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.
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
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.
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.