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Lemky — people of Ukrainian descent in Poland
Romko MALKO shares his impressions of his visit to the Land of Lemkivshchyna in south-west Poland where the people of Ukrainian descent who live there have retained a lot of the traditional Ukrainian culture.
For the first time I visited Lemkivshchyna ten years ago when a group of Ukrainian students, of which I was a member, was invited to attend a seminar in Warsaw. When we arrived, we were informed that instead of that seminar, we would take part in a survival exercise which would be held in the Beskid Mountains in the Land of Lemkivshchyna. Once there I felt as though I had come home, and when I saw a church my heart missed a beat — it was gorgeously beautiful and in some special way familiar. I gave myself a pledge that some day I would come back and spend a longer time there. And I did.
Land of Lemkivshchyna
Lemkivshchyna is a land which is populated mostly by people of Ukrainian descent, but which, because of certain historical circumstances, is part of Poland now.
The Beskid Mountains are close to the Tatry Mountains in the neighboring country of Slovakia, and though the Tatry are much more advertised as a tourist attraction, the Beskids are no less picturesque. I think it’s not right that so many Ukrainian tourists, when they go to Poland, mostly visit Warsaw and Krakow and only a few go to the Beskids. The tourist infrastructure there is quite developed with a sufficient number of big and small hotels, some of which are quite cheap, situated at strategic points in the mountains. You can take hikes in the mountains following many paths there, or you can go on biking trips.
I stayed at a hotel that caters mostly for students and found that the prices there and coziness provided in them were an excellent bargain. I spent happy hours sitting on a spacious porch, listening to the fire crackling in a stove somewhere in the background, sipping beer, and looking at the mountain peaks.
One of my first discoveries was that there were quite a few of Polish tourists there. It’s a combination of several things that attract them — the great scenery, the serene quiet and a very special mood that descends upon you once you get there. I did not feel like going anywhere else — I wanted to stay there for good.
The Beskids are, in fact, the continuation of the Carpathians. The border between Poland and Slovakia is marked with border posts but in the mountains you can freely cross the border without anyone trying to stop you. The Lemkis of Poland (Lemkis — a Slavic ethnic group) often cross that border to go to Slovakia to see relatives, or for some other purposes, one of which is to buy kropka, a Lemkiv traditional drink. It is forbidden to make or sell kropka in Poland for health reasons, but in Slovakia it is not. Kropka is really a very potent alcoholic beverage and it is not advisable to try it without consultation with those who know how to do it properly.
There are several must-see places in the Land of Lemkis. Two of such places are the ancient towns of Syanok and Krynytsya which are situated in the opposite corners of Lemkivshchyna. Syanok is located in the east, close to the border with Ukraine, and Krynytsya in the west.
The first written mention of Syanok dates from the year 1150. It was a fortress that protected the trade route to Hungary. For a period of time it was the seat of the local bishop and a center of cultural and religious life in the Land of the Lemkis. In Syanok you will find an open-air museum which represents well the folk architecture of the Lands of Lemkivshchyna, Boikivshchyna and Nadsyannya. There is also a museum with an excellent collection of Lemkiv icons. The town boasts an ancient castle and old churches of impressive architecture. Coffee houses and pubs are also the places you may want to visit.
Krynytsya happens to be the oldest resort in Poland and this alone can make your visit there worthwhile. It has about a dozen sources of mineral water with medicinal properties and medicinal mud baths. Krynytsya is also known for its villas which look rather bizarre because of mixture of all kinds of architectural styles that they display. The town is popular as a winter sports center that attracts many tourists. Krynytsya is the home town of one of the best known primitivist painters in the world Nikifor (Epiphany Drovnyak, of Ukrainian descent, 1895–1968). His works now can be found in many museums of the world, those in such great centers of art as New York and Paris included. Among other towns worth visiting are Watra, Lisko, Baligorod, Rymaniw, to name but a few.
A bit of history
The Lemkis are believed to be the westernmost branch of Ukrainians who inhabited the area of the western spurs of the Carpathians from very early times. Their ancestors were bily khorvaty who were part of the Velyko-Moravsky state in the early 9th century and later formed their own state, Khorvatiya which collapsed under the pressure of the Hungarians. In 993, the Grand duke of Kyiv Volodymyr joined the lands of the bily khorvaty to the lands ruled by Kyiv (Kyivan Rus). The Ukrainians who lived in the Carpathians and in the vicinity of these mountains called themselves the Rusyns.
In the 14th century, the Land of Lemkivshchyna as well as many other lands of Ukraine were occupied by Poland. The Lemkis managed to preserve their ethnic identity thanks to several factors among which were the mountainous location where they lived, their inner tribal organization, and their resistance to assimilation. Groups of armed Lemkis, known as “zbiynyky” led by “otomans,” protected the villages and fought off the occupiers. In case a larger action was planned, groups of zbiynyky united into a bigger force. At the time of the national liberation war fought by the Ukrainians in the mid-seventeenth century, many detachments of zbiynyky joined the Ukrainian forces led by Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky. One of such detachments captured the fortress in Chershtyn and even planned an attack on Krakow. It took the Poles a considerable effort and time to take the fortress back.
The end of the Second World War was, paradoxically, the beginning of very tragic times for the Lemkis. Under the pressure from the Stalinist Soviet Union the new communist government of Poland got down to “solving the Ukrainian problem in Poland” once and forever. People of Ukrainian descent who found themselves west of the Ukrainian-Polish border were herded into freight trains which took them to the steppes north of the Black Sea and the area of Donbas in eastern Ukraine. In spite of the fact that they were allowed to take with them whatever they could of their goods and chattels, the Lemkis had a very hard time trying to get used to the entirely new conditions of life and many of them were doomed to early death. A lot of the Lemkis, escaping the deportations, joined the ranks of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army.
The Polish punitive forces started their wide-ranging campaign against the remaining Lemkis. Dozens of the Lemkiv villages were put to the torch, thousands of the Lemkis were executed. A great many Lemkis were deported to the east of Poland where they were put in the villages situated in the lands which once were part of Germany in the hope that the Lemkis would soon be totally assimilated into the local communities.
But the Lemkis refused to disappear and the moment it became possible they started coming back. The villages began to come back to life, the churches were restored, the icons were put back to where they belonged in churches, and the old traditions were revived.
Life in isolation, struggle against assimilation, religious and cultural peculiarities have combined to form traditions and culture of the Lemkis which are quite unique and not to be encountered anywhere else in the world. The Lemkis continue to maintain their ethnic identity, and marriages to outsiders are extremely rare. It is very difficult, if not impossible, for any outsider to become part of the closed Lemkiv community. On the other hand, the Lemkis are very hospitable.
They maintain their traditions and treat any innovations with suspicion. They love to sing, and many of their songs have a very strong erotic element.
I find it very surprising that right in the heart of Europe there lives a people who have retained so many of their ancient traditions, and who are so resistant to change.
Particularly impressive are the wooden churches of the Lemkis which were built without a single nail used. Each of these churches is a marvel of architecture. Icons painted by the Lemkis have their easily distinguishable style and are very different from any other icons. No wonder the best known masterpieces of the Ukrainian icon painting of the fifteenth-seventeenth centuries were created by the Lemkis.
Lemkiv folklore, Lemkiv traditional songs and dances are very popular in today’s Poland; their popularity seems to be ahead of anything else among the younger generations of Poland.
Lemkis have begun to come back to the land of their forefathers in even greater numbers. Those who have managed to survive the hard times did their best to preserve their cultural traditions, their churches, icons, cemeteries and historical monuments. To wrap my story up, I want to mention a nice Lemkiv woman, Ms Yevheniya Karpyak.
She, an inhabitant of the village of Bilyanky, was one of the dozen or so people who came back to their native village at the time when Poland was still ruled by the communists. She had lived through very hard times but she had never lost her optimistic hope for the future.
Her house is situated opposite the village church. When my friends and I drove up to that church to take pictures, we got into a conversation with a woman whom we saw standing near the church. When she learnt about the purpose of our visit, she invited us to her house and treated us to tea and coffee and cookies — and to her stories. She had a lot to tell us and we listened mesmerized.
If you plan a tourist trip to Poland, make sure you visit the Land of Lemkivshchyna — there is so much to see there, to explore and enjoy the unique spirit of that land.
While in Lemkivshchyna, make sure you try some dishes of the local cuisine. Among those I enjoyed most were soups: kyselytsya soup which is made from oats, yeast, black bread, caraway seeds, onions, garlic, flax oil with bay leaf and pepper added; saranka soup made from milk and pieces of dough boiled in it with sugar, salt and butter added to taste; levesh soup made from potatoes, carrots, onions, flour for thickening, and with bay leaf, pepper and sour cream added; and yabchanka soup made from apples, flour, sour cream and sugar and served with potatoes or bread. Real yummy!