The Lemko Region, 1939-1947 War, Occupation and Deportation

21. What Lemkos say is "their World": its image, losses and needs
Natalia Klashtorna
Center for Boyko Studies Kyiv, Ukraine

The deportation of the Lemkos from their home terrain can be read about in scholarly studies and the popular press. In both Poland and Ukraine written records and eye witnesses are used. The latter does not give a full picture, however, of these people. Research has shown that oral reports based on questioning will elicit details and information that statistical reports or research based on official information will not find.1 One should also not forget that most reports have been collected from Lemkos, who are citizens of Poland, a lesser number from those of western Ukraine and fewer from Lemkos from eastern Ukraine. This study is from interviews with Lemkos from southeast Ukraine.
In the concept of "their world" (in the meaning of the world of the Lemkos) we understand the whole complex of cultural norms of daily life, which were characteristic of Lemkos in their home ethnic territory. This was their sub-ethnos their "style of life" which included their material and spiritual and stereotypical ethnic conduct.
The researcher has to shine light on three elements of the world, which are seen and fixed which are found among the Lemko peasants. First, to find the special characteristics of the Lemkos found in their world. Second, the process by which the Lemkos were deprived of their world. Third, the desires of the Lemkos to return to their world-or to reconstruct it in a new place. The main source of this discussion is oral reports obtained directly from Lemkos.
Polling was done among Lemko members of the village of Michurino, Telmaniv county, Donetsk province in mid March 2001. We recognized as Lemkos only those people who were born in the Lemko Region.
At the end of the year 2000 Michurino had 1000 inhabitants, 150 of which were Lemkos or of Lemko descent including those of Lemko-Boyko, Lemko-Ukrainian, Lemko-Russian families. Whatever, the case, these people were the most compact collection of Lemkos in the Donetsk region...
The Lemkos of the Donbas area, besides the Lemkos of Michurino, are part of ethnic mix of nationalities in this multi-ethnic society. They are part of the_ many ethnic groups who care to indicate their existence in the Donetsk area - that is Ukrainian - Boykos who were deported to here in 1951 from the village of Chorna of Nizhni Ustryky [Ustrzyki Dolne] county of Drohobych province (now within the borders of Poland) [there was a slight Soviet-Polish border adjustment in that area about that time], local Ukrainians, Russians, assimilated German colonists [from the 18
th or earlier centuries], Greeks, and others. Paying attention to strictly objective inter-ethnic definitions", the Lemko community in Michurino despite its small number and the former Russification tendencies
toward the Donetsk area population was able to maintain its existence by not threatening the [Russian] dominant society... (Russification can be caused by an artificially stimulated situation).
Returning to our theme, the elder generation was interviewed: 19 Lemko-Ukrainians (8 women, 11 men) in the ages of 58 to 87. Most were from the western Lemko Region, which remains in Poland, that is 17 from Jaslo county (9 from Ciechania, 6 from Wyszowatka, 2 from Desznica) and 2 from Leluchow of Nowy SΉcz county.
They all were of the same social-economic level, were of peasant background and worked in collective farms... One of the Lemkos was formerly an agronomist, another a book-keeper, another a secretary of a local executive council, and the rest plain collective farm workers. They all had elementary and incomplete secondary education. Only two lived in one building with their children and grandchildren.
The selection of the place of research (Michurino) was caused by the number of Lemkos available who live in one village in comparison with other villages in eastern Ukraine. The selection of the region Donetsk came about because it was the furthest from the Lemko homeland and it didn't take part in Lemko social activities. Here the exposition of "their world", after the deportations was not dependent on external but internal factors...
The first thing...was how they identified themselves in ethnic terms. What they felt after 55 years of exile, how their ethnic self identification had caused. As to their Ukrainian roots they revealed a unanimous position. In short one can use a formulaic response... "The Poles called us Rusins-Galicians - Moscals [Moscophils], Donbas people - Poles but we are of the Lemko tribe, true Ukrainians of the Slavic nation "In answer to the question, "where do the Lemkos come from" most (16) answered, from Ukrainians who escaped the Tatars while three said, "Lemkos — a Cossack people" one opined that Lemkos -... "came neither from the Poles nor from Moscals". "In the valleys the land was better for people but we preferred our life in the mountains"...
The small fartherland - the Lemko Region, was associated with these symbols:
1. 5 people with mountains;
2. with the [specific Lemko] usage of the word "Lem" ["only, "but" in English] in common speech - 4 of those polled:
3. churches with high steeples -2 ;
4. springs - 1 (from the village Leluchow);
5. the Slovak border — 1;
6. "Pirechko" in "Fraera" women's bonnets — one person;
7. "Kobata" — one person
[ the quoted words in items 6. and 7. do not appear in a dictionary and appear to be a specific Lemko words — unfortunately there are neither Lemko nor Lemko-English dictionaries yet].
["Pirechko" in "Frair" hat - a feather in boyfriend's hat - comment by wm]
["kabat" - a long wide skirt - comment by wm]
The rest, four of those interviewed gave other symbols, wooden houses, or memories of their homes.
As in any culture, the Lemkos carried specific subjective information made up of elements such as exactly how farming took place. They remembered their home villages the most important element of which was the mountains and the leaves of the beloved species of trees. The mountains appeared in the Lemkos' stories as painted pictures... "Oh, how it was in those forests... children gathered mushrooms... the frosts... everything made out of wood... and I am here in the wind and I can judge just what a treasure our woods were, its hard to live without them", one informant born in 1922 said. Most considered that being in the midst of the Lemko Region was better for life then there in the Donetsk region. A popular phrase was, "In the Lemko Region people had a lot more land." Two said, "the place were one was born is always more beautiful."
Exactly the land question was the source of conflicts between fathers and sons over the small amounts of land available: "My mother and grandmother married not for the
man but for the land, nobody asked then what they wanted" one informant, born in 1920, told us. Of various questions about the family the remark, "children respected their elders, and women took care of their men always came up." One person mentioned that his grandfather, who had worked in the Czech lands and America, advised him to marry one of "their own" because "our people live an honest and peaceful life but in different countries, different customs."
An obligatory element of the majority of the informants was the church. A special Lemko characteristic was religiosity. "The priest was not only the one who prayed for us but also the head of the village. He had authority," one informant said. Social life was influenced by the Soltys (village headman) and without the agreement of the two nothing could be achieved. It often happened that there was no one with higher education among the villagers thus nothing much could be accomplished for the village - power lay in the hands of the Poles. "Russians from our village went were they could, some studied with the priest. One, Danko Kostiakiv, could have taught there but Poles didn't want to hire him, so he had to pasture cows," the oldest informant living Michurino from Desznica, told us.
One specific of the life of Lemkos was the relationship with neighboring Poles and Slovaks. The oldest informant said he was sorry that after the collapse of Austro-Hungary a border separated Slovak-Lemkos from them, "they separated us from our brothers." One person mentioned that in Lemko villages in Poland there was a minor barter (cashless) trade with Slovak-Lemkos. They also remembered that Lemkos took advantage of possibilities of work beyond the ocean (up to the war it was the custom to give girls American dollars, rather than Polish zloties, "for wine")[
for dowery – remark by wmax]. Contacts with speakers of other languages and with other ethnic groups in the Donetsk Region were considered positive.
The war, which broke out in 1939, was the beginning of the end of their world. Three informants mentioned being sent or forced labor to Germany and two talked of hiding in the forest. Speaking of the German occupation 15 said that felt more for the Ukraine. "The Poles didn't want to call us Ukrainians, but Rusins, Rusins. The Germans, on the other hand, set up Ukrainian organizations and in schools they spoke of Ukraine, which was from the Lemko Region to the Caucasus mountains, and children began reading Ukrainian books rather than Lemko ones "—one person, born in 1921, informed us. The next told us that during the German occupation "most started to sing Galician and Ukrainian songs and to celebrate Ukrainian holidays."
The military activities of German and Soviet forces visited catastrophic material bosses on the Lemko Region ... The worst was the area where the front directly passed. Many inhabitants... hadn't a roof over their heads and in the majority of case without even a sack in hand. The Germans gave no time to refugee out and after the front passed through nothing was left of their property. Lemkos found themselves without the means to live. "As the battle line approached the Germans grabbed 6-7 families and shipped them off to Gorlice county. While we loved our villages nothing was left to live on."
Lemkos from destroyed villages, 15 people, unanimously declared that none of the authorities wanted to help them. "We were "bomzhi" [? bombed out ?][
homeless – remark by wmax] but our people didn't desert us... only our Lemkos prevented us from dying of hunger" said one informant born in 1923. They proposed only one way out, resettlement to Soviet Ukraine. It seemingly was logical to abandon our destroyed homeland and to go to rich new lands, as
the agitators said, but it was difficult. As Mircea Eliade says, "no one changes his home
lightly because it is not easy to change ones world."
"My father told me not to leave because it could always be worse," said one informant born in 1922. One, however, clearly said that he went to Donbas voluntarily, "Yes I wanted to leave, because we had nothing to live on, my land in Tychany was under shooting/bullets... the Poles shouted that they would imprison me because they had an agreement with the Russians." The majority formulated their response in the following way — "they left rather voluntarily because they were encouraged in various ways and everything was done to drive away the Lemkos." For example, an inhabitant of Desznica said, "Father said we're going but we didn't want to. Then one day a Pole showed up and put a number on our house... signed father up to where to go, and we weren't the only ones." Anyway not one of the Lemkos was really ready to say goodbye to "his world".
The new lands enchanted the Lemkos and they were made happy by its customs, said 12 people. Seven of them said however that they weren't happy "because of some problem at home" [?]
Three respondents, were at first in the Lugansk region said that in the resettlement documents their nationality of Ukrainian-Lemko was written as "Russian", as the translation from Polish of "Rusin." In the peasants council of the village of Denzhnikovo to which were sent ethic Russians this caused difficulties because some Russians felt that more of those "Russians" were placed among them then among Ukrainians. The Poles weren't able to get it right either because their people were being resettled because of their non-Polish ethnicity. In documents Lemkos wrote Ukrainian but they were called all the same, Poles. "We, from the beginning, explained on what bases we had been resettled but all the same they didn't believe us." In Michurino comments about the Russian-ness if the Lemkos are not repeated and in the village there is a living legend about -that they were called Poles in the documents because thy came from there. For local inhabitants the history of Ukrainians and Russians who lived in Poland and who were called Lemkos is rather exotic, it seems to some sort of story, they know it and speak of it but don't believe it completely.
With the exception of one, the refugees state they didn't meet with any dissatisfaction from the side of the local inhabitants because of their arrival. There were cries of "foreigner"... however. "In the evenings they played on harmonicas and for us it was so foreign, no trees, no violins...we just sat down and cried... they came to us and said we'll somehow live together..."
They thing of first importance for the Lemkos was the forced labor on collective farms as opposed to traditional single person work. The land, which they got in the new place was like a mirage, it was not private but collective. "They told us that the land was fertile there and you'll all have work. We came and there was - land, and - work and they told us that they hadn't fooled us, get to work! And what was there from that work, weren't collective farm workers to be paid?" One informant, born in 1925, said most Lemkos who found themselves in foreign lands couldn't hold on. In a year, separate one from the other, thousands of Lemkos went to the Polish border in Khyriv county with the hope of returning to the Lemko Region. Today Lemkos asked if it were possible to pack a bag and return to their homeland what would they do, say that if that were objectively actual, "We would as quickly as possible go to the border either by truck, train, or freight car. Grandfathers said, "go home," a young informant told us. "We would go to our nest... we are drawn back, because everyone must have his own place," was the thought of one person born in 1920.
The Lemkos couldn't remain in their homeland nor return to it. As one Lemko put it, who wanted to return to his homeland: "We went around asking where were the houses left behind by the Poles [who were deported to Poland proper] but those went to local people in the western provinces, they took the houses, they had left nothing and paid nothing but we, resettlers, got nothing. At that time there were no collective farms in western Ukraine and people got about 2 hectares... we rebuilt houses... but they began to organize collective farms, again poverty, because of small harvests, not much land too many people. The local Galician didn't like us, they called us Moskali [Moscophils] because we came east. In 1958 many people returned here [eastern Ukraine] but some remained there. The speaker was a Lemko who had gone to western Ukraine on the hope of getting into Poland, but he eventually returned to the Donetsk region. Fifteen informants didn't think western Ukraine was better than eastern Ukraine. Three thought western Ukrainians were more tolerant and one said, "Lemkos are not happy anywhere except the Lemko Region...
Lately in scholarly literature we may meet with the statement that Lemkos migrated from the eastern to the western parts of Ukraine in order to live near a Lemko community.
3 In our case none of the informants wanted their children and grandchildren to go to western Ukraine, "unless they themselves want to and then they wouldn't ask." One said her brother in Terrophil was characterized as a "pure Moscophil". She herself thought that not correct, my brother spoke with Polish and Slovak words because we lived amidst those people... I use Russian words because I live here and live among such people... but my father was not a Pole and I am not a "Russian". I am the same as Lemkos in the Lemko Region... its important to me that my children know that they are Ukrainians and - Lemkos. Fourteen others agreed with her adding two things. First, self identification as Ukrainian is... based on ethnic self awareness. In a certain sense this is caused by the situation in which they find themselves. Second, there is a difference between eastern and western Ukrainians, between Galicia and Donetsk. People who 55 years ago had there "little Lemko world" today are psychologically part of the "Great Ukrainian world" which, through the logic of history, is united. As to a return to the Lemko Region, Lemkos themselves understand it is not possible in today's world. Three of our respondents realized that... that the Lemko Region has gone to its death.
The bitter realization of the impossibility of returning to "our world," is underlined by the new information about the isolation of Lemkos in Ukraine, Poland and Slovakia. "Earlier my cousin used to write to me from Slovakia, but he died long ago. His children don't know me and don't write. My sister in Ternopil is not careful to write to me. Nobody writes to this old man..." complains a fellow born in Ciechania in 1923. One should point out that the only book which deals with the Lemko Region that Lemkos had in the Donetsk region was the monograph of the Soviet historian D. Proektor Duklinskii Pereval (The Dukla Pass) (Moscow, 1964) and only four had read it.
Among the customs which survived the deportation were those associated with death. Of course for "the builders of Communism" such things were archaic... and "today such customs are not known by Michurino youth." The most often met custom regarding burial was the ritual of bidding farewell to the deceased at his/her home... and this custom was practiced by local Ukrainians and Russians, or so said 17 informants. The most "living" of customs was to place a cross on the grave of the deceased, near his/her head.
The local orthodox clergy didn't like this because they thought the cross shouldn't be so positioned, rather at the foot end. The Lemkos of Michurino nevertheless kept to their custom with the explanation that a cross should be at one's head, not one's feet. They also held to the custom of using the Psalter in their own Lemko version - the Greek Catholic Psalter. Religion was reactivated in 1994 when an orthodox church was erected. Among marriage customs the most used is... the crossing of mountain axes (Topory) over the heads of the pair being united, but "not all youth today want to have their marriages to have such ceremonies."
What separates Lemkos from other Ukrainian group is and even between some Lemkos?
4 There seem to be two camps. Twelve people thought that Lemkos lived well with their own people. The rest thought that Lemkos were very united otherwise there wouldn't be any Lemkos in the Donetsk basin.
Summing up what can we say about "their world" as told to us by the respondents? Lemkos say that they did not have an easy life, they had heavy work... joblessness and natural discrimination. But they pay most attention to their world for in it they were with their own where they were Lemkos and not Poles or "Moscali". The loss of "their world" was a catastrophe for all Lemkos... The 1945 deportation from the ruins .of the Lemko Region did not have a single meaning as "resettlement of desirable citizens" or "voluntary resettlement" but as the only possibility given to them.
The mass migration of Lemkos to Ukraine did not exactly lose their whole world but had to seek out the new possibilities.
The Lemkos found a new soil and new local customs and they met with a "different world" than their traditions. We are now "not the same Lemkos as we were at home" they say. We have found an "our world" outside their homeland, in the Donetsk region.


Document Information

Document URL:

Icon Return to Lemko Home Page

Date Posted: February 2nd, 2003
Last Revision:

LV Productions
c/o Walter Maksimovich
3923 Washington Street,
Kensington MD 20895-3934

© LV Productions, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.