Europe - Bieszczady, Poland
the name outside Poland means nothing, but in the land of Chopin, Pope
John Paul and Lech Walesa the term is like a boiling cauldron.
geographic terminology the name Bieszczady simply denotes a 60 km long
part of the long Carpathian Arc between the Lupkowska and Uzhok passes,
about 2000 sq. km in all or an area not much bigger than Greater London
County. It is here that the great European watershed between the Mediterraean,
Black and Baltic seas begins turning from its previously east- west axis
into a north- south one.
this range constitutes the westermost part of the East Carpathian range
which has a diffrent flora and fauna from the far more developed and spoiled
West Carpathians. It is also the only part of this long assembly of ranges,
humps and hillocks that eluded Stalin's grasp after 1945 and managed to
stay within Poland. Before the last war Poland stretched right until
the gates of Transylvania, some 250 km further southeast along these melancholy
This is all
that remains of Poland's once extensive eastern marchlands that for a time
in the seventeenth century stretched almost to the gates of Moscow and
left an indelible mark upon the national psyche.
pitiful remnant evokes feelings of powerful nostalgia that no other part
of today's Poland can match. It is the Polish equivalent of Oberlausitz
or Vorpommern for the Germans, which remind them respectively about Silesia
or Pomerania, both lost as consequence of Hilerian warmongering. Just
like the Germans who were ruthlessly expelled from their former East Prussian
homelands, so too were the Poles who replaced them- most came from present
Belarus or Ukraine.
50 years the artifical border along the San and Bug rivers seperated the
ostensibly friendly Slavic peoples from one another, a line arbitrarly
drawn by one Lord Curzon in the privacy of his London ministry, a
man that never visited Poland nor even attempted to understand its prewar
Even the part
of the range west of the infant San river, which remains in Poland
once had a very strong Ukrainian majority.
are long gone, victim of the vicious ethnic cleansing perpetrated on so
many peoples right after the war, where instead of the Wilsonian ideal
of fitting the borders to satisfy various nationalities, these peoples
were moved about like sacks of coal to fit the new political demarcations
dreamed up in Teheran, Yalta or Potsdam.
might be gone, but the wooden churches were they worshipped, the cementeries
were they laid their forefathers to well deserved rest after lives of backbraking
labor, their old farmsteads which saw so much grief but also happiness
stemming from daily life, they all remain to a great extent. It is this
peculiar image of diversity, the eastern, almost oriental appearance of
a region so diffrent from the communist ideal of a mononational Poland,
together with the wild beech forests that replaced prewar fields and pastures,
that draw visitors from all over Poland. They search here for that
foretaste of the " wild East" that they sampled when their grandmothers
tucked them to bed and told tales of endless forests peopled by proud and
fearless people who feared no one.
say the area, just like most of what used to be eastern Poland presented
hardly a rosy picture back then, and still is more than rough, to say the
least. The nostalgia the old treasure in their hearts tends to have
the unfortunate quality that the longer removed in time we are from our
childhoods, the wrinkles, blemishes and downright horrific details that
could spoil the picture tend to dissapear in the fog of wishful thinking.
|We want to
concentrate on what made us happy, our past, no matter how awful, always
appears better and more secure than the unknown realities of what the future
holds, or does not hold in store for us. This is why so many older Poles,
my grandparents included, can talk for hours about the happy folk dances,
wedding partys where vodka flowed like a river, courtly manners of aristocracy
and kissing the priest in the hand as he gave his blessings to the hopefully
sobered up parishoners.
or perhaps do not want to remember how awfully hard life in those God-
forsaken provinces really was.
with bad harvests, many peasants practically starved to death, infant mortality
resembled medieval levels even though the twentieth century was already
well underway, electricity and plumbing were as abstract as the moon.
almost no hardened roads, few rail lines, most people could not read or
write, although happily they knew how to party and spread their love all
around, together with syphilis and gonorrhea. The Hutsuls, who lived in
those quiet valleys around Carnohora and Ukraine's highest peak, the Howerla,
were renowned for their easy going attitude toward life and love. Although
nominally Greek- Catholic their faith involved a lot of pagan leftovers
such as beliefs in demons, vampires, ghosts of unbaptized children haunting
their parents and other assorted floatsam of premodern naivete. They were
sexually liberated before anybody ever heard of Mairlyn Monroe and the
Rolling Stones, and as such object of insincere derision and hidden jealousy
of their more orthodox neigbors from the lowlands. The Hutsul way of life
symbolized freedom in its pure, unadulterated form, a Rousselian noble
savage riding atop their tiny horses over the windswept Poloniny, as the
huge mountaintop meadows are called here, having nothing to worry
about precisely because they got so little to lose. Oskar Kolberg, a renowned
Polish ethnographer canvassing the region in the late nineteenth century,
believed that of all "polish races, this one preserved the spirit of the
deceased country better than the rest."
events that began in the fall of 1939 clearly refuted any illusions that
the Hutsuls considered themselves members of Polish society. They really
always were, and are Ukrainians, as far as their dialect and religion indicates.
October, over the corpse of Poland Stalin and Hitler divided the erstwhile
" bastard of Versailles" along the San and Bug rivers. The Hutsuls and
Bojkis, the other ethnic group that inhabited the Bieszczady proper, did
not welcome the Muscovite invaders with open arms. Forced collectivization
and rooting out of the kulaks went directly against their freedom- loving
way of life, and they had no practical use for Marxist dystopias.
When the Germans
conquered the region in the summer of 1941 many greeted them as liberators,
only to be rewarded with summary executions of the " slavic subhumans."
But by the spring of 1944, with the Germans in full retreat and the prospect
of Marxist rule looming again on the horizon, most have had enough- they
wanted neither Soviets, or Germans, and certainly not the aristocratic
Poles who treated them so condescendingly before the war- they wanted a
free Ukraine- whatever it meant, at whatever cost.
during the next five years attempting to carve out their country, heedless
of the hopelessness of their cause. Hundreds of Hutsul and Bojki villages
were depopulated, their inhabitants shot in nearby woods as " enemies of
the people, kulaks and other fascist scum," others deported to Siberia
or eastern Ukraine where there could be russified more efficiently.
Those who found
themselves in Poland fared no better- instead of Siberia they suddenly
found themselves in cattle cars heading for Wroclaw, Szczecin or Olsztyn
where the Germans have just been chased out in the name of correcting past
injustices with new ones. In Poland more Greek Orthodox believers live
on the Baltic coast than near the Ukrainian border, their former language
all but gone, only the rites of their church showing any diffrence from
the surrounding sea of polishness. To the extent that they are assimilated
they are regarded as fellow Poles, their unusual faith nonwithstanding.
hatreds, but also the memory of what might have been, are dying out with
the old generation.
In the Carnohora,
the Gorgany, the Svidoviec and the Polish section of the Bieszczady time
flows as slowly as ever. Decades of communist mismanagement and inertia
have paradoxically ensured that the backwardness of the region is here
to stay for the time being, thus providing the few westerners who venture
here a unique view into an almost pre- industrial corner of Europe.
with the vast stretches of Transylvania and Bukovina that lie in Romania,
these truly are the hidden gems of Europe- better discovered now than in
the future when they too will vanish under the watchful gaze of countless
Brussels and Strasbourg bureaucrats that seek to improve our world and
make it duller.
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