Za tamtą górą. Wspomnienia łemkowskie (Over yonder hill: Lemko reminiscences)

Antoni Kroh
Iskry, Warszawa 2016

Antoni Kroh’s most recent book is the latest volume in a long line of works by this writer, ethnographer, translator of Czech and Slovak literature, scholar of the vernacular art of the Carpathians, and curator of ethnographic exhibitions to combine the genres of memoir, intellectual autobiography, and history of Polish ethnography and ethnology over the past century. Following the famous and fascinating Sklep potrzeb kulturalnych (Shop of cultural needs, 1999) on the history and culture of the Podhale region, Starorzecza (Oxbow lakes, 2010), a family saga with a broader historical background, and the fabulous yet hard‑hitting volume Wesołego Alleluja Polsko Ludowa czyli o pogmatwanych dziejach chłopskiej kultury plastycznej na ziemiach polskich (Happy Easter People’s Poland, or: On the convoluted history of visual art in the Polish lands, 2014), in which the author’s main subject was the vicissitudes of (neo-)folk art after World War II and his own role in that misery, Kroh now turns his attention to his second love alongside Podhale: the Lemko region and culture, which he has been exploring since the 1970s.
As is often the case in Kroh’s work, this book is neither a scientific paper spiked with scholarly footnotes nor a dissertation written in the idiolect of a professional ethnographer distilled from the language of mere mortals. Kroh, while he certainly is a qualified ethnographer, takes his usual distanced, ironic, humorous approach to his discipline and its self‑imposed criteria of scholarliness and the objectivity of the scientific description. For he has real blood, and not the diluted juice of pure reason, flowing in his veins; while he has a true interest in factography and does not succumb to offhandedness, he is genuinely fascinated by the manner of conveying history that blends intimate narratives crafted from a clearly defined, private, subjective perspective. As he himself admits in what is tantamount to a redefinition of the tasks of ethnography: “Well, I don’t know how it actually was, but I’m an ethnographer and what I’m interested in is what people say. If they say there’s a devil holed up in the old willow, it must mean there is. Some people in our business call that a ‘cultural fact’.”
And as befits a connoisseur and translator of the prose of Jaroslav Hašek, Kroh lets his tale unfold unhurriedly. It is a tale in which the fates of activists distinguished in the cause of the Lemkos’ struggle for survival after the cataclysm of the Second World War, the expulsions decreed by Moscow and Warsaw, and their subsequent wanderings and hardships are intertwined with the story of the life and professional progress of the author himself – then a young ethnographer taking what he confesses were his first uncertain and random steps in the field of the Lemko culture that was already beginning to fascinate him. In 1984 he was appointed curator‑commissioner, as the role was then known – of the ground‑breaking exhibition “Łemkowie Лемкы” (The Lemkos) in Nowy Sącz District Museum, and he eventually came to be a witness and attentive observer of the Lemko cultural and social revival over the last two decades of the twentieth century. The narrative thus structured is richly encrusted with “cultural facts” overheard or spotted in the field, and these combine to create a crushing chronicle of the indignity and wrongs committed in Poland in the second half of the twentieth century – often with the full sanction of the state and the Catholic Church – against the Lemko people. Thus while Za tamtą górą is a record of the Lemko cultural revival, it is also a diary of events, events which together build up a narrative on the initially problematic Lemko cultural heritage, both material and non‑material, which, on becoming the property of the former Lemko community, took on all the characteristics of an alien, denied, and hence disinherited heritage.
And so the book abounds in descriptions of deliberate devastation of Greek Catholic churches, chapels and cemeteries, and registers a catalogue of actions waged against the intangible heritage of the Lemkos, such as effacing Ruthenian toponyms or annihilating them altogether. Indeed, the book’s very title is taken from an anecdote Kroh cites in it, connected with this very issue of mapping and naming the former Lemko region, and the linguistic problems involved in understanding its topography after the cataclysm of the 1940s. Kroh summarises his conversation with a Lemko acquaintance, Mr Sowa, as follows: “‘In Kryszczów? Where’s Kryszczów?’ ‘Right here. It was the next village over, just over Ośnichowski Peak.’ ‘Where?!’ ‘Over Ośnichowski Peak!’ ‘Where?!’ ‘The other side of Ośnichowski! This hill right here.’ ‘This one?’ ‘No, not that one, this one.’ ‘Oh. You mean this one here?’ […] ‘Ośnichowski Peak. To the left of it was Kryszczów, to the right Uhryń.’ ‘Just over this hill, or that hill was it, that Kryszczów you were talking about?’ Mr Sowa smiled half‑uncertainly, half‑apologetically. How can you get through to a guy who doesn’t even know which hill is where in his own village? This hill, that hill. That’s no way to talk.”
Kroh, a fan of the Podhale region and author of numerous publications devoted to it, also studies the complex history of the Lemko region and of the thorny relations between the Tatra Highlanders and the Lemkos since 1945, when the Lemko expulsions and resettlement operations began. These started in Soviet Ukraine directly after the war and were continued in Poland in 1947, in what were known as the Reclaimed Territories, under the guise of “Operation Vistula”. As he remarks in the chapter tellingly entitled “The wind off the Tatras, or: where is that honour”, “A century and a half ago, Podhale and the Lemko region barely differed in material terms. In both a poverty inconceivable today. The twentieth century opened a gulf between these two regions of the same northern slopes of the Carpathians. The Podhale highlanders and the Lemkos, once close, today live on different planets. And if occasionally they meet, they have nothing to say to each other.” Kroh has in fact addressed the theme of Highlander–Lemko relations before: he wrote extensively on the Highlanders’ “colonisation” of the Lemkos’ (now formerly Lemkos’) Pieniny and Beskidy ranges, their “occupation” of pasture land and use of Greek Catholic churches as barns for the duration of the transhumance, in his second, edited edition of Sklep potrzeb kulturalnych,Sklep potrzeb kulturalnych po remoncie (Renovated shop of cultural needs, 2013). But now he returns to these stories and places this “colonisation” within the broader cultural context of the displacement of Lemko culture and cultural heritage by the dominant, hegemonic Polish culture, within which it has become an unwanted heritage.
The theme of unwanted heritage recurs throughout the book. Significantly, Kroh does not see it as a solely Polish issue, or as one that relates only to the historical past. On the contrary, the book contains descriptions of relations not only between Poles and Lemkos, but also between Slovaks and Ukrainians and Lemkos, which helps to show the “Lemko question” in a context of nationalist and ethnic tensions and relations that is broader than just Polish; indeed it is characteristic of almost all of Central and Eastern Europe. It also lists very recent and even current events showcasing the Poles’ problems with the Lemko environment – in both its Orthodox and Greek Catholic variants – and its culture. This issue is brought into especially sharp relief in the sections of the book where the author juxtaposes descriptions of two acts of devastation and desecration. These are the damage done to the Uniate church on Wiślna Street in Kraków by the La Salettes in 1947, when an iconostasis designed by Jan Matejko himself was destroyed with premeditation, and the destruction of another Krakow chapel, that of SS Boris and Gleb on Kanonicza Street, in the spring of 2015. This chapel, designed and furnished by Jerzy Nowosielski, was, as is widely known, demolished with the full knowledge and consent of Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, on the pretext of creating space for the needs of the World Youth Day held in the city in 2016.
Happily, however, soulless episcopal bureaucrats are not the only characters in Antoni Kroh’s latest book. Za tamta górą is packed full of reminiscences of figures of immaculate intentions and outstanding, often heroic distinction in the service of rescuing Lemko cultural heritage, whose work, begun as long ago as in the 1970s, has helped to render that heritage less alien and less unwanted.

Wojciech Szymański

Translated from the Polish by Jessica Taylor‑Kucia