Lemko Land

Operation Wisła
Operation Wisła

History is all about ifs and buts and one particular region seems indicative of this statement. This region is Lemko Land, better known as Łemkowszczyzna or Lemkivshchyna. Sadly, the population of this region was decimated by Operation Wisła which forcibly repatriated and/or deported thousands of Lemkos changing the character of the region forever. It’s odd walking, cycling, driving around this beautiful area of Poland. Literally thousands of abandoned villages litter the landscape. Beautiful Byzantine rite or Orthodox churches stand either in disrepair or have been converted into Catholic churches. It’s not a surprise to come across a cross or tombstone sticking crookedly out of some bushes, in a field. Today’s Łemkowszczyzna reminds us of what could have been, what should have been.

Map of Lemko Land
Map of Lemko Land

Lemko Republics
Two interesting incidents highlight the distinctness of the Lemkos from their neighbouring Poles. The first followed the conclusion of the First World War. When it became apparent that the borders of a new Europe would soon be drawn up (later concluded by, amongst others, the Treaty of Versailles and the Polish Minority Treaty in 1919) the Lemkos, as well as their fellow Poles, realised that this is their chance for freedom, self-determination and independence. Lemko villages centred around Komańcza and Florynka formed two states. The Komańcza Republic was formed (in Komańcza) on the 4th November 1918 and lasted until the 23rd January 1919 when the Polish authorities put a brutal  end to it. The Rusyn National Republic of Lemkos was formed in Florynka and lasted from the 5th December 1918 till January 1921 when members of the ruling committee were arrested by the Polish government. However small these republics may have been, they demonstrated this minority’s need for self-determination

Tylawa Church Still Stands
Tylawa Church Still Stands

Lemko Schisms
The second incident took place several years later, in 1926, although its origins lie deep in the past with the Union of Brest which was signed in 1596. This declaration saw thousands of Orthodox Christian worshippers in Ruthenia (including Lemko worshippers) reject the (Eastern) Patriach of Constantinople and accept the authority of the Patriach of Rome (i.e. the Pope). These so-called Uniate/Greek Catholic churches still exist today, even though the Lemkos have always been more pro-Orthodox and Russophile. These pro-Orthodox tendencies came to the surface in 1911 when Father Maksym Sandowicz (now an Orthodox saint) oversaw the conversion of the Greek Catholic inhabitants of Grab and Wyszowate (back) to Orthodoxy. Several years later, the Lemko worhsippers of Tylawa and Trzciana decided to convert to Orthodoxy on the 16th November 1926. This incident goes by the name of the Tylawa Schism.

Epifaniusz Drowniak
Epifaniusz Drowniak

Lost Lemkos
This paints a mixed historical picture of the fortunes of the Lemkos in Poland: one of distinctness and failed self-determination. Estimates place the Lemko population at somewhere around 1.5 million (according to the BBC) spread across three countries: Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine. Before the Second World War, approximately 150,000 declared Lemkos are thought to have lived in Poland. The 2002 census put this figure at a mere 5,863, although many believe this could be as high as 50,000. Even so, a shortfall of over 100,000 people is a sad, sad loss. Intolerance, prejudice and ignorance were ultimately the undoing of the Lemkos in Poland. Ever so slowly, however, we are witnessing a sluggish Lemko revival with festivals, museums and cultural events sprouting up around the Beskidy and Bieszczady. Someone who wonderfully mirrors the fortunes of the Lemkos is Epifaniusz Drowniak, a Lemko who lived alone and in extreme poverty for most of his life. He often goes by the name of Nikifor.


15 thoughts on “Lemko Land

  1. The obsession with the nation-state… the fallacy of the Poles, who wanted to prevent anything from disrupting their new state, and of the Lemkos, who bravely but futilely wanted to assert their identity in the face of large, belligerent neighbouring powers. This is really what is meant by ‘a historical tragedy’.

    More and more I think that polities like the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman Empire, despite their many faults, had a basic virtue – they allowed a plethora of nationalities to exist and develop side-by-side, and as long as they paid their taxes and had some knowledge of the state language(s), they could worship, dress, travel, speak as they chose, without having to conform too much to some artificial idea of a ‘greater’ nationhood.

    Merely mentioning the idea that the European Union could function as a modern version of such a polity would send some people into apoplexy,… so I won’t. 😉

    PS I shall be picking yr brains about where you stayed, how you travelled, etc. Getting to know more about the obscurer corners of PL is on my agenda for the next year or so. 🙂

  2. I too have similar thoughts. IMHO, the Austro-Hungarian adventure was the best thing that happened to the peoples of this part of Europe but, as you said, it’s probably better not going into this. 😉

    As for having my brain picked – by all means!

  3. This was a wonderful and important piece, Raf, and I entirely agree with Jim’s comments. I’m currently applying for a Fulbright grant to study the Lemkos in Poland, precisely to get us talking about this historical tragedy–and very provocative topic–and how Poland’s accession to the EU (and a new European standard on the protection and promotion of minority rights and languages) is creating new cultural constructions and social relations between Lemkos and Poles. Can I pick both your brains, and ask which corners of Poland you’ve been (or are going to) visit? I plan to be in Poland during 2010-11 and researching/interviewing/visiting the Lemko region, I would appreciate if you could suggest places to visit or useful contacts. Cheers to you all.

  4. This is a lovely reading, interesting and deeply moving. It makes me think of holidays I’ve spent twice in the vicinity of Krynica and Muszyna. I could admire, both in summer and in winter, the old local Orthodox churches (cerkwie)and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere of the nearby villages. Now, I’m encouraged to learn more about the painful history of the region and its people.

  5. Thanks for all your info which is so interesting to me as my ancestors were from the areas that Stephanie mentions, Muszyna, Krynica, also Czyrna and Izby. My grandmother traveled from Philadelphia, in 1913, with my mother, then 6 months old and her 2 year old sister. They went to Czyrna where my grandfather had land, World War I broke out and they were not able to return to US until 1921.

  6. I hope I am not to late to comment. I just stumbled on your articles while looking up info on Tylawa. My grandfather emmigrated from Tylawa (to the US) in 1903 when he was 16. Your articles explain some lost family history or mysteries: such as why my grandfather was fluent in Polish but was always annoyed when anyone would think he was Polish. Why my father was baptised Greek Catholic, although the family always referred to themselves as Ukrainian; and why my grandfather always just said he was from Galicia. Your articles were a revelation. I now have an appreciation for why he never tried to explain the religous and ethnic intricacies of being Lemko or speaking Rusyn. Of course I never thought to ask any questions when he was alive and now it’s been 40 + years and no one knows the story of the family anymore. Thank you, your information filled in a lot of blank spaces.

  7. Thank you so much for your information. I received my Grandfather’s Testimonium Baptismo Papers today. The paper reads ;
    Imperium: Polomia
    Reghnum: Parve Polamia
    Panoth ( not sure about spelling above as it’s hard to read the document.)
    This is the only information we have. My Grandfather’s religion in the Allentown, PA was Greek Orthodox and he spoke Ukrainian. My Mother tells us they were very secretive about their past and would not speak of their heritage, as they wanted to assimilate? We are brown haired and with dark eyes and do not look Polish or Russian. We all proudly identify as Ukrainian.Wondering about the White Croats?
    Dates on document read 1890
    Bottom: 1922
    My Mother, born in the Allentown, PA, understands Polish, but spoke Ukrainian with her parents.
    Thank you anything you can help me understand.It’s all very confusing! I will continue to do my research :).


  8. I forgot to mention that a Ukrainian neighbor understands that it’s the Lemko Land area my Grandparents are from! Makes sense from my research.

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