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The Thalerhof internment camp and its legacy for the Rusyns of Eastern Europe

Lemko-Rusyn intellectuals, community leaders, and villagers would perish at the camp established by Austrian authorities on the site of the modern-day Graz Airport.

September 15, 2021 - Starik Pollock - Stories and ideas

General view of the Talerhof concentration camp in 1917. Photo (CC) commons.wikimedia.org

For young and old Lemko-Rusyns alike, the word Thalerhof still provokes a bitter feeling of resentment. It is the name of a concentration camp that no longer exists in a physical sense. It is a place where an untold amount of the greatest thinkers and activists of the Rusyn people would die from disease, executions and hypothermia. To add insult to injury for those that survived, the events that unfolded inside the camp would end up being brushed aside and hidden. An airport now stands on the ground where the camp once stood.

The Thalerhof Internment Camp was opened in 1914 at the start of the First World War and created with the official purpose of imprisoning those sympathetic to the Russian Empire. Though no part of the Austrian Empire was unaffected, the historical region of Galicia was the primary victim of this effort. Now split between Poland and Ukraine, the area had historically been associated with Kievan Rus’ before its absorption into the Kingdom of Poland in the mid-1300s. As the centuries passed, Galicia (or “Halychyna” as Rusyns and Ukrainians call it) became a highly diverse region. Whilst Ruthenians were mainly peasants, a Polish aristocracy made up the majority of land owners and population in cities like Lviv.

To say the politics of this region were complex would be an understatement. Aside from inter-ethnic tensions, the biggest issue at the turn of the 20th century was the identity of the Ruthenian peasantry. In this context, Ruthenian meant Eastern Slavs not from the Tsardom of Russia. Belarusians, Carpatho-Rusyns and Ukrainians were all referred to by this name at one point. By the start of the First World War, two major sides emerged in this debate. On the one hand, there were those who sought cultural and ethnic unity with Russia, usually referred to as “Galician Russophiles”. This group would come to dominate the intelligentsia of Galicia from the 1860s to the 1880s, and saw themselves and Russians as one people with a shared history from the time of the Kievan Rus’.

The other camp was made up of figures who could be described as “Ukrainophiles”. This side drew inspiration from figures such as Taras Shevchenko from the Dnieper region of modern Ukraine. By 1914, the pro-Ukraine position had become the most popular of the two movements by a considerable margin. Despite this, a sizeable Russophile population could still be found amongst the intelligentsia even during the interwar period.

Bordering this region to the west (though officially part of Western Galicia) on the northern slopes of the Carpathians was an isolated ethnographic area known as Lemkovyna. This place did not have the same extensive history of Galicia nor the exact same population, as it had only begun to be colonised by Wallach-Rusyns from Carpathian Rus’ starting in the 1400s. This area was more homogenous and its population subsequently had a much different view on identity. Much like Subcarpathian Rusyns, Russophilia was dominant among the region’s intelligentsia and they shared strong ties with those just across the border in today’s Presov region. The memory of the Russian army’s march through the Carpathians during the 1848 Hungarian Revolution is thought to have played a key role in encouraging this outlook.  

This debate would prove to be of great consequence at the outbreak of the First World War. Since Galicia lay on the eastern edge of the empire bordering Russia, Austrian officials worried about losing the territory to separatism. Due to this, a draconian plan designed to suppress any pro-Russian sentiment was enacted by Austrian authorities. Even though Lemkovyna was a remote region of villagers and shepherds that had no history of rebellions, it too would experience repression. Those sympathetic to the Russian Empire and prominent community leaders with no history of political action would suffer in equal measure, as if being Lemko-Rusyn was a crime in itself.

That is not to say that Russia had no part in helping the area. Indeed, it funded institutions and churches within Lemkovyna and even the diaspora in North America. To state otherwise would be to omit the truth. However, the level of paranoia and outcry from the Austrian media and officials of the time was clearly disproportionate to what was actually happening in the area. Consequently, many of the region’s prominent figures, such as the famous priest Maxim Sandovich, were essentially executed without trial. Those who were only slightly more fortunate were sent to Thalerhof on the outskirts of Graz in modern day south-eastern Austria.

The conditions in the camp were nothing less than appalling in nature. During the first period of its existence from 1914 until the winter of 1915, prisoners did not have any shelter at all and were forced to sleep outside in all manner of conditions. Besides this, regular beatings, torture and murders were common everyday facts of life for those in the camp. The situation had become so bad by 1917 that it was even reported on in American newspapers such as the New York Times[2]. It almost seems as if Thalerhof had been a trial run for the concentration camps that were established only 20 years later.

An incredible amount of Lemko-Rusyn intellectuals, Orthodox priests and community leaders would perish at the camp. Many of these figures would end up being buried in large unmarked graves. By the time of its closing in 1917, what had been a budding culture of creativity and spirit was reduced to a shell of its former self. Much of the literature, music and a revived Orthodox religious life from before the war simply vanished into thin air. Political activism would quickly return with the declaration of the Lemko-Rusyn Republic in December of 1918, but to say its chances of success were hampered by the events of the previous four years would be an understatement.  

Whilst others might forget about what happened during those fateful three years in a camp on the outskirts of Graz, our people will always remember. This was a group not made up of traitors or rebels but of farmers and priests who were subjected to brutal imperialistic power. What was lost was lost can never truly be regained, but our community still moves forward with each passing day. This is because the only way to truly honour the past and what could have been, is to make the most of what we have left today.

Starik Pollock is the founder and English language editor for the Rusyn Literature Society. In his spare time, he also writes on political issues pertaining to Rusyns and the countries of the former Soviet Union.

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