The Lemko Region, 1939-1947 War, Occupation and Deportation
12. Meeting with Lemko leaders who had been, arrested by the Gestapo and who were in prison in Jaslo in 1942
Jagiellonian University Cracow, Poland
My presentation today will have the character of a memoir. I was born and lived in Gorlice and near that city my family owned land. Up to the outbreak of WWII I was attending a local gymnasium [equivalent to a U.S. high school].
As we know the southern portions of Gorlice and Nowy Sącz counties were inhabited by Lemkos, known at that time as "Rusnaks". According to the census of 1931 they were 31% (24,596 people) of the Gorlice county population while in Nowy Sącz they were 13.6% (15,420 people). From the Poprad River to the Dukla Pass there lived 52,519 people declaring themselves as "Rusins" or "Rusnaks".
In Gorlice itself there were Poles and Jews -a not inconsiderable percentage of Lemko-Rusins attended the city gymnasium and they had their "Ruska Bursa" [a dormitory and cultural center building for those attending the city high school and others - the building was received back from post-war confiscation in the 1990s and is again func-tioning as a Lemko cultural center.] In the gymnasium classes which I attended before WWII the Rusins were about 20% of the students and relations between people of different nationalities were in the main good.
Among the Rusins of the western portion of the Lemko Region there were two basic orientations, carried over from the turn of the 19th to 20th century, "Old Rus" (Starorus) which was oriented on the Orthodox Tsar of Russia, and Ukrainian. These latter saw their political future as being attached to the Habsburg Monarchy. Equally Polish society was split before WWI into two similar political orientations. However, with the end of the war and the regaining of independence this division ceased for Poles, but on the other hand it continued in Rusin society. Among the so-called Old Rus, despite the change in structure in Russia, they held onto a pro-Russian orientation. Ukrainians, however, struggled for independence and the OUN counted on German support. The Third Reich basically was not interested in establishing an independent Ukraine but during the occupation local German authorities took advantage of that orientation. They even set-up Ukrainian police units, for example, for use as a border patrol between the Generalgou-vernement and Slovakia.
From late Fall 1939 to Spring 1940 many Poles attempted to cross the frontiers of Slovakia in order to get to Hungary from which it was possible to go to France where a Polish army was forming up. As a 15 year old youth, I took part in trying to get refugees and couriers through the Slovak border. The road went through Lemko villages. It all
depended on whether one could avoid the border posts of the Ukrainian police. The relations between Lemkos, the refugees and those leading them were generally positive. In the time of the bitter winter of 1939-1940 we had to stop at Lemko houses in order to warm up and we were well received. Their homes were under observation by both Ukrainian and German police. After the French disaster in May and June 1940 border crossing practically ceased and after the annexation of the Baltic republics, Moldavia and part of Bukovina by the USSR a German-Soviet agreement was reached about a population exchange. At that time the population of a few Lemko villages decided to go to the east. This resettlement action had not been completed by the June 22, 1941 German invasion of the USSR. As is well known in the first months of operation "Barbarossa" Wehrmacht units overran a huge area of the USSR, among others the places where the Lemkos had settled, and a certain proportion returned to the Beskid Niski.
On June 2, 1942 my father and I were arrested for taking part in the Polish Home [Resistance] Army [ZWZ-AK] and after three weeks of severe investigation and beating in the basement of the Gestapo [building in Gorlice], I was transferred to a prison in Jaslo. That building does not exist today but in the summer of 1942 it contained 300 prisoners, half of whom were political ones. Cells were stuffed with people and sanitary conditions were horrible, but the worse thing was hunger. Food consisted of soup made out of 300 liters of water to which was added 3 kilos of flour and 3 kilos of salt. In the morning prisoners received also black grain coffee and a one kilogram loaf of bread to be divided among 8 people. Once a week the Main Assistance Council was allowed to give prisoners a half liter of thickened soup and a half kilo of bread. After a long stay under this type of regime prisoners were at the end of their rope. I was in the Jaslo prison from June 28 to the beginning of December 1942, next I was transported to prison in Tarnów and later to Auschwitz, Gross Rosen and Buchenwald.
Lemko leaders were in prison with me during my stay in Jaslo. They had been arrested shortly after the German attack on the USSR and when I arrived they had been there a year already. Because of hunger they were in nearly fatal condition and Yurkovsky (Jurkowski), with whom I later became friendly and with whom I had many discussions, could not walk but when moved about on all fours, was placed in the hospital wing. There were 8-10 Lemko leaders in prison and I cannot, unfortunately,, remember all of their names. In the cell in which I was placed (nr. 35) there was a teacher named Baiko (Bajko) and a second Lemko, whose name I do not remember, who had resettled to Volhynia during the German-Soviet population exchange and who after the Germans had over-run his area had returned to his family land. He said he had received a large well-maintained farmstead from the Soviets but he preferred to return to the mountains. Of the people whom I remember, I can mention the family name Felenchak (Fe-lenczak) from the village of Bartne as well as the lawyer Siokalo from Gorlice. Dr. Siokalo was the only Lemko leader released which occurred shortly after my arrival, that is, at the end of June 1942.
In September 1942 German, authorities loosened the prison regime in relation to the Lemko leaders, allowing them to receive food packages. My mother made use of that fact and started to send packages in the name of Yurkovsky, who otherwise was receiving no help from outside. In every package there were 3 parts - something for Yurkovsky, for me and for my father plus German newspapers. Since Yurkovsky was in the hospital section he could consume food during prison watches. In those times I could be with him
since I worked as a cleaner of the whole third floor. This allowed me to have long conversations with Yurkovsky on different topics.
Yurkovsky was a teacher in one of the mountain villages and for many years he had been a Lemko activist. He never thought of himself as a Lemko, rather a Rusin or even a Russian. In WW I he had been arrested by the Austrians as a Rusophil and placed in the concentration camp of Thalerhof near Graz. He remained there for 33 months and his father had died there. According to him there were unusually heavy conditions in the camp and about 3,000 prisoners died. They were Rusins who had been condemned to internment by Field Courts Martial of the Austro-Hungarian Army (see the "Audytoriaty Polowe" of the Cracow Austro-Hungarian Army in the Archive of Older Documents [AAD] in Warsaw). In 1914 the Russian army seized part of Galicia and even got as far as the suburbs of Cracow in the region of Chabówka, and they gained control of the Carpathian mountain passes leading a few kilometers into Slovakia. Practically the whole of the Lemko Region found itself temporarily in Russian hands. After breaking through the Russian front in May 2, 1915 the Austrians recovered the territory and military courts severely punished those who had cooperated with the Russians. Then there was a massive deportation of "Rusophils" to Thalerhof.
After the end of WWI Yurkovsky returned to the Lemko Region and took -up a teaching post. He continued to work in the anti-Ukrainian Rusophil movement and did not accept an understanding with the authorities of the Second Polish Republic. He also rejected the Polish policy of supporting the Lemkos who were ready to come to an understanding with the Second Republic. He stated that the idea of a "Lemko Region" had been thought up by Polish authorities in order to artificially create fights among Rusins, a "divide et impera" policy. Public announcement of his views led him to be transferred to the Kielce region. He was defended by the local villagers...which forced the Polish education authorities to agree to his return to his former place of work.
During one of our discussions I asked him whether or how he could coordinate the Carpatho-Rusin orientation on a Russia ruled by a Tsar with an orientation on a Russia ruled by the Bolsheviks who had overthrown and murdered the Tsar and his family. He said he could do it because "after the death of father in Thalerhof I had a dream. In it my father appeared and said 'the cause for which both are fighting shall be successful!' That dream I keep in mind and I believe it will prove to be true."
Yurkovsky and other pro-Russian Lemko leaders were arrested shortly after the attack on the USSR. They remained in terrible prison conditions in Jaslo and, I believe, could have gotten out if they had declared themselves to be Ukrainians. Despite the terrible hunger in the prison they wouldn't do it. Their further fate I know from other people because when I was sent along with my father to Tarnów and later to other concentration campus they remained in prison in Jaslo. Later Yurkovsky was sent to the concentration camp in Pruszków and next freed. In 1945, on the basis of the Polish-Soviet population exchange, Yurkovsky convinced the inhabitants of the village where he was a teacher, to move to the East. This time the resettled Rusins were placed in an area completely destroyed by war, in fatal conditions. Thus the villagers attacked Yurkovsky for talking them into leaving. He fell apart psychologically and fell ill of heart disease. I don't know what happened later. I remember him as an intelligent fellow who despite his various interests was fatally attached to the idea for which he fought.
I only know what happened to Felenchak of Bartne, one of the Lemko leaders. He also was sent to Tarnów and next to Auschwitz from which he returned. Unfortunately,
his family was no longer in Bartne because everybody had left. He was the only inhabitant of the village and my mother helped him out. He married again. He lived through a tragedy when after a few years his family, along with his first wife, returned to Poland from the USSR and again made its abode in Bartne.
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Date Posted: February 2nd, 2003
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