Monday, January 27, 2020

The Lasting Legacy of the Łemko People of Poland

by Nicole Brozyna

Nicole Brozyna is a senior in Psychology and Slavic-Polish Studies at the University of Illinois.  Nicole's future plans include entering the mental health workforce and applying to medical school.  She wrote this blog post in 418 'Language and Minorities in Europe' in Spring 2019.

Image Credit: Edo Leitner, via Wikimedia Commons.
Image is in the Public Domain.
For centuries, Poland has experienced dramatic shifts regarding its borders and political climates. However, despite its history of inner turmoil and pressure from multiple rulers and aggressors, Poland has always been able to cling to its culture, traditions, and language. Moreover, as a result of all of these shifts, the country that has been multi-ethnic throughout its history ended up a variety of now relatively small ethnic minorities in several regions within the state. The Łemko people are one of these ethnic minority groups that still inhabit Poland today, along with the Crimean Karaites, the Roma, and the Tatars. In this blog, we explore the Łemko people, their origins, the history of their region, the phonetics and sounds of the Łemko language, and finally, where the Łemkos currently reside and what their population statistics are.

The ethnogenesis of this group is still being debated, but it is most likely that the Łemkos descend from a 16th-century settlement of Vlachs and Rusyns in the Lower Beskids region. The Łemkos forged their own distinguishing identity that was based on their unique language, culture and religious affiliation with the Catholic/Eastern Orthodox Church. Despite their unfortunate history 

of backlash from multiple rulers of the Lower Beskids, they have made numerous efforts to create a concrete partnership with their patron-country of Poland. This has allowed them to secure the hopes of having a peaceful future and fundamental minority rights.

Image Credit: Hierakares, via Wikimedia Commons.
License available here.
Traditionally, the Łemko Rusyns inhabited the foothills and mountain valleys located on the northern slopes between the San and Dunajec rivers. This region seems to have been originally inhabited by the White Croats, which was one of the earliest Slavic tribes in the fifth and sixth centuries A.D. to arrive in the area. For a while, the Łemko region was divided between the Polish kingdom and the Galician principality of Kievan Rus. After the fall of independent Galicia, the entire Łemko region came under Polish rule. Settlement of the area was highly encouraged, and as a result, newcomers began to inhabit the mountain areas. Most of them were Rusyns from the east and Vlachs from the south. Fast forward to World War II; the northern Łemko region was under Nazi occupation entirely, while the Prešov region was incorporated under the pro-fascist Slovakian state that had been recently created. Following this shift, the Łemkos of occupied Poland began three waves of displacements, which irreversibly changed the ethnic and religious structure of the region and its settlement continuity. The final displacement of populations in 1947 dramatically influenced the spatial distribution of the Łemko population. After further political transformations following 1989, central European countries regained their full independence and in the early 1990s, problems with border crossings had also ended.

Image Credit: Silar, via
Wikimedia Commons.
License available here.
Perhaps, the true splendor of the Łemko culture is that it is inseparable from its language. The provenance and ties between the Łemko language with languages spoken in the region spur two hypotheses regarding its origin. Ukrainian scholars seem to think that it is a westernmost Ukrainian dialect, while Russian scholars regard Łemko as a dialect of the Rusyn language. For many Poles, Łemko sounds similar to Ukrainian. Łemkos seem to admit that their language is very much like Ukrainian and that the difference between the two is comparable to the difference between Slovak and Polish. If you speak Ukrainian, you can understand the topic being discussed in Łemko, but nuances and details get lost in learning some basic grammar and vocabulary.

The future of the Lemko population is quite promising. According to the 2011 Census, there are about 10,500 Łemkos living in the Łemko region of Poland. Currently, the Łemko region is located in the far southeastern corner of Poland, which is divided between two administrative groups present in the area, called the  Nowy Sacz and Krosno palatinates. Nowadays, the Łemkos come  together occasionally  in large numbers for various cultural festivals, such as the annual Łemko Culture Festival in Zdynia. It is thanks to the political and legal changes that took place in the early 1990s that enabled self-determination and freedom to all ethnic minorities, including the Łemkos.

The Łemko people of Poland are a regional minority group that have demonstrated resilience and strength throughout centuries of turmoil and numerous invaders. This resilience has allowed the Łemkos to hold on to their unique culture, language, and traditions.


Barwiński, Marek & Lesniewska-Napierala, Katarzyna. (2011). Lemko Region – historical region in the Polish-Slovakian borderland. 

Magocsi, P. (1987). The Lemko Rusyns: Their Past and Present. Retrieved from

Oleksiak, Wojciech. “The Lost Homeland and Lasting Identity of the Lemko People.”, 

Weclawowicz-Bilska, Elzbieta (2016). The Role and Importance of Small Medium-Sized Cities in the Revitalisation of the Polish Carpathian Region. file:///Users/nicolebrozyna/Downloads/Architektura-Zeszyt-2-A-(8)-2016-6.pdf 


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