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History of the Nation

Lands of Lemkos have changed their state along with the territorial and political changes in Poland. Until the fourteenth century, Lemkos’ lands had been part of the Principality of Halych. Later, until the year 1772 they had been part of the Republic. Then, they were a part of the Galician territory ruled by Habsburgs. After the WWI they returned to the territory of Poland and are part of this country till nowadays. It still is a multicultural territory that undergoes many divisions. Lemkos knowing their origins and being dependent on the Eastern church called themselves ‘Rusnaki’ (Ruthenians, people of Ruthenia). At the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth century separate, ethnical names appeared such as Russians, Belorussians and Ukrainians – for members of the former Ruthenian nation). Those who lived in the area between the San and Poprad rivers had to assimilate with one of the nations mentioned above. Ukraine was the closest one. However, Lemkos’ culture and lifestyle adjusted to the mountain conditions were totally different from the customs of the inhabitants of the lowlands of Ukraine. Mountainous region prevented Lemkos from contacts with their neighbours from north - Roman Catholic Poles and with neigbours from east – Boykos. The closest to the Polish Lemkos were people from the south part of the Carpathians, with whom they preserved cultural and ethnical unity to some extent. The isolation from other cultures resulted in the typical of Lemkos conservatism – reluctant acceptance of all novelties, opposing to foreign influences, objection to everything what is not verified and not known. Lemkos are very attached to their mother tongue, the faith of their fathers, tradition, customs and rites.                                        

In the second half of the nineteenth century national Ukrainian movement started in Galicia. It led to the activity of Lemkos in the field of literature, education and economy. However, it didn’t happen fast. The ethnic idea had to wait long for its followers. It was because of the Lemkos’ separatism and Ruthenian affiliation. The Greek Catholic Church approved of the ethnic idea, therefore instead of Lemkos it sent Ukrainian priests to the parishes. The constant contact and conflict between these national orientations had bad effect on Lemkos during the WWI. Austrian authorities accused Ruthenian enthusiasts of espionage and used heavy repressions against them. During years 1914-1918 in the concentration camp in Thalerhof almost all Lemko people of intelligence were exterminated.                                   

During the postwar years, after the collapse of the Austro-Hungary, new nations were created. Lemkos were to be divided with a border line between Poland and Slovakia. It meant isolation from the rest of their compatriots. It also made it impossible to go to seasonal work or to trade in Hungary. Lemkos wanted the territories inhabited by them to be unified. In Florynka they created Ruthenian National Republic of Lemkos. During its existence that covered the period of several months they elected prime minister and minister of agriculture, home and foreign secretaries. It was impossible for the most active members to come to an understanding. Those who supported the annexation of Lemkos’ lands to the Soviet Union were against the creation of the sovereign and indivisible Lemkovyna. Neither of the conceptions was successful. the leaders of the republic were arrested (later they were acquitted). Although the Republic of Lemkos in Florynka ended in failure, it was a sign of national aspirations of Lemkos.

The extermination of Lemko elites in Talerhof reduced the Ruthenian affiliation that was substituted with the pro-Ukraine idea. Areas left by those who were killed became inhabited by settlers from eastern Galicia, they were mainly teachers and priests. This way, on a large scale, national awareness of previously confused Lemkos was created. Supporters of the Ruthenian affiliation formed a Ruthenian Country Organisation. Still, there were many Lemkos for whom the pro-Ukrainian and pro-Ruthenian attitudes were not known. The merging of the followers of these two conceptions did not prevent Lemkos from rallying to the cause of common interest.                                 

Thriving Ukrainian Political Club in June 1928 passed in the House of Representatives a law, according to which hitherto prevailing term – ‘Ruthenian’ was replaced in the administration with the term – ‘Ukrainian’. Although there were different opinions in this particular case – the range of this name was increased and it also became name for all Lemkos. Three years later an organisation was launched. Its aim was among others to create a separate bishopric for Lemkovyna and to ban pro-Ukraine campaigning in schools and orthodox churches. ‘Lemko-alliance’ was loyal to the Polish authorities. Such course of events caused fierce political fight between pro-Ruthenian and pro-Ukrainian Lemkos. This conflict was even reflected in their religious lives. The Greek Catholic clergymen were against pro-Ukraine campaigning – this led to the often conversion to the Orthodox Church (before the WWII there were 25 000 converts). This process w as stopped by introduction of the independent from the the Eparchy of Przemyśl – Apostolic Administration for Greek Catholic Lemkos. Polish authorities were officially in favour of gradual introduction of Lemkos’ language into schools and publication of newspapers and textbooks in Lemkos’ language. These intensive national actions were interrupted with outbreak of the WWII. During war the politics were to support Lemkos declaring Ukrainian nationality.

The postwar years were for Poles time of the reconstruction of their country and hope for better future – for Lemkos they became time of the worst tragedies. In 1945 forced dispossession started and 60% of Lemkos were expelled to the Soviet Ukraine. The rest was send in 1947 to the post- German lands and to the deserted lands of north Poland. It meant complete desintegration of the whole ethnical region whose inhabitants for years had created their own national awareness. These ruthless actions were directly connected with the postwar politics of the communist Poland. A politically and culturally homogeneous nation was planned to be created, in which there was no place for the national minorities. At the beginning Lemkos were expelled to Ukraine by virtue of the contract of the exchange of people from the borderland that Poland signed with the Soviet Union. Lemkos who declared loyalty to Poland were unharmed, but only till 1947. This way only few Lemkos were left in Poland, scattered over the area of the west and north Poland, far away from their beloved mountains.