The Lemko Project Oral Histories

 
 

The Lemko Muse
by Corinna Caudill
 
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it
sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be
acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
-Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

The following story is part travelogue and part biography. The interconnected vignettes
chronicle an October 2011 fieldwork trip to western Ukraine where my colleague
Maryann Sivak and I interviewed ethnic Lemkos who were deported from southeastern
Poland in the aftermath of World War II. It was on this journey that we met the Lemko
poet Kateryna Rusyn, who was eight years old when her family was deported from the
eastern Lemko region in the spring of 1946. Pani Kateryna charmed us with her wit and
humor, overwhelmed us with her hospitality, and inspired us with her enduring love for
her culture and homeland. In the few short days we spent with her, she became much
more than a research participant for our project. She became our muse.

The Lemko Project: A Brief Overview of Our Research
IN THE LATE AUTUMN OF 2010, Maryann Sivak, Richard Garbera and I began “The
Lemko Project” with the goal of preserving the stories of ethnic Lemkos who were
deported from their native lands in southeastern Poland in a series of resettlement actions
that occurred in southeastern Poland after the German retreat. Between 1944-1947, the
Soviet Union and the Polish communist government collaborated to remove Poland’s
Ukrainians (including Lemkos), to neutralize the support base of the Ukrainian Insurgent
Army (Ukrayins'ka Povstans'ka Armiya, UPA), and to prevent any possibility of a future
irredentist movement near the border. The resettlement actions culminated in the
infamous Operation Vistula (Akcja "Wisła") in the summer of 1947.
In order to develop our research strategy, we undertook a comprehensive literature
review which revealed a great deal of bias and polemics on the subject of Lemkos. Since
Richard, Maryann and I understood the ideological split between Lemkos then and now
(some identified as Ukrainian and others as Rusyn), we agreed that we were not interested
in telling the Lemkos who they were or who they should be. Instead, we wanted our
project to capture their stories and their viewpoints in their own words.
It was an unlikely partnership forged by a shared curiosity about our heritage and
bonded by mutual respect. Maryann is a naturalized American citizen who has lived in
Pittsburgh for the last four decades, but as a small child she was raised in Slovakia’s
Prešov Region on the southwest side of the Carpathians. Richard Garbera’s roots are in
the western Lemko region, but he was born and bred in Chicago where he was exposed to
an ideologically eclectic mix of relatives whose ethno-national identities varied between
“Carpatho-Russian,”1 “Ukrainian” and “Rusyn.” And then there’s me – the grandchild of
Ukrainian-Lemko displaced persons (DPs)2 who immigrated to the U.S. after the war and
settled in the Pittsburgh area. Rather than the usual polarizations that take place between
Lemkos of disparate backgrounds, our differences have been complementary to our
research, enabling us to reach out to Lemkos of all ideological persuasions.
Nevertheless, before we could actually interview Lemkos in Europe, we first had to
find them. Through our “Lemko Project” blog and social media platforms, we published
multi-lingual bulletins in hopes of finding subjects who met our research criteria.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a Russophile political movement among the
Lemkos in Poland, wherein many Lemkos believed that they were ethnic brethren of the Russian
people. Some Lemkos who emigrated to the U.S. for work joined Russian Orthodox churches
and diaspora organizations such as the Russian Brotherhood Organization (RBO) and called
themselves “Carpatho-Russians.” Many of their descendants have gravitated toward the LemkoRusyn identity, distinguishing their people from ethnic Russians without identifying as
Ukrainian.
2 My grandparents were taken from the eastern Lemko region to be forced laborers during
World War II. After the war, they were sent to displaced persons’ camps in the Americanoccupied zone and eventually emigrated to the U.S. through the Displaced Persons Act of 1948.
1

2  

Maryann and Richard leveraged their contacts in the Carpatho-Rusyn community to find
Lemko-Rusyns while I directed my outreach efforts to the Ukrainian diaspora
community.3 Thanks to the generous assistance of people from both communities, we
were able to make contact with dozens of Lemkos in Europe who had experienced World
War II and the subsequent deportation campaigns.
With the outreach segment going well, Maryann and I decided to make a fieldwork
excursion to Europe in the autumn of 2011. We planned to visit the Lemko region in
southeastern Poland and then drive from Poland into western Ukraine. Since I am neither
fluent in Lemko nor familiar with driving a vehicle in Poland or Ukraine, Maryann
generously offered to perform triple-duty as a co-researcher, driver, and interpreter.4

Finding Pani Kateryna
OUR FIRST CONTACT WITH THE LEMKO COMMUNITY in western Ukraine happened
in the summer preceding our trip. Our contacts included several Lemkos from the Tisna
(Cisna)5 area of the Lis’ko (Lesko) powiat6 who currently lived in the Ivano-Frankiv’sk
oblast7 of western Ukraine.
After working our way down the contact list, we began our “verification calls” making sure that the leads provided through our outreach campaign actually met our
project criteria. In other words, we wanted to interview Lemkos who had been old enough
during the deportations to recall and describe their experiences. After making several
Skype conference calls to Lemkos in the Ivano-Frankiv’sk oblast, we finally reached a
woman named Kateryna (nee Lazoryshyn) Rusyn. Following our established protocol, we
introduced ourselves, told her about the research trip scheduled for October, and asked if
she would be willing to be interviewed.
Our prospective participant immediately began to scold us. “I am hearing people tell
me that Americans are coming to see us! You should have called me first! I know
everybody and I can coordinate everything.”
Many people assisted us throughout our research, but in the early phases of our research in
2010-2011, it was Stephen Haluszczak, George Honchar, Stefan Howansky, Halina Malecka, and
Petro “Murianka” Trochanowskyj who were instrumental in assisting us with leads.
4 The following summer, Richard conducted his own fieldwork in Ukraine and Poland,including
a visit to western Poland where many Lemkos had been resettled after Akcja "Wisła" in 1947.)
5 In the Ukrainian language, the region is referred to as Tisna. Cisna is the Polonized version.
In this article, I have listed Lemko or Ukrainian words first with their Polish version in
parenthesis.
6 A Polish administrative division roughly equivalent to an American county government
jurisdiction.
7 A Ukrainian administrative division roughly equivalent to a province or small state.
3

3  

She went on to explain that she was active in a Lemko organization based in IvanoFrankiv’sk and that she and the other members often got together for vatra8 festivals,
cultural concerts, and other events.
Wanting to know more about her life story, we inquired about her age, the year she
had been born, and where she was from in the Lemko region. She told us that she was
born in 1938 in the village of Strubovys’ka (Strzebowiska) in the Beskydy (Bieczczady)
range of the Carpathian mountains.
“There were Lemkos in the Beskydy mountains! My village had about sixty houses.
Most of the houses in Strubovys’ka had only one room with a stove, but when my father
built the house, he added an extra room. It was beautiful land, and we lived in our
beautiful Beskydy mountains like birds, free and wonderful! When you go to
Lemkivshchyna, you should visit there and see it with your own eyes. I come from a
very exotic land!”
I asked what had happened to her family after the war, and she told us that when
she was eight years old, Polish soldiers burned down the village, killed many of the
villagers, and deported the survivors (including her family) the following year.
By that point, we were convinced that she was an excellent interview candidate for
our work, and so Maryann told her that we wished to interview her when we came to
Ukraine.
“Of course! Don’t worry!” She said. “I will tell you everything you want to know!
But first tell me, where do you live in America?”
Maryann explained that she and I actually lived in different cities. She lives in
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and at that time, I lived in Alabama. Maryann asked Pani
Kateryna if she was familiar with America.
“Of course I know America! I have been to America myself!”    Her robust voice was
infused with pride. “In 1975, I visited my aunt in Pennsylvania, but I also saw New York
City, Washington D.C., and I even walked across the border to Canada!”
After discussing our plans to visit Ukraine, she invited us to stay with her at her
daughter’s house in Dolyna, which had private rooms with a private yard where we
could safely park a car. She explained that her daughter worked in Italy as a nanny and
stayed in the house only when she came home to Ukraine for a sojourn.
“This is a modern house with a nice kitchen and a shower. I know how you
Americans like to have your showers!”    

In the Lemko culture, a “vatra” is a traditional bonfire festival that celebrates Lemko traditions
and includes dancing and traditional Lemko songs.
8

4  

And so it was settled. I asked if she could help us to locate three or four additional
participants for interviews, and Pani Kateryna enthusiastically agreed. We thanked her
and promised to contact her as soon as we arrived in Ukraine.
“I will tell everyone that the Americans are coming!”  She said. “We will treat you
Americans just like you are the President of the United States!”

A Short Vignette About a Long Road Trip
MARYANN AND I TRAVELED SEPARATELY TO EUROPE in late September of 2011
since we live in different areas of the United States. She flew from Pittsburgh to Prague,
and I flew from Atlanta to Warsaw. Maryann rented a small Fiat hatchback in Prague and
we met in Gorlice, where we interviewed several Lemko Rusyns at the Ruska Bursa9 and
later, in Krynica. After that, we traveled eastward through the Lemko region, making
several stops along to the way to conduct additional interviews. On our last day in Poland,
we drove toward the city of Peremyshl’ (Przemyśl) and headed toward the border crossing
at Medyka since it was close to the city of L’viv where we would be staying with my
relatives. By early afternoon, we arrived at Medyka to witness a chaotic scene that
immediately dashed our hopes for a quick crossing.

Once a boarding school, the Ruska Bursa in Gorlice now operates as a cultural and educational
center for Lemko youth and also houses a small museum, archive and radio station.
9

5  

It seemed more like a tailgate party than a traffic line, as we observed hundreds of
people socializing outside their idling cars and trucks. Joining in the experience, we
decided to stretch our legs and get some air, but were soon caught off guard by a spectacle
that I can only describe as “Vehicular Darwinism.”       When a few cars were finally
permitted to pass through the border gate, alert drivers quickly dove back into their
vehicles, peeled rubber on the asphalt, and cut the line in front of unfortunate rookies
who were absorbed in roadside conversations. Initially, we were caught off guard too, but
it didn’t take long for Maryann to evolve.
 

“Nobody else is getting in front of us again, I can tell you that!”  

We sat stubbornly poised to roll with the motley caravan, but despite Maryann’s
“don’t tread on me” vigilance, the hours dragged on and we grew increasingly impatient
and thirsty. After a few hours had passed, we were close enough to the front of the line
that I noticed a small building by the guard’s station. It looked as though it might contain
some type of water fountain, or hopefully a vending machine (or anything…anything at
all!)
“Maryann, I’m just going to see if they have anything for sale. Maybe I can buy some
bottled water.”
Her attention was focused on a Volvo in the next lane which had unscrupulously cut
in line a few minutes earlier.
“I really doubt it, but you can try.”
As I cautiously approached the building on foot, a young Ukrainian guard standing
on the center median between the lanes was watching me. When I came closer to the
building, I realized that it was no friendly rest stop outpost, but more like an official
administrative center connected with the border police. I decided to head back to the car,
but then froze when a voice called out in a sharp tone.
“Hey you! Pani!” The border guard shouted in Ukrainian. “Give me your passport!”
I turned to face him and tried to forced a smile, even though I hate being called
“Pani.”10    (It makes me feel matronly.)
“Sorry, but I don’t have my passport on me.” I replied in English. “It’s in the car.”
“Come over here! I want to talk to you.”
Because I sensed that approaching him would be a bad idea, I turned and walked back
to the car hoping that he would assume that I had misunderstood him. From there,
Maryann had seen the entire exchange and observed the guard’s reaction.

10

Pani is equivalent to “Mrs.” Or “Ma’am”
6  

“When you walked away, he said something to the other border guard. I bet they are
going to stop us when we get to the other side.”
I hoped that she was wrong about that, but as we got closer to the crossing, the same
guard stopped Maryann’s car and allowed other vehicles to go in front of us with no
explanation. This must have gone on for another two hours, since it was well into dusk
by the time we finally reached the front of the line and were signaled to exit the car so that
the customs officer could examine our documents. He stamped them without incident
and exchanged pleasantries with us.
Afterward, I felt momentarily relieved as we drove across the border into Ukraine.
But nightfall was coming on fast, and we still had to make our way to L’viv.

 
“THIS IS A LITTLE BIT CREEPY.”     Maryann said. “I feel like we are going into the
darkness. Imagine how terrifying it must have been for those Lemkos who were forced
across this border on trains, not knowing where they were going to.”  
 
This definitely gave me something to think about in those moments. I shivered
because the idea of this merged with my visceral fears of being a proverbial stranger in a
strange land. Of course, I had been to Ukraine a few times before, but had never crossed
the border on land at night.
A short time later, the dusk had progressed to darkness and the only light was that
from the headlights of the yellow Fiat Panda, which illuminated the severely damaged
road.
“Look at that!” Maryann gasped. “The potholes are bigger than our wheels!”
With a white-knuckled grasp on the steering wheel, she swerved left and right to avoid
the craters. Some of them easily measured three to four feet in diameter. It was around
that time that we noticed flashing lights in our rearview mirror.
“Oh, no.” Maryann sighed. “I knew it.”
The police car was directly behind us, and Maryann had no choice but to pull over on
the side of the pockmarked road.
“Well, maybe we should just give him some money.” I suggested, reaching for my
wallet where I had stashed some U.S. currency. But Maryann was adamant and covered
my hand with hers.

7  

“Absolutely not! We are Americans. Besides, you can get into trouble for that! You
never know what they will do.”
A portly middle-aged Ukrainian policeman approached the driver’s side window, and
Maryann straightened her back and smiled at him as though the encounter had been her
idea.
“Hi Officer, how are you? I was just wondering…could you help us? We waited for
five hours at Medyka and now we are lost. Just help us get to where we need to go. We
are hungry and thirsty and we…”
“Just calm down. It’s okay.” He said. “Everything is okay. Where do you want to
go?”
“We are going to a little village near L’viv and I am not sure exactly which way to go.
Can you please give us some advice?”
She was really laying it on thick, and it seemed like he was charmed by her accent and
use of language. He asked her where she was from and she replied that she was from
Slovakia. I couldn’t understand everything they were saying in this Ukrainian-Lemko
back and forth dialogue, peppered with some of Maryann’s insertions of Czech, Slovak
and Russian words. The next thing I knew, he was happily bantering about someone he
had once known from Slovakia and then began giving her directions, pointing forward
into the indiscernible distance. Of course I wondered how much of this she was really
absorbing and, naturally, when the other shoe was going to drop after my transgression
with the border guard.
Was he going to search our car? Confiscate our audio and video equipment? Give
us a fine? How did that even work over here? Maybe I would have to call the embassy…
“D’yakuyeme vam! Thank you!” Maryann suddenly exclaimed. “Wait, wait! I want
to give you something.”
Rummaging through her handbag, she retrieved several packs of Wrigley’s Spearmint
Chewing Gum and handed it to the policeman. He looked rather pleased, thanked her,
and walked back to his car whistling. I watched in disbelief as his police car passed by us
into the darkness.
“Did you seriously just bribe that cop with chewing gum?” I asked as Maryann pulled
back onto the road.
She gave me a tired smile. “It wasn’t a bribe, Corinna. It was a thank you. Like I said,
we are Americans.”

8  

JUST AS I SUSPECTED, Maryann had been too nervous to completely absorb the
policeman’s directions, and the road signs along the route were also unfamiliar and
confusing. Somewhere near the city center of L’viv, we became hopelessly lost and
Maryann decided to pull the car into the parking lot of a supermarket. I dialed the number
of my relatives on my travel cell phone, and after some ill-fated attempts to communicate
directions in Ukrainian, they graciously agreed to meet us at the supermarket.
To kill time, Maryann and I decided to go into the store where we bought two very
important things. A cheese pizza (it had a hot foods bar!) and a bottle of red wine which
we intended to enjoy later. Since the pizza hadn’t been cut, we tore it into messy pieces  
and munched on it in the parking lot as we awaited my relatives’ arrival. It was the first
thing we had to eat since that morning, and it was either fairly good or we just didn’t care
at that point. (I still can’t remember exactly.)
Approximately an hour later, my cousin Anya and her husband Mykhailo arrived in
the parking lot and we made quick greetings. Afterward, Maryann followed Mykhailo’s
van back to their village of Yampil, where Anya prepared us some tea and a snack and
talked with us about our travels that day. Since it was late, we kept our conversation brief
and Mykhailo showed us to the room where we would be sleeping.
There was, however, one thing I had been looking forward to.
“Maryann, I have that bottle of wine in my suitcase. I insist that we drink it right
now!”
“Okay, how will we open it?”
Since I knew that my relatives were very religious and refrained from alcohol, I knew
it wasn’t likely that they would have a wine opener.
“That’s okay,” She said. “We’ll open it the hunky way.”
At her instruction, I retrieved two glasses and a butter knife from the kitchen.
Maryann used the base of the knife to push the cork into the wine bottle and then poured
the wine into the glasses. It was a well-deserved nightcap - wine with bits of floating cork
– and we happily toasted the fact that we had made it to Yampil free and alive.
“Wow.” I said. “That was quite a day. I wonder what lies ahead?”
“Probably more potholes.” Maryann quipped.

9  

The Next Day in Dolyna
MARYANN WAS RIGHT about the potholes, as it turned out. Because of the condition
of the roads on the way to Ivano-Frankiv’sk and the fact that we got lost once again, it
took us much longer to reach Dolyna than we had anticipated. As a result, we were slightly
late to our meeting with Oksana Danyliv, a local activist who had arranged interviews with
two elderly Lemko gentlemen who fit our criteria.
Oksana was understanding and easygoing as we made our apologies. We followed
her to a community center in the center of town where two white-haired gentlemen were
waiting in a conference room. Maryann and I made our greetings and quickly set up the
recording equipment. We first interviewed Ivan Bil’   who was originally from the village
of Krasna in the Krosno district, and then Ivan Kochanskyi who was from Tylicz, one of
Richard’s ancestral villages. The stories of both men were emotionally charged and
poignant, further adding to our testimonials concerning the forced relocations to
Ukraine.11
When the interviews were completed, Oksana took us to her friend’s restaurant where
we were treated to a traditional Ukrainian meal that was nothing short of delicious. (This
I do remember!) When Maryann told Oksana where we were headed next, she said, “Of
course! I know about this. Pani Kateryna called me earlier.” (It seemed to me that Pani
Kateryna had not made the slightest exaggeration concerning her network.)
Sensing that we were road-weary, Oksana generously offered to accompany us to
Kateryna’s daughter’s home. It was a gesture that we both greatly appreciated. After
perhaps twenty minutes, Oksana directed Maryann to turn onto a small tree-lined street,
and then pointed to a brown wooden house surrounded by an iridescent green gate.

11

We intend to publish separate stories focused on individual participants’ experiences.

10  

After Maryann parked and we exited the car, I spotted a heavy-set woman
enthusiastically waving to us from the walkway near the side door. She motioned for us
to come toward her through the gate.
“Slava Isusu Khrystu!”    Maryann greeted her with the customary Old Church Slavonic
expression meaning “Glory to Jesus Christ!”
“Slava Na Viky!” Pani Kateryna replied without missing a beat. (“Glory Forever!”)
After we made our brief introductions in the walkway, she invited us inside and led
us to a nicely appointed living room with built-in bookcases and a variety of Ukrainian
artwork on the wall. I took a seat on the sofa next to Maryann, who began recounting our
trip from Yampil to Dolyna that morning.
Pani Kateryna listened intently as Maryann spoke in Lemko, and then responded in
Ukrainian. “You speak beautifully! This is the way my mother used to talk. I have not
heard it spoken this way in many years.”
“Can you understand me?” Maryann asked her.
“Yes, Prekrasno! But you speak Lemko much better than I do. I speak the literary
language, but you speak dialect. You must speak slower.”
“Then you will have to speak slower too!” Maryann laughed. “I’m trying to adjust
to the Ukrainian dialect!”
As the conversation progressed, Pani Kateryna attempted to adjust to the way that
Maryann speaks, occasionally throwing in Lemko words although she was clearly more
comfortable with standard Ukrainian. The most endearing aspect of their interactions,
however, was how she struggled to decide how she should address Maryann. Perhaps it
was because she was unclear about how to style the diminutive form given the fact that
Maryann is Rusyn rather than Ukrainian or Russian. Some of her early variations
included “Maria,” “Marychka,” and "Marina," (Maryann attempted to correct this to "Pani
Marianka” to no avail.) At some point, she finally settled on what became my personal
favorite.
“Rusnachka!”

11  

On the Road to Roznyativ
“THE ROADS ARE VERY BAD!”    Pani Kateryna said, shaking her head. “They used to be
better, but now it takes longer to drive any place.”
For that reason, she dutifully arranged for us to be driven to Roznyativ by Oksana’s
husband Viktor, who had kindly taken a day off from work to drive us to our interview
meeting. We piled into his large van, and I immediately noticed that there were no
seatbelts. Oksana sat in the front seat with Viktor, Maryann and Pani Kateryna were in
the middle row of seats, and I sat in the back with my suitcase that was overstuffed with
recording equipment.
To say the least, Viktor was an extremely confident driver who didn’t allow the
conditions of the road to bother him nor slow him down. It was a vast difference from
Maryann’s careful do-si-dos in the tiny-wheeled Fiat. The large van wove around the
large potholes (hitting some of the smaller ones) and came so close to oncoming traffic
that I was genuinely frightened. I clung to the back of my seat with one hand and spoke
into the voice recorder to document the journey:
…Okay, so… we’re straddling the white line because the road is so bad, and
oncoming traffic is coming the other way. But… no one else really seems
concerned! … I guess if you want to get around over here, you really have to
have a Ukrainian who is used to driving here because - ohhhh……OH MY GOD!
Ohhhhhh….my God. He…he just got so close to that truck that I’m just…ohhh
my God.
In the rearview mirror, I saw Viktor watching me and chuckling. Then he leaned
back to say something to Maryann, who turned around and repeated it to me in English.
“He says not to worry… we’re not going to be late. He once made the four-hour
trip to L’viv from Ivano Frankiv’sk in just an hour and a half.”

12  

“The Americans are Here!”
WE ARRIVED IN THE TOWN SQUARE in Roznyativ
approximately half an hour later. A few moments after we
emerged from the van, a short white-haired gentlemen
approached us. He was followed by two ladies wearing
Ukrainian cultural clothing. The man introduced himself as
Vasyl Sydoryak and told us that he was from Vetlyna
(Wetlina), a village in Tisna (Cisna) located near Pani
Kateryna’s native Strubovyska (Strubowiska.)
“You look very handsome in your vyshyvanka.”  I pointed
to the beautifully embroidered shirt that Pan Vasyl was
wearing.
He winked and gave me a smile so wide that it caused his
bright blue eyes to crinkle at the edges. Then he nodded his
head toward the women standing behind him.
“Vsi zhinky pislya mene, tomu shcho ya takyy
krasyvyy!”       (“All the ladies are after me because I’m so
handsome!”)
I laughed and said that I could not blame those women, and he responded with a
request that I had not anticipated.
“Well, then, may I kiss you?”    
“Uh…  sure, okay. But you should know that I’m married.”    
He laughed, planted one on my cheek, and then grabbed my hands in a sort of double
handshake.
“Thank you! Now I can say that I  have kissed an American!”      

AS MARYANN AND I followed Pani Kateryna to the spacious gathering room on the
second floor of Roznyativ’s community center, we soon discovered that she had a surprise
waiting for us. Standing near an upright piano along the back wall were approximately
twelve elderly men and women dressed in traditional clothing.
“The Americans are here!’     Pani Kateryna announced, and then wandered off to
socialize with her contemporaries.

13  

Maryann leaned in toward me. “I thought you asked her to find three or four people?”  
 
“Yes… yes I did.”
A middle-aged man was setting up a camera on a tripod near a large, O-shaped
conference table situated in the middle of the room. A small crowd had congregated
around him, chattering animatedly amongst themselves. Beaming proudly, Kateryna
made her way over to the table and motioned for us to walk with her.
“Pani Corinna! Pani Rusnachka! Please come here!”
She introduced us to several of her Lemko contemporaries, including one of her
sisters, and I noticed that all of them were nicely dressed in traditional clothing. I glanced
down at the rumpled tee-shirt that I was wearing and wished that I was better dressed.
Of course, I never imagined that our fieldwork would bring this type of diplomatic
reception.
A short while later, Maryann whispered that the dark-haired man sitting at the
conference table was the mayor of the village, and that some type of ceremony was about
to ensue. Additionally, the man with the camera and tripod was a local reporter.
“So, let me see if I understand this…we’re going to meet with the mayor and be in the
local paper?”
“Yes,” said Maryann. “This how it is with these Lemkos. We had a plan, but then they
made their own plans.”  
We took our seats and the photographer began snapping photographs as the mayor
addressed us. After welcoming us to Roznyativ and thanking Pani Kateryna for organizing
the event, he shared his thoughts on the Lemkos in Ukraine, paraphrased here:
For much of my life, I was not aware of what had happened to the Lemkos in Poland.
Now I understand that the Lemkos here are living in a foreign land, not in their
native lands. They do not wish to separate themselves from the Ukrainian nation.
There is no need to divide because we are the same people. The Lemkos have a right
to live as an ethnic minority on the territory of Ukraine, enriching our country with
their unique culture and traditions.
As the mayor wrapped up his comments, he invited me to speak and encouraged me
to ask questions. After ad-libbing my first speech as an unofficial American diplomat, I
asked if he had any advice for Americans who were interested in researching Ukraine
and its ethnic groups.

14  

“Exchange ideas. Exchange information so that we can learn from one another.
There are a lot of Ukrainian organizations in Brazil, Argentina and in the U.S. and
Canada and we would like to have this cooperation with all the countries to cooperate
and exchange information.”
Following the mayor’s talk and a folk sing-a-long with Pani Kateryna and the other
Lemkos, we finally proceeded with our interviews with a quickly improvised question
list that now had to be scaled down in the interest of time. Most of the participants had
experienced resettlement actions carried out by the Soviet and Polish communist
authorities in the years between 1945-1946 and had either been forcibly deported from
their native villages or induced to “voluntarily” relocate as the result of the growing
frequency and severity of raids on Ukrainian villages. (Their individual stories will be
the subject of future publications.)
When the interviews had finally concluded, we accompanied Pani Kateryna back to
Dolyna and everyone retired early, exhausted after what had been a long, chaotic and
extraordinary day.

15  

The Tragedy of “Chervona Mitla” in Strubovys’ka
WE AWOKE EARLY on the last day of our visit to find Pani Kateryna talking on her cell
phone in her living room. She quickly finished her conversation and invited us to begin
her interview. I switched on the recording equipment and we settled in to listen to her
story.
Kateryna Lazoryshyn was born in 1938 in the village of Strubovys’ka in Gmina Cisna
in Lesko County, an area that had been heavily populated by Lemkos for centuries. After
the war broke out in Poland, her village was incorporated into the Nazi-administered
General Gouvernement district but for her people, the German occupation had been fairly
uneventful. The real trouble began after the Soviet Union entered Poland on their way to
Berlin. With the assistance of the Polish army, NKVD units began attacking Ukrainian
villages they suspected of harboring or assisting UPA.
According to Pani Kateryna, in late March of 1945, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army
(UPA) had been operating in the nearby forest and the women of the village took turns
baking bread for the partisans.
“Were they forced to do this?”    Maryann asked.
“They were not forced.”    Pani Kateryna said. “These were our boys. Some were from
our village and some were from other villages. One day one woman would bake bread for
them and on another day, someone else.”
Because Kateryna had been a young child in the period after World War II (seven
years old in March of 1945, and eight years old in April of 1946), her memories from that
time were mostly impressional. Therefore, it is prudent to compare written accounts with
her personal story in order to better understand the historical context surrounding the
events she described in her interview.
Volume 33 of the Chronicles of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (Litopys UPA)
contains an account of the March 21, 1945 battle between UPA and a mixed NKVD-Polish
unit outside of Strubovys’ka. According to the account, the Russians (including NKVD)
crossed the Ukrainian-Polish border into the Carpathians in the fall of 1944. As the front
passed in the winter of 1944-1945, many UPA sotnias12 were encamped in the Sian (San)
Valley. Since the Russians were aware of this, the NKVD staged operations that UPA
chroniclers referred to as Chervona Mitla (“The Red Broom”), a series of sweeps intended
to annihilate the Ukrainian insurgency in southeast Poland.13 They typically relied on the
A company level unit usually comprised of approximately 100 soldiers. The word “sotnia”
literally means “one-hundred.”
13 See Potichnyj, Peter (ed.) Litopys Ukrainskoyi Povstanskoyi Armiyi: UPA Tactical Sector 26th
“Lemko”: Lemkivshchyna and Peremyshl Regions.. Vol. 33. Toronto: Litopys UPA, 2001, pp.
137-139.
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assistance of the Polish communist army to carry out their work.
Although most UPA sotnias had managed to flee upon the approach of communist
troops (usually warned by intelligence agents, messengers and civilian informants), the
sotnia commanded by Danylo Svistel’  (“Veselyi”)14 had a direct encounter with an NKVDPolish unit. Rather than retreating at the approach of the enemy, as was the common
strategy of UPA units during that period, Veselyi’s sotnia engaged them in a battle in the
outskirts of Strubovys’ka. They inflicted heavy losses to the NKVD-Polish unit and
subsequently retreated through the dense mountain forests into Slovakia. Veselyi’s sotnia
sustained relatively minor casualties in the battle, but the Soviet and Polish troops took
their vengeance on the villagers in Strubovys’ka. Volume I. of Yevhen Misilo’s Povstankyi
Mohyly (“Graves of the Insurgents”) contains testimony from Yuri Syvanych, another
Strubovys’ka villager who had witnessed the events:
On March 21, 1945, a unit of NKVD and Polish troops attacked the village of
Strubovys’ka in Lis’ko County. At the time, Veselyi’s sotnia was stationed in the
village. Some of them were sick with typhus and were recuperating in the
village. A messenger came to the village stating that a large number of troops
were approaching from Cisna. The insurgents were preparing to evacuate, but
village mayor Stakhur’skiy started begging them to protect the village and the
boys did that. They took a defensive position away from the village, but when
the enemy advanced closer, they opened fire. The Russians and the Poles had not
expected that type of welcome, and many of them were killed or wounded. A
Russian captain was killed and the medics who tried to save him said that he had
fought all the way from Lenino15 to Berlin only to be killed by “khokholy.”16
Pani Kateryna recalled that a Polish officer had entered the Lazoryshyn home where
he spied an impressive and familiar looking wooden clock hanging on the wall. When he
removed the clock and turned it over, he was surprised to find his own grandfather’s name
engraved on the back. He asked Kateryna’s father how he had come to own the clock.
Her father quickly explained that in 1914, during the first war, he had seen a horse throw
a Polish officer and rushed to his aid by grabbing the horse’s bridle. His quick thinking
saved the officer from being trampled to death and as a gesture of gratitude, the officer
presented him with the clock.  After hearing that story, the grandson decided to spare the
OUN and UPA agents used pseudonyms rather than their real names in order to protect their
identity and their families from retaliation against Soviet or Polish communist authorities or
others. Sotnias, or smaller UPA units consisting of approximately 80-120 men, were named
after their commanders.
15 Lenino is a village in Belarus and was the site of a major German-Soviet battle in 1943.
16 Khokhol is a derogatory term the Russians used for Ukrainians, supposedly based on the
supposition that many Ukrainians had only a tuft of hair on their heads. See Misilo, Eugeniusz.
Povstansky Mohyly, Vol. I. Memorial Book of Soldiers of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army West
from Military Region VI “Sian”; Military Districts “Lemko,” “Bastion,” and “Danyliv” (19441946.) Warsaw-Toronto, Ukrainian Archive and Litopys UPA, 1995, pp. 251-253.
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Lazoryshyn family when he gave the order to destroy Strubovys’ka.
As the attacks took place outside their house, the Lazoryshyns took shelter in their
basement. As to what happened during that period of time, Yuri Syvanych described the
events in his eyewitness testimony:
…On that unforgettable day, Polish troops, along with NKVD, began burning the
village. It was a horrible scene. I will never forget this until the last of my days.
The village was burned down completely. Out of 70 houses, only 3 remained.
The enemy took revenge on the population and they went crazy…  four innocent
families perished including four children and four other individuals in the
village. Older people who were not able to flee were captured and sent to Siberia,
and most of them never returned.
Kateryna recalled that she and her sisters were terrified as they listened to the bullets
whizzing overhead, some hitting the sides of the house. She remembered the sounds of
screaming and violence outside. Some time after the gunfire had ceased, the family
emerged to witness an apocalyptic scene.
I remember the blackened remains of those houses, how the lifeless bodies of
villagers were strewn across Strubovys’ka, and how the snow was dyed crimson
with their blood. Meanwhile, the Poles and UPA were slaughtering each other in
the forests outside the village. Wounded villagers were carried into our house. After
the soldiers left, UPA’s wounded were brought in as well. I remember how they were
laying bodies next to each other in the one of the rooms and how the blood was
covering the floor boards…there were pools of blood on the floor…  
She also mentioned that later, the other survivors became suspicious of her father.
“People wondered what had happened, and asked if my father had paid someone. But
our house was spared only because of that clock.”

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Into the Darkness
DESPITE BEING SPARED IN MARCH of 1945, it was not the last time the Lazoryshyn
family and the other surviving residents of Strubovys’ka would find their fates intertwined
with UPA and the communists. According to the Litopys report, Veselyi’s sotnia returned
a short time later to their underground bunkers in the dense forests near Strubovys’ka.
On April 2, 1946, after being tipped off by an informant that the partisans had returned,
the NKVD-Polish unit conducted a surprise attack. They encircled Veselyi’s sotnia in the
forest and inflicted devastating casualties, including the death of Veselyi himself.
Afterward they returned to Strubovys’ka to deport the remaining residents to Ukraine,
giving them one hour to gather their belongings. The villagers were forced to board trains
with the livestock and household goods they had been able to gather.
Pani Kateryna described what happened to her family during this period:
In 1946, I was eight years old when they began deporting people from our area.
Things happened quickly, but nobody was telling us what was going on. Before
long, they were taking us to the Soviet Union. I remember when they took us to
Ukraine and assigned us to a house there. My father desperately wanted to believe
that they would allow us to return when the fighting stopped, and so we didn’t
bother to unpack at first. We just waited there for several days, sitting on our bags.
But after enough time had passed, we had no choice but to accept the truth. It was
not to be.

 

The weeks and months of waiting eventually turned into years, and the Lazoryshyn
family gradually accepted the fact that they would never return to their beloved Beskydy
mountains. The children eventually matured to adulthood and established their own
families. Kateryna’s father built homes in Roznyativ for himself and his wife, and
eventually, built houses for all three of his daughters. Kateryna excelled in school and
went on to complete a university degree. A born intellectual, she achieved her dream of
becoming a teacher, but was forced to join the communist party in order to practice her
profession.
 
 
 

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The Emissary
 
ON OUR LAST EVENING in Dolyna, Pani Kateryna showed us a copy of her book,
Oberehy Beskydiv (“Charms of the Beskids").17 Maryann and I were sitting with her in
her living room, drinking tea and browsing through her book. We noticed that it
contained information about the history of Strubovys’ka and the Lemko families who had
lived there, and there was also a section that focused on Pani Kateryna’s 1975 trip to
America.
She seemed pleased when we finally asked her to tell us the story about her journey, and
began by explaining that her paternal aunt Magdalene (her father’s sister) had emigrated
to the United States before the deportations. After coming to America, she also married
a man with the surname “Rusyn”, perhaps a distant relative of Kateryna’s own husband.
Magdalene Rusyn was very smart. She prepared papers so that my father and I
could come to America, and the papers came here (to Ukraine.) But my father
suffered from asthma and worried that he would not be able to breathe if he
traveled, and so everyone decided that I would travel alone. Of course, the KGB was
investigating me, but they said that if I was free from illness and still had all my
teeth, I could go. For a whole year, they called me for interviews. I even had to fill
out papers attesting that if became sick, I would have enough money to take care of
myself.
My aunt was so detailed in submitting those papers that the Soviet government
could not refuse to let me go, but because they were investigating and checking on
me so thoroughly for a whole year, I finally told them that I didn’t want to go. But
the KGB said that I had to go because otherwise, the Americans would claim that
they had prevented me from traveling there. They said that when I came back, I
had to tell them everything that had happened. They warned me, “You have to say
everything positive about the Soviet Union…about our government.”
At that time, the cost of a plane ticket was $3000, and for that amount, you could
buy a car. If my aunt would have tried to pay for the trip, the government would
not have allowed me to go. They said, "You must pay for your own way." My family
came up with a collection and I traveled to America in 1975 and stayed for a whole
month. I was afraid to go by myself because I had never traveled that far before.
At first, my plane flew to Newark, and from there I flew to Pittsburgh.
My travel papers stated that I could only venture 25 miles from the town where I
would be residing. My grand nephew Freddie Kowalczyk was a big capitalist, and
he took those papers to read them over. He said, “If you stay within a 25-mile

17

Oberehy Beskidiv is available for digital download at http://lemko.org/pdf/oberehy.pdf

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radius, you're not going to see anybody except for us. The family is spread out all
over.” So then Freddie called the American embassy, and he told me that they
laughed so hard that they were dying from laughing. They told him, "You tell your
aunt that she can travel all over America! It is only in the Soviet Union that you
cannot travel!"
So then my family started taking me around and showing me America because they
wanted to prove to me that life in America was not like it was in the Soviet Union.
It was so interesting to see everything and I was lucky to have seen it! I went to the
Capitol building in Washington, D.C. when Congress was in session. I went to New
York City and saw those two towers.
Then I wanted to go to Canada, so they took me to the border and gave them (the
border guards) my passport. They looked at my Red passport and kept it for a long
while. Eventually they returned and said, “Well, we can let you through, but we
would have to mark the passport and this might cause difficulties." I didn’t want
that to happen, but still I pleaded with them to allow me to walk around on the other
side. They allowed it, and so I walked there for about half an hour so that I could
say that I was in Canada.
I asked why her book did not contain photographs of her travels to the places that
she visited when she came to the U.S., and then she told us a story that explained it.
My American family was very surprised and couldn't understand how I came to
America without a camera and not even having sunglasses. Then they asked me if
I had a telephone at home and I told them that I did not. So they (jokingly)
suggested that I had come there as a spy to spread Communist propaganda since I
had paid my own way, but had neither sunglasses nor a camera…not even money
for a telephone at home.
Because her relatives had shown such kindness by bringing her to places that they
had not yet seen for themselves, Kateryna wanted to do something special for them.
On the fourth of May, it was Easter and they gathered everyone together and all of
the relatives came. That was when I realized how great America is. There was a
nicely organized table with a variety of foods served buffet-style. It was beautiful.
I had prepared a speech for them, which I had written in English. They just stared
at me when I read this speech, because it was in that moment that they knew
something more about who I was.18

18

She implies here that her relatives recognized that she was an intellectual.
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We asked what had happened when she finally returned to Soviet Ukraine, and
whether or not the authorities had interrogated her on her whereabouts and
experiences.
When I returned, they didn't ask too many questions. Somehow, they already
knew where I had been and who I had seen because they had people checking, but
they required me to teach a lecture series. I was supposed to talk about how the
Soviet Union was better than America. So I told my students, “It is better to live in
the Soviet Union because you can drink horylka19 and live, but in America you
must work hard to live."20
“Was it painful for you to see see how people lived freely, and then return to the
reality of communism?” I asked.
“Yes, but I was very happy to go to America because at that time, very few people
got permission to leave. What I learned in America in one month, I could not have
learned in the Soviet Union. I saw the contrast and observed that there was more
freedom in America. Americans had the freedom to speak without being afraid that the
KGB might contact them.”
Alcohol, usually some type of moonshine or vodka.
The original Ukrainian expression was a play on words. Her point was that in the USSR, a
person could drink every day and not work because the socialist system would take care of
people. This was not the case in the U.S., and people had to work hard to have the means to live
and progress through life.
19

20

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ON THE MORNING OF OUR DEPARTURE, we gathered one last time in Pani
Kateryna’s sitting room. After we thanked her for her hospitality and assistance with
our research project, she presented us with copies of her poetry along with souvenir
mementoes from Beskyds’ky Zemlyanstvo,21 the Beskydy Community organization in
which she was active in the Ivano-Frankiv’sk oblast. Most remarkably, she had one final
surprise for us… in the form of a song:

Як я си заспівам, співати не умію
Освяти нас Боже, най нам поможе
Русначка Марія!
Як я си заспівам, як в лісі лелия
Освяти нас Боже, най нам поможе
ще лемкиня Корінна!
As I break out in song, I don't know how to sing it…
Bless us God and help us
and Rusnachka Maryann!
As I break out in song, like a lily in the woods…
Bless us God and help us
and Lemkynia Corinna too!

With that, she thanked us for visiting her and then told us something that we
probably should have guessed, but had not realized.
“You were my first American house guests!”

21

See www.lemky.com

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Epilogue
PANI KATERYNA PASSED AWAY approximately a month after we visited her. When we
heard the heartbreaking news, we called her twin sister Galina who lives in Roznyativ.
Galina told us that Pani Kateryna’s funeral had drawn mourners from miles around,
which wasn’t surprising since she had contributed so much to her community and
inspired so many to celebrate their Lemko heritage.
For American researchers, her gift of poetic expression provided a glimpse into the
Lemko soul in a way that Richard Garbera aptly describes as “…astonishingly poetic, with
a knack for expressing simple ideas in a very beautiful way.”22
During our visit, we captured one of her most poetic and beautiful quotes when she
was discussing her feelings about her homeland:
In the Beskyds, our people lived a simple life. They worked hard, but living in the
mountains gives a person the wings of a bird. The mountains gave the people the
wisdom to ask themselves: ‘Who am I? Why am I living here in this land, what am
I meant to do?’ For those who are living in the mountains, any mountains, this is
different from living in the lowlands. You think about things that are holy and good,
not about fighting and murder. You are closer to the sky, to the clouds, and to the
sun and to the stars. You experience the smell of the grass and the high meadows
(polonyna). The waterfalls of the streams envelop you with understanding and
goodness and connect you closer to God so that you can do some good.
Perhaps among Lemkos, the poetic spirit passes through the generations. Pani
Kateryna is the author of “Prayer of a Lemko Woman,” a prayer inspired by her mother,
who frequently recited a similar prayer in the tumultuous period after deportations. The
following is an English translation:

Richard attributed this quality to Kateryna Rusyn and many of the Lemkos that we
interviewed.
22

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Prayer of a Lemko Woman

O God, give me the strength to live through this day and help me to survive in this
foreign land where they have brought me and my children.
Lord, I pray and beseech Thee, let me not perish, nor my family, nor my people, who
were late to sow the holy grain; for the corn will ripen in the summer and they know
not when or how it will be gathered.
Oh Merciful God, may the sun rise and set each day, so that it brings light and sets
at night in the same way it sets far away in the Beskyd Mountains, in my native hills
and valleys; and may rye and every kind of seed grow for us, so that by winter we
all have bread and hay and grain to feed the people, the birds and the cattle.
Almighty Lord, let us not forget - not today, tomorrow, nor ever - and help us to
keep alive in our memories the beauty of our land and our mountains, and the rich,
healing and pure waters in our rivers: the Bystry, the Poprad, and the Sian (San);
and let us also remember the fair and lovely country with the high pastures and
woodland paths through the hills; let us not forget the places of plenty in the forest
where the mushrooms grow, and the fragrant strawberries, blackberries,
blueberries and raspberries, and the woodland meadows where the cattle graze.
Oh God, let us not forget our customs, the lilt of our mother tongue, our stories and
our songs, our dances and our evenings together on holy days and workdays.
Lord, give my children the wisdom to find their way back to the native land of their
grandfathers and great-grandfathers and to honor their ancestors’ graves, their
churches and their faith.

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Oh God, grant unto my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren all the
gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, reason, courage, knowledge, piety,
and also give them the most important of all human virtues – Faith, Hope and Love.
Lord, bestow upon me and my children the knowledge to tell the difference between
good and evil, happiness and unhappiness, and give me the wisdom to value
goodness and be grateful for the good!
Grant me to the knowledge to influence an enemy, give me the generosity to help the
poor, give me the understanding to convince the evildoer of the folly of his ways and
to teach those who do not know right from wrong.
Amen.

*Many thanks to Richard Garbera, Stephen Rapawy, Maryann Sivak, Jon Coulter,
Maxine Bruhns and Cecilia Woloch for peer reviewing this article. Thanks also to my
friend John Senick for finding the Twain quote. For more information about “The
Lemko Project”:
Visit our blog at www.lemkoproject.blogspot.com
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Copyright 2015 /All Rights Reserved

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