A Lemko journey of discovery

The authors at the Vatra in Zdynia.

by Elisa and Anna Jakymin

In 2019, we were fortunate to journey to western Poland to discover the homeland of our mother’s ancestors.
Unlike our father’s family who had been a complete mystery to us due to their displacement following WWII, we were more familiar with our mother’s side since most of her family had remained in Poland. We had, however, been ignorant of the turmoil that our maternal grandparents had faced for no reason other than being of Lemko origin.

After meeting our father’s family in 2016, we began delving deeper into our mother’s side with various tools now at our disposal. We had many unanswered questions.

We encouraged the whole family to complete DNA tests through Ancestry websites, with the results linking each of us to over 500 ‘4th cousins or closer,’ the majority of whom now reside in America. As we soon learnt, many Americans are passionate about uncovering their roots, since their parents were hesitant to talk about their pasts after having started their new lives.

At this time, we became acquainted with many fellow Lemkos: Maryclare White, an American living in Spain; Joan Moreland, an American living in New Jersey; and New Yorker, John Senick. Thanks to the kindness of these individuals, we were soon able to answer our unresolved questions and our family tree began to blossom.

Beyond the excitement of discovering how we were all related, our Lemko cousins started teaching us far more than we had anticipated. Out of curiosity, Joan asked us whether our family had been involved in Operation Vistula. An estimated 130,000 to 140,000 Lemkos lived in the Polish part of Lemkivschyna in 1939. After WWII, due to the 1947 campaign, Lemkos were forcibly resettled onto trains by the Soviet-installed Polish communist authorities, predominantly to the Soviet Union as well as to Poland’s newly acquired western lands. We discovered that our Lemko cousins had heard about Operation Vistula but their families had not been directly impacted as many resettled in New York via Ellis Island from 1870. Interestingly, the USA has the largest diaspora of Poles in the world today, with many having been attracted by the high wages and ample job opportunities.

Years earlier, we had learnt of Ellis Island ourselves on a ferry ride circling the Statue of Liberty, never having imagined our own personal connection at the time! After WWII, a few thousand more Lemkos reached the United States and, to a lesser degree, Canada. The vast majority fled in the face of the advancing Red Army, emigrating as “displaced persons” to North America. Andy Warhol, (birth name Warhola), the American artist and major figure in the pop art movement, is arguably the most well-known Lemko today.

We learnt that our paternal great-grandfather, Michaił Spiak – despite having initially travelled to New York in the early twentieth century – became homesick and returned to his beautiful homeland, as did up to one-third of Poles at the time. Our great-grandparents and their families, including our grandparents (only young teens at the time), were given two weeks to pack up their belongings and leave the homes and fields that their ancestors had inhabited for centuries.

The beautiful Lemko countryside

From late April to July 1947, Lemkos were resettled from their homeland in a stretch of the Carpathian Mountains which fell under Poland, as part of a political tactic used against national minorities to create homogenous states. The aim was to annihilate Lemko history, culture, and language and in the long-run, force assimilation. It was a truly horrid, gut-wrenching experience that no one should ever have to endure. And sadly, one which echoes with disturbing familiarity when observing today’s war unfold in Ukraine.

Our maternal grandmother (top left) with her family before their lives changed forever

The sweltering train carriages, filled with terrified people, their pets and a lifetime of memories compressed into a single suitcase, took our grandparents’ families on a long and uncertain journey. Our grandfather had his dog, Azorek, with him on the train but, after nature called at one stop, his dog was left behind. Our grandfather heartbreakingly recalled his dog running after the train.

When our grandfather’s family finally arrived at their destination on the other side of Poland, they found themselves inheriting homes and land which had been abandoned by Germans (themselves forcibly deported to what remained of Germany after WWII). It was at this home that our grandparents raised a family whom we would come to visit during our childhood.

Between 1957 and 1958, some 5,000 Lemko families returned to their home regions in Poland. Today, the Lemko population in the Polish section of Lemkivschyna only numbers around 10,000–15,000. Our grandmother was originally from the ancestral village of Ług, part of Lemkivschyna. Our grandparents once returned to Ług to find that the village had completely vanished. Our Lemko cousins confirmed that many ancestral villages had tragically been burnt down by Communists. Our grandparents’ final memories of the rolling hills, green and lush forests had sadly been of tyrannical Communist authorities invading their villages. Some 50,000 Lemkos, including our Aunty, now live in the western and northern parts of Poland.

As children, we knew our mother’s maiden name was Spiak but we have only recently come to understand why it does not sound like a typical Polish surname, with a ‘ski’ ending. Due to the significant Lemko presence, we learned there were several Spiak families in Ług. Growing up near New York, John himself had friends who bore the surname, and there had once even been a restaurant in the Big Apple of the same namesake, famous for serving pierogi.

We began learning about the annual Lemko festival in Zdynia, Poland, which our Lemko cousins had attended several years earlier. We never imagined that we would be visiting ourselves just a few years later! Its purpose is to bring Lemkos together to celebrate the ongoing survival of their culture and homeland. Our visit to the Lemko homeland strengthened our Lemko identity and connected us with our late grandparents once more, despite their deaths more than a decade earlier.

Our meaningful heritage trip to Lemkivschyna in 2019 was the culmination of years of research following the deaths of our grandparents. The trip was planned around the Watra in Zdynia, usually falling on the third weekend of July. Watra is a name associated with the tradition of the bonfire that the Lemkos have gathered around for generations. After first meeting our Lemko cousin, Maryclare, over tapas in Madrid, we flew to Ukraine to visit our father’s family once again, before driving with our cousin, Oksana and her husband, Oleh, over the Ukrainian-Polish border. The fact that our once long-lost paternal Ukrainian relatives would be driving us to the Lemko homeland was surreal to say the least, and we will forever be grateful!

Anna (aged 3) and our maternal grandparents, Anna Lypen and Andrzej Spiak,
on her first trip to their farm in Poland.

To prepare for the whirlwind trip, another Lemko cousin, John, sent us several videos, showing the route to our accommodation. He warned us not to arrive late due to the bed and breakfast’s secluded location in a forest. Lo and behold, despite a relatively short wait at the border, and a stop to collect our Aunty, Helena, who had travelled from the other side of Poland to join us, it is by no stretch of the imagination to say that we thought we would have to sleep in the car that night!

While driving on the gravel streets reminded us of the bumpy journey into our maternal grandparents’ tiny village during our childhood visits, arriving in pitch-black was no laughing matter. After what felt like an eternity of Oleh frantically zigzagging his car through unsealed sections of forest terrain, we saw the light from a dwelling come into view. The hosts of the bed and breakfast, along with John’s wife, Maira, who would be joining us, laughed hysterically that we had somehow arrived from a completely random direction! We certainly had newfound respect for Oleh’s driving ability and we wondered what our Aunty thought she had gotten herself into!

At the Watra entrance with Maira

We spent a few days with our relatives traipsing in and out of the Watra. There were ongoing performances by young children, teenagers, and adults – all singing, dancing and playing Lemko music. We admired a group of Spiak family singers, secretly wondering whether we could be distantly related!

The Lemko Watra, Zdynia

Most festival attendees were young Lemkos living in western and northern Poland, curious to see their Carpathian homeland firsthand and to learn about their ancestral heritage alongside fellow Lemkos.

With two of the young Watra performers.

We also visited an outdoor ethnographic Lemko Museum in Nowy Sacz, which depicted an accurate snapshot of how our ancestors once lived.

A traditional Lemko homestead.

With our guide, a fellow Lemko, we visited the Orthodox church of St Basil the Great in the village of Konieczna. As we visited the Lemko church with its characteristic log structure, a relic fell onto the ground despite there being no wind. The tour guide read our minds when she exclaimed, “there are others with us today.” There was also a charming cemetery adjacent to the church dating back to WWI, with several graves bearing the now all-too familiar Spiak name!

St Basil the Great, Konieczna

St Basil the Great, Konieczna

Our guide no doubt felt some pressure to locate the family homes that our Canadian relatives had unearthed and visited several years earlier. Amazingly, the childhood home of our great grandmother (Kateryna Warycha) was found to be next door to the childhood home of our great grandfather (Michaił Spiak)! While many villages no longer remain, somehow these houses remain intact and are occupied following renovations.

In front of the Spiak (on left) and Warycha (right) homes

Our tour ended with a celebratory vodka shot atop a beautiful hill on the Slovak-Polish border. It was only upon returning home that Anna exclaimed to our mother that it was a shame we could not see our grandmother’s village due to it having been burned down. We were curious as to its whereabouts and were lost for words when our mother described that it had been on top of a hill on the Slovak-Polish border. We have no doubt that it had been the location of our celebratory vodka shot!

We could not leave without visiting the train station in Gorlice, the location from which so many Lemkos had been forcibly deported. When we visited, we found it to be completely and eerily isolated, with overgrown foliage covering the tracks; a far cry from what our ancestors would have experienced when they were deported against their will all those years ago.

The train station in Gorlice today.

After visiting the Watra, we received a message on an Ancestry site from an American, Debby Landgrebe, living in Florida who connected us with her first cousin from California, a man who just happened to be named John Spiak! John was born in Yonkers, New York, which had once been a thriving Lemko community. We learnt that John’s grandfather, also named John, was our great-grandfather, Michaił’s brother. Via historical records accessed online, we learnt that he had married his wife, Katarzyna Warycha, also in Yonkers. At the time, they had been living with John and his family, in the building that John and his wife owned, at 30 Madison Avenue.

John later surprised us with an obituary published in a newspaper showing that John’s great-grandfather, fondly known as “Andy Spiak,” once worked with the pioneer of the American animation industry, Walt Disney! John himself attended Disneyland’s opening on 16-17 June 1955, working for ABC television on the production of a live 90-minute broadcast! As lifelong Disney fans, we were both thrilled to learn that an ancestor had played a part in the park’s history.

John reported retaining postcards from Theodosia, the eldest child of his grandparents and his father’s elder sister, who had once visited her relatives in Poland. On one postcard, dated July 4, 1967, she wrote: “One of Katarzyna’s boys is a taxi driver, the other two live on a farm. Two took off as long as I am here and are always with me taking me everywhere. Friday, they will drive me 500 miles, returning Sunday night, to take me where Pops and Mom were born. They are very hospitable.” To our surprise, our mother even remembered Theodosia’s visit during her childhood and pulled out a picture showing her family with Theodosia.

John informed us that Theodosia had been gifted with a vase from our mother’s family upon her departure. Theodosia must have really treasured it as she had asked that it be bequeathed to a Spiak in her will! Today, the vase is in the safe hands of John, with two more generations in line to receive it.

The Vase

Reflecting on our family history, we understand that Lemkos really wanted only one thing: to be able to return to their homeland. Eerily similar to the current situation in Ukraine, most Ukrainians who have left the country plan to return soon or shortly after the war. Many Ukrainians are already returning home, despite the continued threats to their survival.

At the time of writing, Maira is in Poland attending a Lemko wedding and working with a Polish volunteer organisation to assist Ukrainian refugees from Mariupol.

As painful as it is to retell, we are proud of the strength and unity of Lemko culture that survives to this day, and we can only hope that our grandparents are proud of us for keeping their memories alive.