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  • The Dance of Exile:Jerzy Starzyński, Kyczera, and the Polish Lemkos
  • Cathy Black (bio)

Since at least the fourteenth century the Slavic ethnic minority population known as Polish Lemkos has claimed the northern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains as its homeland. Lemkos are part of a larger east Slavic population of Carpathian Rus' collectively known as Rusyns, who reside in the Lemko region (in Poland), the Prešov region (in Slovakia), and western Subcarpathian Rus' (in Ukraine) (see Figure 1). Beyond the Carpathian homeland Rusyns live in Serbia, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, and outside of Europe in the United States, Canada, and Australia (Magocsi 2005, 433; 2006, 11). By the outset of the twentieth century in the Lemko Region, the term "Lemko" was gradually adopted as an ethnonym instead of "Rusyn." Some Rusyns in lands other than Poland also choose to refer to themselves as Lemkos.

In the middle of the twentieth century this small yet viable culture faced extinction. From 1944 to 1946, following an agreement between communist-ruled Poland and the Soviet government to create a Polish state in which the vast majority of inhabitants would be ethnic Poles, an estimated 100,000 Lemkos living within post–World War II Polish boundaries were resettled in western Soviet Ukraine (Magocsi 2006, 94; Horbal 2005a, 288). Also at this time the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) was active in the Carpathian Mountains, carrying out sabotage operations against communist rule. Even though most Lemkos did not support the UPA, the Polish government accused them of doing so. Between April 28 and August 12, 1947, as part of a forced deportation known as the Vistula Operation, an additional 50,000 to 60,000 Lemkos were torn from their homeland and relocated to the western and northern territories of Poland (Horbal 2005b, 531–32) (see Figure 2). The Polish government kept a close eye on the resettled Lemkos. Their number in any given town or village was not to exceed 10 percent of the overall population (Horbal 2005b, 532), and family clans were disassembled, making it virtually impossible for Lemko culture to survive. Four decades of communist rule following World [End Page 41]

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Figure 1.

Carpathian Rus', 2005. Courtesy of Paul Robert Magocsi.

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Figure 2.

Lemko resettlement. Courtesy of Paul Robert Magocsi.

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War II effectively brought an end to the traditional Lemko way of life (Magocsi 2006, 99).

With the fall of communism in Poland and neighboring countries in 1989, a third Rusyn national revival began, fueled by new organizations that were established in each country where Rusyns lived (Magocsi 2006, 102–3). One of these organizations was Poland's Lemko Association. Collectively and collaboratively these organizations have opened channels of information about Lemko/Rusyn history, language, politics, and culture, in both print and digital forms. This essay is a first attempt to memorialize the role of Lemko dance in this revivalist movement. In particular, the essay addresses the life and work of choreographer Jerzy Starzyński and his Legnica-based amateur song and dance ensemble Kyczera, which since 1991 has been one of the most successful ventures for representing this exilic community to the world at large.

Beginning in October 2003, I conducted fieldwork in Legnica, Poland, with the assistance of my Polish translator and friend, Danuta Jampolska, to understand the role of this dance company in rediscovering and strengthening Lemko identity. Drawing upon my interviews with Mr. Starzyński and my observations of Kyczera rehearsals and performances, I explore the particular problems and possibilities associated with representing the "traditions" of exilic cultures, especially through dance and music, which, because of their ephemeral nature, are vulnerable yet resilient repositories of cultural knowledge. For exilic cultures such as the Lemkos, to create origin narratives is one strategy for coping with the threat of cultural extinction. Polish Lemko culture has experienced decades of cultural isolation and persecution, which has been passed down to generations of children born in exile. One of these children, Lemko choreographer Jerzy Starzyński, patiently bided his time and busied himself preparing for a future opportunity to make meaningful contributions to...


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