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XIII Lemko “Vatra” festival in the U.S.A

​​Lemko Vatra festivals now take place in many countries and on several continents. That unquenchable fire that Lemkos carry in their hearts also draws others to these events. Lemko songs are celebrated at festivals throughout the world. People return to these sources of Lemko culture in order to drink in the spirit of the Lemkos’ ancestral home in the mountains, which is transported to Vatra festivals in Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine, Canada, and the United States. On the weekend of July 27-28th, the Vatra – meaning “bonfire” – was lit in Ellenville, NY, USA, for the thirteenth time.

Together with Vasyl Harhaj, the master of ceremonies, Canadian participants Pavlo Lopata and Andrew Rotko greeted the festival guests and presented the newly-published book “The Second Ukrainian-Polish War,” written by Volodymyr Viatrovych and translated into Polish by Eugeniusz Misilo. The President of the Organization for the Defense of Lemko-Western Ukraine (OOL), Zenko Halkowycz, warmly welcomed all those present and a member of the Presidium of the World Federation of Ukrainian Lemko Unions (SFULO), Andriy Khomyk, read greetings from the President of SFULO, renowned Ukrainian singer Sofiya Fedyna, in which she stressed that “the Lemko Vatra in the United States is not only a festival that unites Lemkos, but a festival that unites all concerned Ukrainians.”

In honor and memory of one of OOL’s recently deceased leaders, Steven Howansky, who was not in attendance at the festival for the first time in its history, his children Diana Howansky Reilly and Mark Howansky and close friend Andriy Khomyk lit the ceremonial festival bonfire.

The songs then began. . . .

The Vatra in the United States cannot compete with the dozens and dozens of professional artists at Lemko festivals in Ukraine and Poland, but the concert in Ellenville, NY gets better and more colorful every year. The now-familiar, charming mistress of ceremonies, Halyna Semeniak, introduced such acts as:

  • The choir “Accolade” from Philadelphia, the dance group “Babarosyn” from New York, and the trio “Gerdan” from Washington, DC, which pleasantly surprised the audience for the first time last year with excellent musical arrangements and interesting sounds from rare instruments;
  • Performers Alla Kutsevich and Andrew Turchin, Sophia Naida, the duet sisters Nadia and Natalia Pavlyshyn, and Natalka Kikta with her a capella renditions of such painfully familiar Lemko songs, once sung by her grandfather, as “Chyje zh to polechko ” and “Hore dolom khodzhu”;
  •  Local comedian Peter Wyslocki.

This year’s Vatra had its own surprise – the family band “Roots,” whose three girls and two boys on instruments ranging from violin to tambourine fascinated spectators. Their simple and rhythmic melodies and powerful voices carried over the mountains of Ellenville, allowing listeners to imagine momentarily that they were in the middle of the Lemko region. Loud and from the heart – this is exactly how Lemkos sing at home. This kind of music can still sometimes be heard in the Lemko region, such as at the annual Vatra in the village of Zdynia, Poland, where talented performers similarly tear the hearts of the audience out, flying them into the sky, as guests cease to be just spectators and burst alongside into song and dance.

Beyond the stage at the Vatra in Ellenville, NY, the organizers offered roasted pig, as well as borscht, pierogies, and other Ukrainian food. The organizers feared that the roasted pig, now an annual tradition, would not be available when their usual vendor could not supply it, but OOL member Michael Khomyk saved the day by finding another at the last minute.

Festival goers met old friends and welcomed new ones, remembering the past and planning for the future. Young and old guests twirled around at that Saturday evening’s dance. Some people sat at tables talking, while others sang in small groups near their tents, as usual at the Vatra.

The gorgeous weather on Saturday, however, turned into a huge downpour on Sunday – which, for the superstitious, was no wonder given that it was the thirteenth Vatra in the United States.

The festival organizers promised that there would be other Vatra festivals, though, and that there would be many of them – as long as Lemkos continue to exist and to feel the strong need for them.

Translated by Diana Howansky Reilly

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