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Fourth annual Lemko Vatra in U.S. shows off culture of Lemkivschyna

ELLENVILLE, N.Y. – Only one member of the Ukrainian Canadian quartet Metelytsya has Lemko roots, but that did not stop the group from singing Lemko folk songs with the rest of the performers. “Native Lemko land, green Carpathian mountains, no matter where a Lemko is, he has to remember you,” Metelytsya and the other performers sang together during the finale of the fourth annual Lemko Vatra, a cultural festival that took place on June 25-27 at the Ukrainian American Youth Association (SUM) resort in Ellenville, N.Y.

Perhaps the Metelytsya singers could not fully feel the meaning of the song’s lyrics, which describe the pain of being forced from one’s homeland, as the Lemkos were during and after World War II. But the singers – Anastasia Baczynskyj, Oksana Nahirna, Anita Tuz and Katherine Tuz – still expressed an attachment to Lemko songs and music, chiming in one after another after one of their sets.

“We started singing Lemko songs right away. It was the stuff that brought us together and worked the best. It got us excited that it was working,” said one member of the group, which has been singing a cappella together since October 2002.

“They’re catchy. They catch a person’s ear. The words have a lot of meaning. A lot of variety – from happy, fun songs to songs about leaving your country,” a second added.

“They also attract people, even non-Lemko. It’s something different,” another said.

Fostering such appreciation of Lemko culture among both Lemko Americans and the greater Ukrainian American community is the goal of the Vatra, which, this year, featured two days of performances, Lemko memorabilia for sale and the groundbreaking of a commemorative chapel.

Coordinated by the Organization for the Defense of Lemkivschyna (known by its Ukrainian acronym as OOL), the fourth annual Lemko Vatra included a range of musical performers from Ukraine (Anytchka, Roman Cymbala), Canada (Karpaty trio, Pid Oblachkom ensemble, Metelytsya) and the United States (Vidlunia ensemble, Lviviany ensemble, Oros sister duet, Pawlyshyn sister duet, and Maky dance group.)

Anytchka, as the Lviv singer Anna Tcheberentchyk is known, performed for the first time at the U.S. Vatra, after appearing in past Lemko festivals in Poland, Canada and Ukraine. Ms. Tcheberentchyk’s family, originally from the Lemko village of Owczary, was relocated to the Ukrainian SSR as part of the Polish-Soviet agreement to exchange Polish and Ukrainian populations in 1944-1946. (A lecture on the topic of the 1944-1946 deportations was presented at this year’s Vatra by editor and journalist Osip Roshka.)

Ms. Tcheberentchyk, who sings Lemko folk songs in a contemporary style, said she remembers her grandmother’s stories of relocation and remains influenced by her roots.

“Every Lemko song is close to me,” Ms. Tcheberentchyk said in Ukrainian. “The history is interesting because it deals with my roots. To explain the feeling is difficult, unless you’ve lived it. For someone to tell you to take 25 pounds on your back, and, ‘go!'”

The ensemble Pid Oblachkom, meanwhile, noted that the Vatra in Ellenville had led to the creation of their group. After attending an earlier Vatra, the members of the ensemble – Iwona Kowal, Ola Polanski, Hala Cechowska, Beata Bazylewicz – decided to begin performing together and adopted their name from the Lemko writer Seman Madzelan’s piece about love, they said.

“The program was wonderful this year. Even on Labor Day weekend, they don’t have a program like this,” Vasyl Harhaj, the OOL organizational head of the Vatra, said in Ukrainian. Dressed in traditional Lemko costume – a blue, decorated vest (known as a “liabyk” or “drushliak”) and white embroidered pants (known as “kholosni”) – Mr. Harhaj served as the festival’s “starosta,” or village elder, hosting the event.

“[The Vatra] is for everyone to gather here. To not forget about us – that Lemkos were, are and will be,” said Mr. Harhaj, who was relocated from his native Lemko village of Komancza to northern Poland during Akcja Wisla, the 1947 campaign to resettle and force assimilation upon the Ukrainian minority in Poland.

Members of the younger Lemko generation, Lena Howansky and Andriy Khomyk, also wished to keep the Lemko spirit alive, but by designing and selling T-shirts with humorous Lemko themes. One T-shirt, for example, depicted a bottle of “kropka,” an ether drink that was popular in the Lemko region and read “Absolut Lemko,” while another depicted a rabbit in Lemko folk costume saying, “Hug me, I’m Lemko.”

“I wanted to produce something fun and positive, and to instill Lemko pride, which is what the shirts are all about. You literally wear them on your chest and show that you’re Lemko,” Ms. Howansky said. “I also wanted to advertise our Vatra, by making a nice souvenir that people could take away. The Vatra in Ellenville is in its beginning stages and has a lot of potential, so, when people wear the T-shirts, they’ll help to spread the word to Lemkos and other Ukrainians about it. My idea was that the T-shirts would help carry the Lemko spirit beyond just the three days of the Vatra.”

An additional way in which the OOL is trying to preserve Lemko culture and history is through the building of a chapel at the SUM resort to commemorate the victims of Akcja Wisla. Sunday liturgy at the Vatra took place at the site where the chapel will stand and where the ground has already been broken, followed by a special blessing for the future structure. The chapel, which architect Teodor Bodnar said would take four to six weeks to build, will be created in the wooden, vertical style of traditional Lemko churches.

OOL President Zenon Halkowycz, while expressing pride in the Vatra, also noted disappointment that more people from the greater Ukrainian community did not attend the Lemko festival, particularly to celebrate the new chapel plans.

“It’s fun to be Lemko. You party. You’re with your own people. And you feel kinship. The festival will continue because it’s part of our mission statement to perpetuate Lemko culture,” Mr. Halkowycz said. “I was very much disappointed, however, that we didn’t see the people who have asked the Lemko people to support them. Whenever there’s a demonstration, we’re told, ‘This is your national responsibility.’ We were hoping to see some of these Ukrainian patriots come and party with the Lemkos and support a noble cause – the building of the chapel to commemorate Akcja Wisla.”

Close to 1,000 people attended the Vatra, Mr. Halkowycz said. Many stated generally positive opinions about the festival, which also included a soccer game, pig roast and Saturday night dance, or zabava.

“It’s very nice. I hope they will not change this Lemko festival to a Ukrainian festival,” said Helena Ksenycz, who traveled from Mississauga, Ontario, to the Vatra and whose family was originally from the Lemko village of Binczarowa before being relocated through Akcja Wisla. “I would like to see here more Lemko traditions, because it’s my Lemko tradition from childhood,” she added.

Although incomparable to the Lemko Vatra held annually in the mountains of the Lemko region in the village of Zdynia, the Vatra in Ellenville is improving, said Walter Maksimovich, who operates the website .

“It’s a good gathering point for me to meet other people face to face,” Mr. Maksimovich said, “I feel that a great injustice was done to our people. Even though we’re not well organized, we don’t have access to media, we’re doing the best we can.”

Praise also came from non-Lemkos, such as Atanazy Steforak of Lehighton, Pa. – a Hutsul.

“I have to congratulate the Lemkos,” said Mr. Steforak, who came to the Vatra with his Lemko wife. “They keep together better than the Boykos or the Hutsuls.”

And, therefore, although the words of the poignant, last song performed by Metelytsya and the rest of the performers at the Vatra say, “It will never be, as it once was for me,” events such as the Lemko Vatra inspire hope that Lemko culture will be passed on.

For more information about the Organization for the Defense of Lemkivschyna readers may contact Mr. Halkowycz at (201) 692-1471 .
For more information about the Lemko Vatra performance, contact Mr. Harhaj at (973) 772-3344

Source: The Ukrainian Weekly, July 25, 2004, No. 30, Vol. LXXII;

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