This past weekend, I attended the 20th Anniversary of the Association of Ukrainians “Zakerzonia” in Toronto. The association is composed of Ukrainians and descendants of Ukrainians that came to Canada from the Territories of eastern Poland that were known as Zakerzonia.
The name itself is derived from Lord Curzon, the British Foreign Minister who at the end of World War I proposed a line known as The Curzon Line that was to mark the border between the newly reconstituted state of Poland and its new eastern Soviet neighbours. Although there ensued some bitter fighting in the years following the end of the Great War between Poland and the Bolshevik forces, the border eventually stabilized more or less along the Curzon Line.
Unfortunately, large numbers of Ukrainians wound up living in Poland on the wrong side of the Curzon line, or “za Kurzonia” or the “territory beyond the Curzon line”. The area subsequently became popularly known as Zakerzonia and is still referred to by that name even today.
By the end of World War II, some 700,000 Ukrainians, primarily Lemkos and Boykos, were living in Zakerzonia. In the aftermath of that war, the Soviet government, with the agreement of its puppet Polish communist government in Warsaw, decided to impose what amounted to ethnic cleansing in Zakerzonia and in Western Ukraine, which at that time contained large populations of Poles. Between 1944 and 1946 some 800,000 Poles were deported from Ukraine to Poland and some 500,000 Ukrainians were deported from Poland to Soviet Ukraine. These deportations were carried out in rather ruthless and brutal manner, causing untold pain and grief to the unfortunate victims.
Nonetheless, there still remained a significant number of Ukrainians in Zakerzonia, who sheltered and tacitly supported a very active Ukrainian partisan movement who gave grief to the Polish communist authorities who sought to subdue and pacify their recalcitrant Ukrainian populations. Brutal repression that escalated to massacres of whole Ukrainian villages, did not succeed in suppressing the OUN partisan movement in the area, so in 1947, the Polish government decided on a drastic course of action that became known as Operation Wisla.
Essentially, the Poles decided to purge the area completely of its Ukrainian population. Ukrainian villages and settlements were surrounded and the inhabitants were herded with little notice into railway boxcars and shipped to northwestern Poland, to lands that had been ceded by Germany to Poland as reparations after the war. They were scattered geographically to ensure there were no concentrations of Ukrainians in any one area. Over the long term, they were to be linguistically and culturally assimilated into the general Polish population. And so, Zakerzonia was emptied of its Ukrainians.
For the next forty five years or so, the Zakerzonian exiles coped as best they could, and despite all efforts by the Poles, they managed to retain both their language and their culture. When the Iron Curtain fell, large numbers of them seized on the opportunity and emigrated to Canada and the U.S. where they formed their own Lemko and Zakerzonian organizations.
Some returned to their ancestral homelands in eastern Poland, and many settled in and around the former Ukrainian cultural centre of Peremyshl or Przemysl as it is known in Polish. Near the centre of town stands the Narodniy Dim (People’s House) which had been built by the original Ukrainian community of the town between 1901 and 1904. The building had been confiscated by the Polish authorities after Operation Wisla and had been used for a variety of purposes, but had become badly run down in recent years. After a concerted campaign by the Association of Ukrainians in Poland, the building was returned to the Ukrainian community in March of 2011.
Since that time, Ukrainians living in Poland, together with support from the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada and the U.S., have been raising funds and slowly refurbishing the building to its former glory. That task is only partially complete, and fund-raising efforts continue as the local Ukrainians there try to re-establish the Ukrainian presence in an area that has been home to them and their ancestors for many, many centuries. When it comes to preserving their identity and culture, Ukrainians are definitely persistent.