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Thursday, 8 August, 2002, 14:11 GMT 15:11 UK
Lemk people fight for survival
Lemko church
There are some 1.5m Lemkos worldwide

The Lemk people of the Carpathian mountains in Eastern Europe have managed to restore their identity after 50 years of exile under the communist regime, but now face different problems in the modern world.

Already divided over several borders, they also face the challenge of border restrictions tightening in the future.

Their traditional home nestles mainly between the borders of Ukraine, Poland and Slovakia.

Lemko church
The Church is a sign that the Lemko community is re-establishing itself
If Poland and Slovakia succeed in joining the European Union, the border lying between them and the large community of Ukrainian Lemkos - also known as Rus or Ruthenians - will become harder to cross, with strict visa regimes and higher security.

With an estimated one and a half million Lemkos worldwide, a fully codified written language could be crucial to retaining the Lemko identity.

Most belong to the Greek Catholic, or Uniate, Church, a branch of the Orthodox Church that broke away and accepted the Catholic Pope as the Church's leader.

At the onion-domed Lemko church in the southern Polish town of Krynica, a congregation of about 50 gathers to celebrate St Wlodzimierz's Day.

The church itself is new, built after Lemkos began returning to the area following the communist deportations that took place after World War II.

To them, the church is a symbol that their community is re-establishing itself in its former homeland of wild, rolling hills.

Language preservation

As well as reclaiming their religion, the Lemkos are looking to their language, similar to Ukrainian and Polish, for their identity.

Michal Sandowicz
Sandowicz: "Language is the foundation of our national consciousness"

Michal Sandowicz is the head of the Lemko Society in Warsaw.

He says the language is the foundation of their national consciousness.

"We are trying to reach back in time so that we can universalise our language, and show that it connects to a rich Lemko history."

He is hoping to codify spoken Lemko into a full written language.

He says computer technology has allowed the Lemko diaspora, especially in the United States and Australia, to contribute to the project.

"Thanks to the internet we can communicate with other Lemkos in the world," he says.

"We're finding that those who left here a long time ago have preserved language which we have since lost here. From these sources we're creating a dictionary, making our Lemko language richer."

Education struggle

Petro Murianka, a Lemko poet with a flamboyant moustache, runs theatre groups and writes Lemko exercise books for schoolchildren.

He says keeping the language alive is difficult after a half century of communism.

Lemko poet Petro Murianka
Murianka: "Assimilation is the biggest challenge"

Most Polish Lemkos were resettled as individual families in predominantly Polish communities, and there were no written Lemko magazines or books.

"In the Polish nation of 40 million people, we are only 50,000 or 60,000, and we're hardly noticeable," he argues.

"We try to teach classes at school - but it's normally a problem to gather enough for a whole class. In places where there are only two or three Lemko families, they're assimilating."

Keeping the traditions

After World War II, Olga Stefanowska's family was sent to Szczecin, in the far north-west of Poland.

She says that at the time, repression helped them to keep their traditions going, but now assimilation is proving a tougher challenge.

I am Lemko, I will be to death

Olga Stefanowska

"In my opinion it was easier then, because we loved the language very much and hoped we would come back to the mountains. It was the only thing in our lives, and that's why it was very easy to keep it," she says.

"Now it's different because life is normal. We have to go to work somewhere, hundreds and hundreds of kilometres."

Olga said that she made sure that she married another Lemko, to keep their traditions alive, and would be upset if her daughter married a Pole.

"Everything depends on our souls - what we believe in. For example I live in Szczecin, but I am Lemko, I will be to death. And I hope my daughter too - we have this inside, in our soul."

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