Text resize: A A
Change contrast

“We need to tame Przemyśl with its own complex history”

Interview with Igor Horkov, director of the Ukrainian House in Przemyśl. Interviewer: Nikodem Szczygłowski.

May 17, 2024 - Igor Horków Nikodem Szczygłowski - Interviews

Ukrainian House in Przemyśl located at Kościuszki street 5. Photo: Narodnyj Dim - Dom Ukraiński Facebook page

NIKODEM SZCZYGŁOWSKI: “On behalf of Ukrainians living in Przemyśl and throughout Poland, I wanted to thank you all because despite the enormity of the tragedy happening in Ukraine, great things are happening here. We have thousands of calls every day at the Ukrainian House with declarations of support and help. We want to thank you very much for that. For your commitment. For your presence. Here in Przemyśl, in schools, at the border, all over Poland.” You said these words on February 26th 2022. A lot has changed since then. The Ukrainian House now plays a variety of roles. It is both an assistance point for war refugees and a community centre. It also houses a local office for the Ukrainian consulate and operates a volunteer centre. How do you operate in all this?

IGOR HORKÓW: It’s much easier now. When we last talked in the summer of 2022, I told you that we got financial support from Polish Humanitarian Action, which allowed us to plan until 2023.

At that time, the most important task was to control the refugee crisis. After the spring chaos the situation stabilized but in the summer of 2022 the numbers arriving by train from Ukraine to Przemyśl began to increase again. There were between 1200 to 1500 people a day.

However, their situation was different compared to those at the beginning of the Russian invasion. They were in a worse material and mental state. They mostly came from Mariupol, Kramatorsk, Zaporizhzhia, sometimes from places that no longer physically exist. Those from Mariupol were severely emotionally broken, talking loudly as they were used to constant shelling and explosions. 

At that point, we also had a very large number of people with oncological illnesses who could not stay overnight at the Ukrainian House. We only had 48 beds there and every day they were filled.

Usually, people stayed for two to three nights and then went on their way. We had one dedicated person who looked for accommodation in other parts of Poland. By mid-2022, about 20 per cent of the refugees had already found work. Most were (and are) women, so it’s harder for them to find their way in the labour market. Plus they are mostly from eastern Ukraine, so they don’t even have a passive knowledge of Polish.

In 2022, more than one million refugees passed through Przemyśl. With a population of around 60,000, you can imagine that it was a big call for our city, both logistically and overall.

What does your work look like today, two years into the war?

Ukrainian House for us is first and foremost a home, that is, a safe, friendly and open place. Our role is to fill this place with activities. We want to constantly develop it and add new initiatives. We have many ideas but we implement those for which we have funds. That’s why we constantly ask for financial support and create new projects. We want the Ukrainian House to be a meeting place for the residents of Przemyśl – both for those who have lived here all their lives and those who have just arrived. “Home for all” is our slogan. Currently, we combine the sphere of humanitarian aid with cultural and educational activities. We run two hostels for refugees with psychological, medical and legal support. We also assist those in need from Ukraine through our offices and institutions. We are constantly present at the main railway station in Przemyśl and our staff take care of those arriving from Ukraine. They also co-manage the “Mother and Child Room” at the station – a very important place where mothers with children and senior citizens from Ukraine can rest for a few hours. It is impossible to forget that the war is still going on and people continue to seek shelter. About 2,000 people arrive in Przemyśl by train every day, and many of them need help. Unfortunately, due to lack of funds, we have closed the aid point near the platform where trains from Ukraine arrive. In 2023, this point served more than 100,000 people. We continue to help them find jobs, a place to live for the long term. We employ a Roma assistant dedicated to working with this refugee group. We have a mobile team that regularly checks the needs of refugees in various accommodation points in our region. We organize cultural events and we invite music and dance groups, theatres. Every day at the Ukrainian House there are workshops for different age groups. Soon we will offer periodic meetings for seniors. In 2022 we launched a library and reading room. In fact, we are not able to respond to all needs, so we constantly ask for support.

The seat of the Ukrainian House, at 5 Kosciuszko Street, was built between 1901 and 1904 with contributions from Przemyśl Ukrainians in order to serve the cultural and educational needs of the local community. From 1904 to 1939 and from 1945 to 1947, at that time called Narodnyi Dim (the National House), it housed various Ukrainian cultural, economic and political organizations and associations. A theatre and cinema operated there as well as a restaurant, stores and warehouses.

In 1946 the deportations of Ukrainian nationals from Przemyśl began. On November 20th 1948 the district court ruled that the property of those deported to the USSR be taken over by the state treasury. In 1950 the formal liquidation of the Narodnyi Dim Society in Przemyśl took place. The long struggle for the return of the building ended only in 2011. Was this some kind of a watershed moment in the history of the Ukrainian community of Przemyśl?

For sure, yes. At that time, I was living in Warsaw so I only know about this development from the stories of a “mythical” Przemyśl, which is the unofficial capital of Ukrainians in Poland, and the return of the “mythical” Ukrainian House. But since then, indeed a lot has changed. Now we are the host, we are on our own, which has been very important for us, not only for our thinking about ourselves but also for our planning of activities. From the very beginning, both the leaders of the Union of Ukrainians in Poland and our own local activists wanted this centre to be open to everyone. It was meant to unite, not divide the city’s residents. It seems that we have succeeded in this.

But I also think that the return of the Ukrainian House to the Ukrainian community was good also for the city of Przemyśl. Ukrainians had been calling for this return since the 1950s, especially those who returned here after the relocation. We were renting rooms in this building for fifty years, because we came to the conclusion that if we wanted to function in this city and pass on the memory of our life here to the next generation, we had to protect this building from destruction. This shows our community’s determination and drive to reclaim it.

A week before the outbreak of the full-scale war, we had a meeting with activists from the Przemyśl branch of the Union of Ukrainians in Poland. Then we talked about what we would do, if the worst, meaning a full-scale war, would happen. So when the war actually started, in some ways we were ready for it. Even journalists did not believe us that we had things ready. We had to show them all the beds we prepared and other stuff.

Przemyśl is a city located practically right on the border with Ukraine, but I have an impression that the city’s residents are rather uninterested in their neighbours. For example, I do not meet here many people who speak Ukrainian, even though quite many people understand it. Is there a chance to reverse this trend?

It is interesting that in 2019 and 2020 we ran a Ukrainian language course, which was attended by about twenty people at the time. They were mostly Poles who had some Ukrainian roots, who didn’t know Ukrainian and wanted to pass on to their children the language of their grandparents. It was an interesting experience.

We also organized Ukrainian language courses for the employees of the city council. Now we are running these classes in three groups, which shows that interest in learning Ukrainian has been growing. This is especially true for volunteers from other organizations who come to the conclusion that a few basic phrases in Ukrainian are no longer enough.

However, when it comes to the Przemyśl business community, in my opinion, it has been a long time since its representatives last realized the value of knowing Ukrainian. Overall, I am optimistic about this issue.

Przemyśl is a city rich in monuments and firmly ensconced in its own history, which is often, nonetheless, perceived in a way that is based on stereotypes and Polish national mythology. While the history of the period up to the First World War still somehow united the two parts of Austrian Galicia – the Polish and the Ukrainian areas – the interwar period (the time of the Second Polish Republic), the Second World War and the deportations that took place after resulted in two completely different versions of history. What role, in your view, do history and stereotypes play today in the life of the city and how do they affect its residents?

Stereotypes are always harmful, especially if we don’t control them and juxtapose them with academic knowledge. History plays a role – which is not a bad thing, but it seems to me that it would be useful for all of us to try to think about it more deeply, reflect on it and understand why events happened the way they did. I want to “desacralize” history.

In 2018 we made such an attempt. It was the 100th year anniversary of Poland’s independence, but in Przemyśl – again like in Lviv – this date also has another dimension, the fights for the city in November 1918. However, we wanted to show that we enjoy living in a free country, we value our freedom, being in the EU and respect its values of democracy, openness, tolerance, etc. What unites us is our vision for the next hundred years. We do not want to celebrate these events in Przemyśl in such a way as to show that 100 years ago Ukrainians were the city’s enemy. That is why we organized lots of meetings with both Poles and Ukrainians. It seems that this was an important moment for people in Przemyśl. For some it was quite a surprise: how is it possible that Ukrainians are rejoicing in Poland’s independence? Maybe I am not modest here but I think that it was the best centennial celebration of Poland’s independence in the whole country. We invited top historians for open discussions of what happened here in 1918-19. A great many people came to these meetings, many of them had never been to the Ukrainian House before.

How would you describe the cultural and social life of the Ukrainians who live in Przemyśl today? Are there still two separate worlds when it comes to relations with the Polish majority?

No, certainly not. In this respect, a lot has certainly changed. You can see a lot of solidarity for Ukraine among Poles, the flag of Ukraine – a foreign country – does not cause any negative emotions here, as it did before.

After the tragic events of the second half of the 1940s, the so-called Operation Vistula, which resulted in the relocation of many Ruthenians from the eastern and southern parts of Poland to the so-called “recovered territories” in the west and north, many Ukrainians have lived dispersed across Poland. How does the community of Przemyśl Ukrainians – that is, those who stayed in the land where their ancestors had lived for generations – differ from other Ukrainian centres in the country?

As a matter of fact, Ukrainians of bourgeois background represent only a few families in Przemyśl. Most were deported and quite a few emigrated to Canada and the US. Those who live here are, in most cases, people like me, that is, those who felt some need to return to their roots, to find themselves here again, in the land of their ancestors. My family comes from near Leżajsk and Baligród. Indeed, in Mazury, Silesia and Pomerania, Ukrainian history basically begins after 1947, and there are no historical material traces of a Ukrainian presence there. In this respect, the situation in Przemyśl is different from elsewhere in Poland. When I lived in Pomerania – but perhaps this applied only to my family, I wouldn’t want to generalize – we felt a sense of “temporariness” quite clearly. In that part of Poland Ukrainian graves at the cemetery date back to late 1940s. Before that there were German graves, which are now neglected and forgotten. I didn’t know that there used to be a Jewish cemetery right next to my school until, I think, the 5th grade, when our teacher told us that there used to be a Jewish cemetery in the square where we had just taken our cycling test. Everyone knew about it, but no one talked about it. A stone commemorating this fact was put there only about ten years ago. On the other hand, there is no sense of the burden of history when it comes to mutual accounts of Ukrainian and Polish wrongdoings there. This is probably the main difference when talking about Przemyśl and Pomerania or Silesia. Now I think this is less of a burden but this has only begun to change in the last ten or 15 years.

However, even here it is usually us, i.e. the Przemyśl branch of Union of Ukrainians in Poland, that initiates various Polish-Ukrainian activities. In other cities the initiative generally comes from local governments. This is quite a noticeable difference. But here, too, relations with the city hall are getting better for us, especially now that the local government is using our interpreters at the municipal office. In 2019, the mayor invited us to collaborate on a Norwegian-funded project. We now receive grants for various initiatives and perhaps this is due to the nature of our activities. In 2016 we were debating over two approaches to our activities – either we devote ourselves solely to the Ukrainian House and focus on ourselves – which a certain radical part of the city’s population would rather enjoy – or we open ourselves more to all residents of our city. The second option won, as we came to the conclusion that the city is a common space in which we must all work together. This has brought a very good result, half of those who now take part in the events we organize are Poles. In my opinion, this is quite an achievement, so positive changes are slowly but inevitably taking place.

What does the situation with Ukrainian language education look like in Poland at the moment? What about theatre, art, literature and media? Is it possible to develop Ukrainian culture in Poland in parallel with the development of this culture in Ukraine itself? Are they closely connected at the moment?

To some extent, they are closely connected, as we refer to certain common cultural codes, related to folk traditions, embroideries, etc. Except that unlike the diaspora in Canada or the US, here the history of Ukrainians has a much longer tradition. We, for example, have local embroidery patterns from Nadsanie, so we also have our contribution which enriches Ukrainian culture in general. The border area is very different, fluid in a sense. Various things have mixed here over the centuries, and there are no “pure ethnic” Poles and Ukrainians. In Przemyśl we also started to think about our culture in a slightly different way and do not refer only to all-Ukrainian cultural codes, but more to our local ones. For example, talking about embroideries, we are trying to popularize our local patterns, as it is of great importance for us. In Ukraine, there used to be such a project called Spadok (Heritage), which popularized traditional costumes from different ethnographic regions. We thought we could do it here too and organized an exhibition dedicated to our local varieties of embroidery. We took photos of children in the costumes of their great-grandparents, which was an amazing experience for them. What is also important is the memory of Ukrainian urban life that existed in Przemyśl until the Second World War – the intelligentsia, the Ukrainian school, composers, etc. – this is of great importance to us. Knowing that Przemyśl was a very important centre of Ukrainian culture until the First World War – even more than Lviv – is for me a kind of anchor and motivation for further activities. Perhaps someday we will get to the point where Przemyśl will promote itself as a multicultural city, not just a fortress. Few people, both in Poland and Ukraine, for example, know that Mykhailo Verbytsky, the author of the Ukrainian anthem, lived in Przemyśl, and the first public performance of the anthem took place here. Przemyśl was the first city in Austrian Galicia where the so-called “Shevchenko evenings” began to be held to honour Taras Shevchenko after the poet’s death. Similarly, we need to fill the history of Jewish Przemyśl with content and in this way tame Przemyśl with its own complex history.

There is a novel by the Polish author Łukasz Saturczak titled Galicyjskość (“Galicianess”), in which he states that in Przemyśl certain things are simply doomed to be left in a vicious circle of provinciality, history, stereotypes and mutual distrust. This is what he refers to by the title Galicyjskość. There are also opinions that Przemyśl is not a city but a state of mind. What is Przemyśl to you and how do you see it in the near future?

Our initiative “Together for 100” polemicizes and contradicts what Saturczak writes about. That is, we believe that it is possible to go beyond this vicious cycle, it is possible to talk and succeed in doing so. Paradoxically, the more this radical, nationally-oriented part of Przemyśl pressed the Ukrainians, the more opposition this aroused on the side of Poles, including those who are normally less active. Before 2016, when there was an attack by a group of local nationalists on a Ukrainian procession to the Mikulicki cemetery, a few, maybe a dozen Poles participated in the procession. After that attack many more, even until now, regularly participate. I chose Przemyśl to live in consciously, after a childhood spent in Pomerania and studies in Warsaw. It is a small and nice city to live in with an interesting geographical location. We don’t have to explain why we live here. We simply do our own thing. The current situation shows that our strategy is working. Among our volunteers there are not only Ukrainians, but also quite a few Poles.

Igor Horków is the director of the Ukrainian House in Przemyśl.

Nikodem Szczygłowski is a traveller, writer and reporter. He studied Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Łódź and at CEMI in Prague. He is fluent in Lithuanian and Slovenian.

Please support New Eastern Europe's crowdfunding campaign. Donate by clicking on the button below.


, , , , ,


Terms of Use | Cookie policy | Copyryight 2024 Kolegium Europy Wschodniej im. Jana Nowaka-Jeziorańskiego 31-153 Kraków
Agencja digital: hauerpower studio krakow.
We use cookies to personalise content and ads, to provide social media features and to analyse our traffic. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. View more
Cookies settings
Privacy & Cookie policy
Privacy & Cookies policy
Cookie name Active
Poniższa Polityka Prywatności – klauzule informacyjne dotyczące przetwarzania danych osobowych w związku z korzystaniem z serwisu internetowego https://neweasterneurope.eu/ lub usług dostępnych za jego pośrednictwem Polityka Prywatności zawiera informacje wymagane przez przepisy Rozporządzenia Parlamentu Europejskiego i Rady 2016/679 w sprawie ochrony osób fizycznych w związku z przetwarzaniem danych osobowych i w sprawie swobodnego przepływu takich danych oraz uchylenia dyrektywy 95/46/WE (RODO). Całość do przeczytania pod tym linkiem
Save settings
Cookies settings