the Germans.

The first German attack on Lemko lands came in 1939 at Moderówka near Jaslo. Next the Germans attacked Gorlice, Dukle, and Sanok.

There was an agreement between the Russian and German governments regarding the displacement of the regional Lemko population. Those Lemkos who sympathized with the Ukrainians went to the East. Others escaped to the West, hiding in the forests and awaiting better times.

The Germans allowed Ukrainian organizations to persecute the anti-Communist Lemkos. Many bands and plundering groups ravaged the Carpathian area, selecting and persecuting Lemko families, forcing them to emigrate to the East. By 1940 several thousand Lemkos were forced to flee to the Soviet Union within the framework of a German-Soviet population exchange. The Lemkos with anti-Communist views supported the Polish resistance movement, assisting it most often by courier paths to Hungary. Some ended up in concentration camps due to this activity.

Due to a strong Soviet offensive, the Germans had to retreat, and the Soviets recruited the local inhabitants into the ranks of their army. Thus even though the territory belonged to Poland, several thousand Lemkos fought in the Soviet Army till the end of the war. Half of them never returned home.

But the greatest drama was yet to occur. The result of a Polish-Soviet treaty in 1944 was the first relocation of Lemkos, Ukrainians, and Slovakians from the Polish Subcarpathian region beyond the eastern borders of Poland. All Eastern Slovakians and Ukrainians were moved from Poland to the Soviet Union, and all Polish people who lived in the area that was included in the Soviet Union were moved to Poland. This agreement was basically an ethnic purge.

In principle this was supposed to be a voluntary relocation. In practice things turned out otherwise. If guarantees of a Promised Land in the East did not suffice, then extortion and force were used.

The basic criterion was the baptismal certificate, and for this reason Lemkos fleeing compulsory emigration often presented false Roman Catholic baptismal certificates.

Many of the Lemko families that did move east to Ukraine wanted to come back immediately, after experiencing what had been promised as a "better life." There was a black market in immigration cards. Lemkos bought them in the Ukraine and tried to immigrate to Poland again as Polish citizens. Some of them crossed the border illegally. Since they couldn't come back to their motherland, they decided to settle in the west of Poland.

The autumn of 1945 was the worst, as displacement became more aggressive. Each Lemko had two choices: escape to the East or to the West. Birth records were used to decide who was Ukrainian or Rusyn. Lemkos tried to cheat by many methods, including showing false Roman Catholic birth records or American passports. Only those who were in mixed families or supported the Communist government were allowed to stay.

The total amount of people displaced from the Eastern Carpathians was 480,000, of which 65,000 came from the Lemkowizna area. This ethnic purge ended on 31st of July 1946, in compliance with a signed agreement between Poland and Russia.

Operation Vistula

But even this was not the end. In the spring of 1947, the so-called Operation Vistula (Akcja Wisla) forced the rest of the Lemkos and the population of Ukrainian descent to leave their lands in the Lower Beskids immediately for the far-off western regions of Pomerania and Masuria. In May the populace from the counties of Sanok, Krosno, and Jaslo were resettled. In June, Gorlice and Lipcy. In July, Nowy Sacz.

Here is an excerpt from the instructions for the leaders of the detachments enforcing the resettlement:

Operation Vistula, Document # 71:

1. On evacuation day, close exists from the village at daybreak, so as not to allow the civil populace to run away, especially in the direction of the forest.

2. At daybreak gather the whole populace at the chosen spot and inform them in a decisive and uncompromising manner that in order to make possible for them a peaceful life and employment, and to avoid unnecessary civilian victims during liberation from the bandits in the vicinity of the villages, and in the villages themselves, by order of the chief authorities the populace was to be resettled to the "Recovered Lands" [i. e., those seized from Germany and returned to Polish rule after World War II-what is now the far western part of Poland]. Anyone who remains after resettlement without authorization will be regarded as a member of the bandits and dealt with accordingly.

3. Set a period of no more than 5 hours for preparation for transport.

In practice this time was even shorter, after which these people were held for weeks in railway stations.

About 70 transports were organized. There were 18 each from the counties of Gorlice and Nowy Sacz that were headed for Wroclaw province. There were 4 from each of those counties destined for the Opole region. 15 from Gorlice country and 11 from Nowy Sacz were headed for the Zielona Góra region. Those from Sanok county were transported mainly to the area of Szczecin in the northwest. The inhabitants of some villages were dispersed among a number of different localities (the 900 inhabitants of Florynki, for example).

In all, over the course of Operation Vistula, some 30,000 Lemkos were relocated. Some were arrested and imprison in a Labor Camp at Jaworzno-mainly Ukrainians and clergy of the Greek Catholic and Orthodox faiths.

The Lemkos, wrongfully deprived of their ancestral lands and scattered throughout Poland, did not forget their identity and roots. In the years 1956-1957 came the first return to the lands of the Lemkos. Some even managed to get their farms back upon their return; if their farms were someone else's property, then they took neighboring lands left by relocated Ukrainians. Unfortunately they could not regain the forests, which had been taken over by the Polish government, and the Magurski National Park was created on those grounds.

Currently, within the borders of the Magurski National Park, there are some 2,000 - 4,000 hectares of forests illegally confiscated from the Lemkos. Stefan Hladyk, a grandson of a Lemko family from the village of Kunkowa, fought to have that decision overturned, leading to a trial without precedent. The court confirmed his right to ownership of one of the resettled lands (a total of 10 hectares), and even though the lost land was now under the national management and in private hands, the family was due financial compensation. This court decision gave hope to thousands of other Lemkos, who will also try to regain their lost lands. Currently under review in such cases are 230 applications by Lemkos.

(An article on the verdict, entitled "Lemkowie góra" [Lemkos Win!] appeared in the October 2, 2001 issue of Gazeta Wyborcza.)

Iwona Dakiniewicz, Łódź, Poland genealogy@pro.onet.pl

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Last Updated on July 6, 2017