By Richard Garbera Trojanowski
Many American descendents of the Lemko ethnic group have, among their possessions, a collection of old letters and photographs. Perhaps these letters and photos are stored away in a closet. Perhaps they are tucked away in a cigar box that has collected a good amount of dust on a bookshelf. Wherever these treasures are, they remain in their hiding places - unread for years, perhaps even decades.
It is not necessarily due to a lack of interest. Many who inherit items like these would like to read the letters and know the identities of the people in the photographs, but they simply cannot read or interpret the Cyrillic script. It is a fairly typical story that many can relate to, and it is exactly what happened to the Mut(k)a family, who shared their letters with The Lemko Project.
The Mutka family traces its origins to the western Lemko village of Mochnaczka, which is located in the vicinity of Krynica in southeastern Poland. Peter Mutka, the family patriarch, was born in Mochnaczka Wyżna in 1892 and came to the United States some time in the early twentieth century, as did his sister Mary. Peter married a young lady in Passaic, New Jersey who was originally from Tylicz, Mochnaczka’s neighboring village. The couple eventually settled in the Scranton area in Pennsylvania, and Peter’s sister Mary settled in Ansonia, Connecticut. The younger Mutka siblings remained behind in Mochnaczka. From the letters and family stories, we know that they consistently stayed in touch for a couple of decades, through the 1920's and 1930's, until the political turmoil of World War II made communications more difficult.
Although the story is not unusual, the Mutka family letters, most of them written between the years 1946 to 1950, provide a poignant reflection of the collective Lemko experience. The story of the Mutka family is part of the larger story of the Lemko experience in the twentieth century. It is a story of economic hardship, mass emigration, religious repression, war, ethnic cleansing, communism, and collectivization. In particular, the events of the post-World War II period would permanently separate most Lemkos from the things that were most important to them: their relatives, their churches and their land. The letters give us a glimpse into their lives and reveal how the family attempted to use written correspondence to stay connected with one another during increasingly difficult circumstances. We are able to compare the letters from before and after the deportations, and gain some insight to the psychological effects on those who were victimized.
A few of the letters are dated in the year 1946, from Mochnaczka, and they give us some idea of what life had been like for Lemkos who still remained after some of their neighbors had already been taken to Soviet Ukraine. This is the period just before Akcja Wisla, (Operation Vistula, the 1947 forced deportation to the west.) During this period, the family members left behind in Mochnaczka were divided and scattered: brothers Teodor and Michael were resettled in the Ivano-Frankivsk region in Ukraine, presumably in 1945, while brother Milko and sister Anna (who married a man named Peter Tkaczyk) were caught up in Akcja Wisla in 1947 and ended up in the Strzelce Krajeńskie region in western Poland (the former German town of Friedeberg). One letter also reveals that their brother Alexander had been killed while serving in the armed forces.
The following is an excerpt from a May 1946 letter written by Milko Mutka in Mochnaczka to his brother Peter in Pennsylvania:
Mokhnachka Nyzhnya, May 25, 1946
|Letter from Milko Mutka to his |
relatives in America. 1946
Thank you very much for the letter that I received from you. You’re asking now about our brothers. Michael had not written for four years, but now has let us know that he is living in Ukraine. Our second brother Alexander went into the army along with his son, Peter, and I don’t know whether he is alive because we have heard nothing about him. Our third brother, Teodor, is in the police in Russia... But now I have nothing here at home. The farm has gone to waste and I am poverty-stricken. You wrote that you are sending me 2 dollars, but I have not received them. I don’t know whether they were in the letter or if they may still find their way here.
Dear brother, if you are able, send me something, because I am now in poverty, maybe some clothing. I don’t have a horse or wagon...
Peter Yedinak and sister Anna are still living in Mochnaczka. The family from Perunka has gone to Russia (Ukraine) and they don’t write anything...And now I greet you all very sincerely and greet our sister’s children. Be well and forgive me that my writing is so ugly. Please write back soon.
In the next letter, we learn that Milko’s sister Mary (in Ansonia, Connecticut) has passed away. We also discover that Milko doesn't actually know how to write and the letters that came from him were actually written by another person. In this second communication, we find out that a daughter of George Hojniak (a neighbor or relation) is acting as a scribe for Milko:
November 23 (?), 1946
At the beginning of my letter, Glory to Jesus Christ…
Beloved brother, I thank you very much and sincerely for the letter that I received from you, and from which I learned about your health and how you are getting along. I am getting on badly... I don’t even have a horse. The Germans took it from me. When I was gone working in the east, clothes were stolen from my house and I was left naked, without any money and without even a horse. So, if you are able, beloved brother, save me. You inquired about our brothers - well, our brothers have left for the east. Our brother, Michael, has written me two letters, but I have no news about either Teodor or Alexander. That place where we were born has grown over with grass now, the house is gone, and the land has gone to the government. Besides that, I have nothing new that I can think of to write, so I will sincerely greet you, and your wife and children.
You write that our sister has passed away, so pass along my greetings to her children, that they would take care of themselves and live in health and be able to help me some time. Also, greet Aunt Rose. How is she getting on? You write that you sent two dollars, but I didn’t receive them. You ask how the summer was here. It was very dry, but all the same everything grew and we had beautiful potatoes. I myself don’t know how to write but George Hojniak’s daughter is writing for me and also sincerely greets you and would like to ask if you know anything about Peter Wojtowycz from Brunary. It’s George Hojniak’s sister’s son, he’s like a brother to me, and she would like to write to him also, but doesn’t have his address, so would you send it to me? That is if you don’t live too far from him. I am going to close for now. Goodbye. I don’t have any more to write now, I will write more next time. Please write back soon. Don’t be surprised at my ugly writing as this is the first letter that I have ever written.
The next letter that we have is from Milko’s sister, Anna Mutka Tkaczyk. It is written in 1947, after the remaining Mutkas were deported from Mochnaczka to Western Poland. It is one of several letters describing the appalling living conditions and shock that the Lemkos experienced after leaving a familiar, comfortable, and relatively prosperous life in their native villages. Readers should keep in mind that Lemkos deported in the Wisla campaign were forced quickly to adjust to surprisingly deplorable living conditions in the west, including the acquisition of “exchanged” properties without windows or doors, and the absence of other basic necessities, such as stoves for heating.
In this letter, Anna tells Peter that they have taken in their brother Milko to live with them. Note that Anna asks her relatives to send them a calendar so that they could become aware of what days their Eastern-rite holidays fell upon. In addition, Anna is openly disdainful of their situation and their fate, writing facetiously about the "luxury," they are experiencing, and at the end of the letter, she makes an appeal for her relatives’ assistance in escaping their predicament. The exact date of the letter is not given but it was most certainly written very soon after they experienced resettlement:
Letter written/no date provided (late 1940’s)
At the beginning of my letter, Glory to Jesus Christ. Dear brother, sister-in-law and you children, I, your sister, Anna, am writing a few words to you and with these words I sincerely greet you and inquire about your health and how you are getting along. We are getting on badly, because no one expected such conditions as we have now. After they brought us to such a little house that didn’t have windows or doors, or even a stove, we were told to live as we could here, and the fields here are just simply sand and rock. In addition to all of that we lost our cow this past year on June 1st. We had only a heifer and now we have purchased a cow but it still isn’t paid for completely, so we really aren’t managing. The land is very poor, we’ve sown spring wheat, flax and oats, about 1 meter, and now we have already threshed the 40 kilos of oats, but nothing came of the spring wheat nor of the flax, because everything withered in the sand.
Now I’m inquiring about your health and how you’re getting on, how are you living there and are you all in good health? And what about sister Mary’s children? How are they? Are they all living with our brother-in-law or are they on their own? Give them my regards and my address so that Lubka can write to me and send me a photograph of everyone. And dear brother, please send me a calendar, because we don’t even know any more when our holidays fall. And send also a photograph of you and your whole family. My Michael wants to see his uncle. He is 8 years old. But my Melania has passed away.
We greet you all together with one word, be well. And write back soon. And try to get us out of this hell. And I am writing that brother Milko is with me. We took him in with us along the way here. I’ll write more next time. Don’t be angry that this is written in such an ugly way but my head is spinning from this all of this luxury.
Anna Mutka Tkaczyk
In other letters from Anna she describes their dwelling, including the wild boars that were destroying their crops as well as their uncertainty about the future. She talks about not knowing whether or not they will stay or if they will be moved again:
...Two walls were partially knocked down and windows were knocked out. In the middle of winter, in January, we managed by filling it in with clay on one side and manure on the other, and that’s how we spent the winter...
...We have harvested and threshed the grain, whatever the wild boars didn’t eat, because there are a lot of them here, and we need to guard the "gruli", (the dialect word used for potatoes in Mochnaczka) every night...
...We would sow more but we don’t have fields designated for us yet. Some people say that we won’t be staying here, others say that we will stay. What God has in store, nobody knows...
Peter and Anna's son, Michael, at some point penned a short note to his family in America asking for them to send passage on a ship to the United States, which in the late 1940's, was a virtually impossible mission to accomplish - but he tried anyway:
|Michael Tkaczyk's note to his relatives,|
requesting a ticket for passage on a ship
Slava Isusu Christu
(Glory to Jesus Christ)
Dear Uncle, I am writing a few words to you with which I want to send you sincere greetings and ask you, uncle, to send us a ticket for passage on a ship for my mom and dad (njanjo) and uncle Milko.
The next example is what appears to be Milko Mulka’s response to his brother Peter’s inquiry about the state of the Lemko region. It is a poetic account that describes the departure of the residents of Mochnaczka from their native village to points unknown during Akcja Wisla. The following is an excerpt:
You write, brother, about how our Lemkovyna is..well it looks like this…a few people are staying but the rest are not in their homes anymore, only nettles are growing in the plots and a there are lots of wolves which have multiplied in Lemkovyna. Our people who come around say that it’s terrible and not worth it to even take a look at our places. You know, brother, a terrible fate befell us at the time of our exodus from our home villages, only the heavy cross and wailing hung above our mountains and villages, and it was difficult for each person to cross their thresholds and close their doors. People were washing themselves with their own tears and left their native villages and so drifted off into a foreign place. But in this foreign place we are sitting in the wind...we are all living here peacefully right now, but it’s bad for you when they take your sons away, but there’s nothing that we can do about it. It has to be this way. And so I will finish my letter, just greeting you all very sincerely once again, wishing you happiness and health. Remain with God. All the best.
It is difficult to ascertain what Milko means when he writes that "some people are staying." It is possible that he is speaking of people from mixed Polish-Lemko families who were not removed from their homes. It seems that he is speaking both poetically and symbolically when he refers to “tjazki krest,” and seems to mean that after their exodus, only “a heavy cross to bear” and “wailing” hung above the mountains and villages. There is another phrase that also seems to be infused with symbolic meaning: “…we are all living peacefully here right now, and it’s bad for you when they take your sons away…” Since Milko himself had no sons, it is most likely that he is generally referring to the people of the region, e.g. “the sons of Lemkovyna.”
The last letter presented here is from brother Teodor's family in Ukraine at a much later time, in 1968.
Pidhaytsi village, Ivano-Frankivsk oblast, Ukraine, 1968
Dear Uncle and all our relatives!
On the occasion of the birth of Christ, please accept our most heartfelt wishes for a happy, merry Christmas and a happy and joyous New Year. May the little newborn Jesus bring you health, happiness, joy and riches for many long years.
Dear uncle and relatives, we have not written to you for a long time because we never received any answer to our letters. We would very much like to receive letters from you because our small Mutka family is scattered around the world, so we’d like to unite it, at least by letter, into one familial nest. Our dad and your brother, Teodor, both recall you often. Father talks about his distant childhood, and with bitterness mourns the years that passed with so much difficulty, and how he ended up alone with his children in a foreign land, his brothers and sisters having gone to other foreign lands also. Although our dad is also quite elderly, he’s very sorry that we, his children, can’t get together with our cousins but at least we can unite the second generation by correspondence.
And now in short, a few words about ourselves. Thank God, we are all well. Our son Lubomyr is already attending school, 1st grade, and is studying well. We also have a daughter, Iryna, who is already 3 years old. We’re both working.
Maybe uncle is old and can’t write. If so, we sincerely ask uncle John to respond to us. It’s difficult for you to write in Ukrainian, so please write to us in English, and we will likewise write to you. With this I will end our short letter to you and ask you once again to write back to us.
We cordially greet all of you and at the table during Christmas Eve Holy Supper we’ll sing with you the Ukrainian carol, “Eternal God” (Boh Predvichny).
Christ is Born! (Christos Rozdajetsja!)
|Teodor and Milko Mutka|
These letters provide evidence that despite the devastating effects of Akcja Wisla and the related ethnic cleansing actions that dispersed them, at least some Lemkos persisted and maintained family ties across the miles, across borders, and throughout the years and even decades.
We wish to express our thanks and appreciation to the Muta family which kindly assisted us by providing the letters and photographs for use by the Lemko Project, in order to further the public’s understanding and knowledge of Lemko history.
If anyone reading this article wishes to contribute letters and/or photographs to “The Lemko Project”, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. While our limited resources will not enable us to translate everyone’s letters, we are working hard to create a publicly accessible collection of letters and photographs.
 The surname of the family was changed from "Mutka" to "Muta" when the new immigrants came to the United States.
 The Lemko toponym was “Mokhnachka”
 Although it was essentially one village, Mochnaczka’s topography resulted in its division into two sections - a lower part, Wyżna (pronounced “Vyzhna” in Lemko) and an upper part called Niżna (“Nyzhna”). The church was in the lower part of the village, and there was a chapel located in the upper part.
 Milko doesn’t specify which armed services that his brother Alexander had served in, but it is possible that he was forcibly conscripted by the Soviet Red Army in 1944 or 1945, since this happened to many Lemko males at that time.
 From the perspective of many Lemkos at that point in time, the “east” was “Russia.” It’s clear from history as well as other letters, however, that his relatives went to what is now western Ukraine.
 The date on the second letter is Lystopad (November 3, 1946)
 This must have happened earlier when the Germans were still in the area. While it’s impossible to be certain of exactly what Milko means, we know that the Germans were requisitioning horses, wagons and people ("Vorspann") for the war effort.
 The envelope is from Peter Tkaczyk (Anna’s husband), Przyleg village, Strzelce Krajenskie, Poznan province, Poland