Grasshopper no 3, Summer '94

(part I)

The Lemkos (Lemkowie) are one of four major groups of Ukrainian highlanders inhabiting both sides of the Carpatian Mountains. Their settlements are scattered from the Poprad River in the west to the valley of the Oslawa and Laborca River in the east, where they neighbour the Ukrainian Boikos (referred to as "Verhovyncy"). The Lemkos live between the Slovaks to the south and the Poles to the north. West of the Poprad there are still Ukrainian villages called the Spiss Ruthenians in Slovakia, and Shlakhtov Ruthenians (Ruthenians of Szlachtowa) in Poland.

During and shortly after World War II, the Lemkos who lived within Polish territories were resettled partly to the east in the Soviet Union, and partly to Polish western provinces. [The Lemkos were accused of helping the Ukrainian Liberation Army. Their removal by the Polish army is known as "Akcja Wisla" a or Vistula Action-editor's note]. About a dozen years after their compulsory resettlement in western Poland, they began to return to their former settlements in the Carpatians. Unfortunately, while in the new, alien environment, they had lost much of their traditional culture. This monograph aims to briefly present the life and history of the Lemkos.


Both archeological and historical sources indicate that the territories where the Lemkos eventually lived had remained uninhabited until the early Middle Ages. It was as late as the 12th and 13th centuries that the first settlers, Poles from the north and Slovaks from the south, reached the Carpatians. In the 13th and 14th centuries there were but a few Polish settlements north of the Carpathians along the main routes to Hungary.

In the 14th century, the region between the Poprad and Oslawa Rivers, formerly the king's lands, was divided into several large feudal latifundia owned by the Church or by knights. Owners of the uninhabited, thus unprofitable, lands made repeated efforts to settle them. This was done in the 14th century by Walachian-Ruthenian settlers who established "in cruda radice" villages, or settlements in cleared areas, in the whole territory later inhabited by the Lemkos.

The Walachian-Ruthenian settlement has generally been viewed as a simultaneous process accomplished by Walachian shepherds, the so-called Arumuns from the Balkan Peninsula (with slight participation of southern Slavs and Albanians), and a considerable number of Ruthenians. However, cultural and economic differences between the Walachia nomadic shepherds and the Ruthenians. However, cultural and economic differences between the Walachian nomadic shepherds and the Ruthenian farmers point rather to two states in the settlement in the Carpathians. The first stage comprised the migration of the nomadic shepherds or Arumuns, who living much like the Bulgarian Kharakhachans not long before, came to the Carpathians much earlier than 14th-century records show. Their small family groups, with herds of sheep and goats, wandered all around the Carpatians up to the Moravian Gate in the west. The nomadic shepherds chiefly sought ridge pastures. They spent their summers on pastures in the mountains paying for the pasturage with sheep and cheese, and in the winters they moved to warmer lowland forests where it was easier to feed their herds. Towards the end of the 15th century, the Walachian shepherds, most probably forced by landowners, gave up driving the herds down to the valley and instead spend the winters in the mountain cabins.

At about that time, in the late 15th century, Ruthnian farmers began to flock into the area from the east. They favoured the broad Carpatian valley of alluvial arable soil. There were cases in which formerly Polish villages were "emptied" by the landowners to make room for Ruthenian settlers. Sometimes the Ruthenians settled within Polish villages. The numerous Ruthenian settlers were joined by Walachian shepherds abandoning their nomadic tradition.

The first Ruthenian-Walachian villages were established according to the mediaeval pattern, the so called "German law" applied to farming villages. However, the poor crops under the unfavourable weather conditions in the mountains could not meet the requirements of the levies. Hence, the levies were contributed in shepherd's products-sheep, goats, cheese, and homespun woollen cloth. The village system that emerged in the Carpathians, so called "Walachian law", differed from the "German law". One of its characteristic features was the system of "Kresy" - communities encompassing villages belonging to one owner. Each "Kres" was headed by a "Walachian voivode" who, together with village heads, held the judicatory power based on Walachian customary laws adjusted to the economy of the shepherds.

The history of the Lemkos' settlement can also be traced through the geographical names in the region, where Polish names are accompanied by Ukrainian and Romanian ones.

The settlement of the Lemkos was accomplished by the end of the 16th century. The settlement processes established a clear-cut distinction between Polish and Ukrainian villages, which remained unchanged well into the 20th century. In the interwar period, the number of Lemkos in Poland's territories slightly exceeded 100,000. The average population density was then 50 people per square kilometre. Health resorts and a few cities (Krynica, Zegiestow, Muszyna, Jasliska) were Polish islands in Lemko territories. Small Polish hamlets were rare in Lemko villages.

As a result of the 1947 resettlement, the composition of nationalities in the region changed. The resettled Lemkos were replaced by Poles-some of them repatriated from the USSR, some from Polish border villages. Starting in 1956, the Lemkos began to return to their home villages, where they now make up some 30% to 40% of the inhabitants.

Initially, the inhabitants of these lands referred to themselves as "Rusnaky" and this is what they were called by their Polish neighbours ("Rusnioki"). The name "Lemko" ("Lemky") is a nickname coined by the Boikos because of the Slovak word "lem" (only) used by the Lemkos instead of the Ukrainian "lish".


The villages of the Lemkos stretched in long chains of houses along a road or a stream in the bottom of a valley. This chain-like arrangement resulted from the system of land distribution among settlers while setting up a village. In the arrangement of "forest lanes" every settler received a strip of land running across the valley from ridge to ridge. The average area of such a strip ("lan") was some 20 hectares.

A person in charge of funding a village, who subsequently became its hereditary head, was granted considerably more land. Also, one such a strip or "lan" was saved as the site for the construction of an Orthodox church to support the priest.

from "¦ladami Łemków" by Roman Reinfuss

to be continued in next issue of "Grasshopper"

Grasshopper no 3, Summer '94 | Contents