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Interview with the head of the Organization for the Defense of Lemkivshchyna, Mark Howansky

We decided to do a series of interviews with the heads of Lemko organizations which are members of the World Federation of Ukrainian Lemko Associations (SFULO).

First we decided to talk with the newly elected head of the Organization for the Defense of Lemkivshchyna which unites Lemkos in the USA. We interviewed Mark Howansky, who recently came to head the organization.

Mr. Howansky, today you are the youngest head of the Lemko organization which is part of SFULO. What do you think about it?

You know, I am already 44 years old (laughs). Not that I consider myself too young, although I am really the youngest among all of the leaders of SFULO. I can see that there are those much younger than me who do a great job. Sofiya Fedyna, our SFULO head, is an example of how much young people can accomplish.

At the same time, I know that in our organization there are a lot of people who have given much effort to the Lemko organization and who are very knowledgeable and experienced. I appreciate them very much and I know that I will not be able to equal them.

I realize that it is a great honor for me to be the head of the Organization for the Defense of Lemkivshchyna. It is important to me. I also realize that it will not be easy. I also feel that now it is a very unique time for the Lemkos, because those people who survived Operation “Vistula,” those deportations and the Second World War, are still with us, but over time their number is decreasing. I realize that time steadily passes and takes away our parents, their knowledge and wisdom. We should write it all down and record everything to save it for this and future generations.

I sense changes occurring. Older people are passing away. But I also believe that the new generation wants to work, wants to preserve our culture and traditions, and wants to know about where they come from. Therefore, there is hope that Lemkivshchyna will not be lost.

In fact, you are continuing your father’s work. How did it happen?

It is an interesting story. My father did a lot for the Organization. He came to America in the 1960s. From the very beginning he was active in the local Ukrainian community. He was always a very proud Lemko and everyone knew about it. At that time he was a young man, just over 30 years old, when he became the head of the Second Branch for the Defense of Lemkivshchyna in the town of Yonkers. He held this position until his death in 2012. He was the chairman in Yonkers for almost 40 years. He worked at the highest level, was the Deputy Head for several terms, the director of our Lemko Museum in Stamford, and the head of the Lemko Research Foundation in the USA which cooperates with the Organization for the Defense of Lemkivshchyna. He was also one of the people who started our Lemko Vatra in the USA in 2001.

I remember from my childhood that my father was always busy with something, attending meetings, organizing Koliady outings, and entertaining visitors at home from Ukraine or Poland who were Professors, musicians or artists. I grew up with the Organization, but, frankly speaking, I was not very active in its work. I thought my Dad was doing it and this was his business. I was also a proud Lemko and everyone knew about it but I did not spend much time in the Organization. I was very active in sports. I played soccer and hockey, organized different teams, clubs, trips, tournaments, etc. I was active in the Ukrainian Youth Association (SUM), went camping, and visited Ukraine. However, I did not take an active part in OOL.

When I became a little older I got married and had children. I began to feel that I should do something more for the Organization. I started attending the meetings and helping where I could. I sensed that these older people would not always be with us. My father fell ill and passed away very suddenly. He had many more plans which he had no time to implement. But the Lord had other plans for him.

Because of this, when I was at the last General Meeting of OOL, I saw that the people believed in me and that I could help the Organization. I myself am a manager and engineer by profession, I work on medical cases and have a background in and inclination for organizational work. My responsibilities include managing projects, organizing other people, working on budgets, and planning. These are all the things that are necessary for the work of our Organization. I had good knowledge of how to work with modern technology and engage in marketing and fundraising.

I am grateful to the leadership of the Organization for their trust. I think it was not easy for them to transfer the reins to the younger generation. But they saw that the times are changing, and we need new ways of thinking and working so that the Organization will grow and develop. I think the Lord has his own plans and my father (smiling) probably also contributed to this. I often think of Dad and I try to continue his work as best I can.  And I do my best so that he will be proud of us.

In 2016 you attended the Lemko Vatra in Zdynia where your father was born. What did you feel?

The first time I visited the Lemko Vatra was in 1992, when I was a University student. It was right after the fall of Communism in Poland in the years after 1989. So at that time it was easier than before to apply for permission to visit our native land. As soon as this possibility appeared, my father immediately decided to visit his Fatherland. And so he did. My sisters, my mother and I went with him to Lemkivshchyna. We traveled to villages and visited the places where my father and my mother were born. It was very interesting for me. We also attended the Vatra. I remember it all very well. It was 25 years ago but I still remember how fun it was, and the beautiful nature there. There I tried kropka and other Lemko dishes for the first time.

I will never forget how emotional my father was when he came back to his native land. When I was there last year, I experienced the same emotions. It was a little sad to return there without Dad. But again I felt that I was home. I can see that the Vatra has grown strongly as a Festival. It was nice to see the program, which now lasts three days, and includes both cultural and scientific aspects, exhibitions, and conferences. It was nice to see many young people who have preserved their traditions, and sang Lemko songs together. Perhaps, they speak Polish or English to each other, but at the Vatra they tried to sing the old songs and dance… For me it was a sign that Lemkivshchyna lives and will live in the future.

What does it mean to you to be a Lemko in faraway America? Does the great distance from Lemkivshchyna affect your identity?

Lemkos are scattered throughout the world. There are not very many Lemkos in Lemkivshchyna. We can say that all the Lemkos are in such a situation. Assimilation is continuing in the world. In Ukraine Lemkos talk to each other in the literary Ukrainian language, in Poland they speak Polish, in the USA and Canada they use English. Lemkos participate in the life of their countries; they work, and marry outsiders. The world is changing. But everyone has to decide for himself what he wants to preserve from his past and from the history of his ancestors. This is a private matter for each person as to how he or she will self identify, and whether to pass on his or her language and religion… But I think we have a duty (!) to pass on what we know to our children. Every person will decide what to preserve and pass on to them. But if we, as parents, do not try to do this, we deprive the next generation of this chance, deciding this issue for them. And that is irresponsible behavior. If our children want to continue our work, they will do it. But if we do not convey our knowledge to them, we will deprive them of this choice.

People want to know where they came from. This is a natural desire. In my generation there are different examples. Some people rejected their past and wanted to be only Americans. They did not make any effort to preserve the memory of historic things and did not teach their children anything. And these children are often angry at their parents who did not convey this knowledge to them and didn’t give them a chance.

It is hard to be so far away from Lemkivshchyna. But we must strive. Today the world is becoming smaller and smaller. By this I mean the emergence of new technologies. We can see everything on the Internet. We can see videos, concerts, and photos via the gadgets that we have in our pocket. Now we have new opportunities to remain as Lemkos outside of Lemkivshchyna. In every country where there are Lemkos, they have their own Lemko Festival and Lemko organizations, which is why you do not need to go somewhere else to feel yourself a Lemko.

Why do you think it is necessary to sacrifice a portion of your time for the benefit of the organization?

Good question. I often think about it and discuss it with my wife (laughs). But I am very happy that she shares my views. She is also a Lemko and she understands that this is important work and that it is necessary to preserve the Lemko culture and traditions. Our ancestors survived many ordeals and have given a lot to obtain a better life for us. Our parents lost their land and their houses. They lived in Ukraine or Poland, far from their native land; a lot of them moved to the USA. They have lost a lot, they suffered a lot, but despite this they have never forgotten their roots. They were very proud to be Lemkos. We must honor this. Our life here, in America, does not lend itself to comparison with what our parents experienced. We have no reason not to work for the benefit of the community. As for me, here the words of Taras Shevchenko are most appropriate: “Learn from others, but do not forget that which is your own.” In America there are a lot of possibilities. There are different people and different cultures here. We can and should learn from them. But at the same time we are obliged to preserve our roots and explain to others who we are.

How is the Organization for the Defense of Lemkivshchyna developing now? What tasks and plans do you have for the future?

Oh, that is a difficult question. I look at the Organization in a very practical way. I understand that there are more noble reasons to undertake this work, but I also look at it realistically, like I would evaluate a business. Who needs it and why, who is interested in our work and what needs do they have? Maybe it seems strange for the older generation, but I ask, “Is there a need for this?”  If not, then perhaps there is no need to waste our time on this and it is better to do something else. However, if such a need exists, we should effectively and usefully spend our resources and time.

Initially, when the Organization started its work, the newly arrived Lemkos had to organize their life in their new home and put down their roots – work, houses, insurance, churches, social and cultural clubs… They needed these simple things at that time. They worked at this again and again. In addition, there were other Lemkos in Poland and Ukraine who needed help. The organization worked for this also.

That first generation finally organized their life, stood on their own two feet, and formed a strong Ukrainian community in the United States. And they  accomplished their first task. But the second issue, the support of Lemkos in Poland, is still not resolved. We should write letters to the Polish government on the issue of the recognition of the criminal nature of the Lemko deportations and also demand compensation for them. We should also materially support Lemkos in Poland and Ukraine and collect humanitarian aid. Everyone knows that Lemkos in Luhans’ka oblast, in the village of Peremozhne, were affected by the hostilities, and we collected warm clothes for them. We are collecting funds for the repair of churches in Lemkivshchyna, for example, in Świątkowa Wielka. We help with cultural and scientific activities. Also we sent funds for the reconstruction of the People’s House in Przemysl and for the support of the Father Dr. Dmytro Blazejowskyj Museum of embroidered icons in L’viv. We plan to assist the Research Center of the Ukrainain-Polish-Slovakian border at the Ukrainian Catholic University. We will continue to help our brothers and sisters in Europe.

However, I noticed that today in the Organization there are three more groups of interested persons. These are the people of my generation and those even younger, who are active in the Ukrainian community, but who do not know much about Lemkivshchyna. In the late 19th – early 20th century Lemkos from Austria-Hungary were the first Ukrainians in America. They worked so hard on preserving Ukrainian culture that over time they forgot their Lemko distinctives. You can be a proud Ukrainian and a proud Lemko at the same time and there is no contradiction in this, just like you can be an American from New York or Texas. You can emphasize your regional accent, clothes, and customs, support and maintain these things, and still remain an American.  And so you should also preserve the Lemko dialect and traditions.

It was the case here, in America, that the struggle for Ukraine was very difficult, so all the effort and attention was given to Ukraine. I want our local Lemkos to understand who they are, where they came from and why they are part of the Ukrainian people. I want them to know about the deportations, Operation “Vistula,” and everything that is part of the Ukrainian history. Unfortunately, the average Lemko of my age is generally not aware of these things. They think that their families were born near Kyiv and found themselves here when fleeing from the war. We have to explain everything to them.

How are we going to do this? We want to arrange trips to Ukraine and Poland to our native lands, so called Heritage Tours, so that they will see the houses in which their parents were born, the churches where their grandparents prayed, and also be able to visit the Vatra. This is much more effective than giving lectures or reading books. When they go there and experience these feelings then they will remember. Just as when other peoples, such as the Jews, do this, they will want to return to their native lands. This I consider as my most important task. We also need to prepare materials about our Lemko culture and history which can be added to the educational programs in Ukrainian schools, and provided to Ukrainian organizations as well as the Ukrainian Youth Association during their conversations, camps, and meetings.

The fourth group is generally Ukrainians in the United States. Among these, many know very little about Lemkos. Even those who visit Lemko churches and organizations which were founded by Lemkos do not know about them. I want to collect materials and publish a book about the history of Lemkos in America. This is important, because history repeats itself and we, as Ukrainians, experienced a hundred years ago everything that Russia is doing now in the East of Ukraine and in Crimea. The voice of the Church is used as a voice of propaganda. What our Lemkos do today in Luhans’ka oblast, in the East, they once did in the West of Ukraine – defended their native land. We, Lemkos, will continue our struggle for a strong, independent, and democratic Ukraine.

People turn to me with questions about genealogy, looking for information about where they were born, in what church they were baptized… We try to address these issues. We have genealogy experts, Michael Buryk and Justin Houser, who conduct lectures on genealogy and how to work with documents. We also cooperate with the Lemko Research Foundation, headed by Andriy Khomyk, to provide financial assistance to support scientific research into the history of Lemkivshchyna and translating it into English. One book must be published every year. In addition, we started to translate the SFULO Herald into English.

The fifth and final group is the Lemko-Rusyns, who came to America in the late 19th century and have already assimilated into American culture. This group is not very active in the Ukrainian community. They cannot speak and read our language. Many of them do not feel themselves to be Ukrainians, because when they arrived here there was no Ukrainian state, there was no formed identity or a clear understanding of what meant to be a Ukrainian. History is complicated, and a competition with Russophiles arose immediately. Russian agents worked to pull the Ukrainians onto their side.

In the USA there is a strong group of Carpatho-Rusyns who believe that they are not Ukrainians. Such people as Paul Robert Magocsi write a lot about this and are quite influential among immigrants from Lemkivshchyna. People who try to learn about their past often read such works because they are more popular than ours. This is a shortcoming on our part. I am not saying that we should fight with them. The best way of confronting Rusyns is to state the position of the Lemko-Ukrainians, to explain our connection with Kyivan Rus’, and to do it in the English language. It is better to give positive information rather that negative.

Share your thoughts about the activity of SFULO. What should be its priorities?

I am the youngest member of the Presidium of SFULO and I am still learning. I am very glad that I had the opportunity to participate in the SFULO meeting which took place last summer in Zdynia. I think joint projects are important in which all participating countries can work together – with one voice. For example, when we work in the political sphere – when we talk about reparations and give an assessment of the impact of Operation “Vistula” – we have to show that there are many of us and that we are united. We should jointly implement such projects as I mentioned above, like the Heritage Tours. Furthermore, SFULO is not a member of the Ukrainian World Congress (UWC). I think that we should have a voice there. SFULO unites the Ukrainian Diaspora in six countries of the world. We do a lot in Poland and Slovakia. Together with UWC we will be able to speak with a louder voice.

Author Taras Rad
Published on Webpage of Lviv branch of Ukrainian Organization “Lemkivshchyna” 04/12/2017.

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