lemko, lemkos

Wednesday, March 01, 2006


Lemko - one of four major groups of Ruthenian (Ukrainian) montagnards of the northwest Carpathian mountain chain, having a unique dialect and culture. Until 1945 their settlements were scattered from the Poprad River on the east to the valley of Oslawa River on the west.

Lemkivshchyna - The land of the Lemkos (Lemki), sometimes called "Lemkovyna," "Lemkivshchyna," or "Ɓemkowszczyzna," includes the higher elevations of the Carpathians of present-day Poland, extending to around the Poprad River to the west, and extending to the east as far as the region around Sanok, where it meets the Boyko region. The corresponding latitudes of the adjacent highlands of modern-day Slovakia are also included by some in the description of Lemko-land.

History- Valachian and Ruthenian settlers who arrived to the area later inhabited by the Lemkos in 14th century. Following linguistic assimilation of Valachians their Romanian dialect was replaced by Ruthenian. However, Romanian dialects strongly influenced Slavic dialect of Lemkos. Also the material culture of Lemkos bears clear resemblance to the culture of the Romanian countryside.

The area, part of Austria-Hungary until 1918, was the place where the Lemko Republic seceded from Austria-Hungary. It was renamed Lemko-Rusyn Republic (Ruska Lemkivska) later that year. After a transition period it was incorporated into Poland in 1920.

In 1939 about 130,000-140,000 Lemkos were living in the Polish part of Lemkivshchyna. Mass emigration from Lemko-land to the Western hemisphere began in the late 1800s, diminishing the cultural uniqueness of the homeland areas. Cultural assimilation, most especially among the Slovaks to the south, has also diminished the number of Lemkos in their ancient mountainous homeland.

In Poland, perhaps most of the Lemkos were removed by forced resettlement, first to the Soviet Union (about 90,000 persons) and later to Poland's newly-acquired western lands in the Wisla Action campaign of the late 1940s (about 35,000). A minority have since returned. Today in the Polish part of the traditional Lemko region, the Lemki number some 10,000-15,000. About 50,000 live in the western and northern parts of Poland. Amongst them, 5,863 people declared Lemko nationality during the census in 2002.

The word Lemko is known to all Poles. In 1946 the entire minority was deported to the north and west of the country in an ethnic cleansing operation. This was the communist government's solution to the struggle waged by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, UPA, in south-eastern Poland. It was not until 1956 that some of them were allowed to return to the region bordering Slovakia. But many of those hoping to return found that their villages had been burnt down. Also, the Lemkos were deported to former German villages in areas Stalin had given to Poland. Many chose to stay because of the higher living standards in the former German villages. Many were afraid to reveal they were Lemkos until the fall of communism, and even beyond that, so they stayed.

Christianity in the region is thought to date to the efforts of Sts. Cyril and Methodius in the 800s. The religion of most Lemkos is Greek Catholic: they belong to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Poland; and, to the Ruthenian Catholic Church (see also Slovak Catholic Church) in Slovakia. A substantial minority belong to the Orthodox Church. The distinctive wooden architectural style of the Lemko churches is to place the highest cupola of the church building at the entrance to the church, with the roof sloping downward toward the sanctuary.

Lemk people fight for survival

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."