Monday, October 03, 2005

More Impressions from the Carpathians

Mrs VF's Carpathian kinfolk reminded me of my own Appalachian kin in many ways, especially with respect to material culture and spirituality. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, the similarities would have been striking with people in both mountain ranges living in log houses and following similar subsistence strategies. Like my Appalachian forebears, the Lemko people of the Carpathians just wanted to be left alone to work their farms and raise their families and live their simple lives in freedom.

Unfortunately, the Lemkos were not allowed to live in peace for very long. Even in their mountainous refuge, some king or other laid claim to them as subjects and parcelled out the right to tax and exploit them to various "nobles". Such nobles were said to "own" entire villages and towns, but what they really owned was an exclusive right to the labor and produce of the population. The land was plentiful and of no value unless worked by the peasants. The peasants owed a substantial portion of their crops and stock to the noble and were required to work as much as three days a week for the noble. On top of this, they had to eke out a living for themselves and their families.

In general, each peasant family had land and resources allocated to it, and farming was not collectivized, but the extractions of the nobility were so great that there was precious little incentive for peasants to work any harder than they had to to get by. This phenomenon has been discussed at length by sociologists and is part of what makes someone a "peasant" versus a "farmer". The explanation that one's work is subject to being appropriated by the nobles seems pretty straightforward to me.

In principle, I suppose that a savvy noble might have provided his serfs with more freedom and the right to keep more of their produce, and this would have resulted in more production and even more wealth for the noble. Moreover, he would attract more settlers to his territory and put more land into productive use. It did not work this way, however, and the nobles simply took as much as they could short of actually starving the serfs. And there was no competition for serfs because they were tied to the land and could not move off the farm if they wanted to vote with their feet and find a more benevolent noble. Serfdom was abolished in 1848. Before then, nobles took great interest in the affairs of their serfs even to controlling when and to whom they might marry. Even after emancipation, the relationship was transformed into that of landlord and tenant such that the "owner" still got to exploit the peasants and extract rent. The family now owns its land, and I am not sure how this came about, but I bet they had to pay for it.

Mrs VF's branch of the family migrated to Pennsylvania, but the state was not finished with those who stayed behind. The patriarch of the family was conscripted into the Austrian army in World War I and spent four years in the Balkans. The Eastern front ran over the region and brought death and destruction in its wake. The area is remarkable for its many cemeteries from the war. After the war, there was a brief period of independence for the region, but it was soon absorbed by Poland.

In World War II, Germany occupied the area and put many of the residents in concentration camps. Others, like Mrs VF's great uncle and aunt were enslaved and sent to Germany to work. For five years they toiled for the German state and risked annihilation in Allied bombings.

After the second war, the Communist puppets of the Soviet catastrophe decided to eradicate the Lemkos by dispersing them to other parts of Poland to encourage their assimilation. The Polish state destroyed entire villages and moved almost all the Lemkos to Silesia and other parts of Poland newly vacated by ethnic Germans. Mrs VF's one great uncle was permitted to stay because he was married to a Pole, but the rest of the family was forcibly relocated. In 1957, Poland relented in this policy and permitted the Lemko diaspora to reverse itself. Many returned, but they were required to buy their homes from the state and to buy off the squatters who had occupied them. Many families have yet to have their lands restored to them. Now, the EU encourages ethnic diversity as a draw for tourism, and Poland promotes Lemko culture to some extent.

Despite all this interference and persecution, the Lemkos are thriving. God bless them. They have great hopes for Poland and its new democratic system and for the EU. Why this is so in view of their experience with states is a mystery to me.

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