Downward Float the Rafts






A Proud People

The Village of 12,000


THE easternmost tip of Carpatho-Ukraine is peopled by the tribe of the Huculs. They are different from the Boiki of the Verchovina and have still less in common with the rest of the population. This may be partly due to the different character of the country in which they live. Their forests are denser and wilder, their mountains higher and rockier, their upland pastures more extensive, the climate is more severe and the rainfalls are heavier. There are very few fields to be tilled here. If the Huculs sow at all, it is in their gardens. Their main occupation is lumbering; and although other Carpatho— Ukrainians, too, work in the forests, the Huculs are woodmen par excellence,and the axe is their sword. 

The fact that they have little to do with farming is one of the reasons for their proud spirit of independence. Under the feudal system most farmers were serfs; they had to work for their landlords before they were allowed to work in the fields which they held as their masters’ villeins. But the woodman in the virgin forest or the shepherd on the upland pasture, though he might be a serf by law, was, in fact, beyond his landlord’s reach. So the Huculs in the wild solitude of the Svidovec peaks, the Marmaros Alps, or the upper reaches of the river Tisa have been able to preserve much of their racial individuality and never relinquished their fierce pride.

They are also better off than their poor neighbours in the Verchovina. One of the main reasons is historical. Whereas the western half of Carpatho-Ukraine has never recovered from the devastation and economic ruin brought about by the religious wars and the rebellions of the 16th and I 7th centuries, the Hucul territory suffered hut little by comparison; besides, the salt mines of Slatina provided the Huculs with an alternative opportunity to make their living. Another reason is that the Huculs are mote alert and enterprising; in fact, they are the most gifted of the Carpatho-Ukrainians, and the bulk of the country’s intelligentsia is recruited from them. They do not mind leaving their native village for a long time to earn good wages abroad; and they work hard because they are deter-mined to make good.

 But they are particular in selecting a job. Not every type of work is to their liking - farming, for instance, is not.

 A contractor once came to sec a Hucul to hire him for agricultural work somewhere in Hungary. “We Huculs have not been brought up in the Hungarian fashion,” was the curt reply he received. The true reason for this refusal was that the Huculs do not consider agricultural work a paying proposition. They know which side their bread is buttered and they make quite sure in advance that their work will be adequately paid. 

A Hucul comes to see his neighbour Fedorko to ask him if he will do a job with him. Fedorko suspects that his neighbour really needs his help, and his reply is cautious: 

“Hricko dear, you know I like you, I like you very much and would do anything for you. But, you know, my health is poor, I m not well, not at all well, and I have plenty to do at home. No, Hricko, you won’t be cross with me, will you? You see, I can’t possibly help you-------oh, It’s too bad, but I really can’t...".

Hricko is not deceived. “ But, my dear Fedorko,” he says slyly, “ I don’t want you to help me—-I just came to see if you would go with me to Debreczin; they are building large houses there and factories too. Y You see, it s good work, which will last for months. And the high wages they pay! “ 

Fedorko is impressed. For a while he is silent. Then he clears his throat.  “Building houses . . . long work . . . high wages . .Well … I’ll do it for you, yes, I will . . . My health be damned . . . Yes, I'll go with you... . . . After all, I can work even though my health is not too good. You know, Hricko, I’ll do it for you, and my work at home - to the devil with it, it can wait, yes, it can wait till I come back . . . 

The prospect of good wages was naturally the main reason why Fedorko changed his mind; but he may also have liked the idea of being hired as a builder’s hand. The Huculs are born builders. They build their own houses - neat, two-roomed cottages of solid, well-hewn logs, roofed with laths or shingles. They make their own furniture - good, well-shaped beds, simple tables, dressers, chests, chairs and benches. Everything is kept in good repair. 

The wooden floor is swept clean and usually covered with home—made woolen rugs. Similar rugs are neatly arranged on the bed, two or three serving as a mattress and an additional one as a blanket. Embroidered pillows are piled up at the head of the bed the wealthier the peasant the higher the pile.

Decorative objects are also there. On the shelves one often finds interesting pieces of pottery plates, dishes, jugs, cups - painted in a primitive, but characteristic, fashion with geometric patterns, and now and then a fantastic animal. Then there are racks with kitchen utensils, plain or carved, wooden flasks with carved or poker-work patterns - all bearing witness to the skill and taste of local craftsmanship.

 No wonder a Hucul is proud of his home and critical of anything below his own standard. When he enters a room which is not to his liking he does not mince matters. “A queer place you have here,” he will say, “ one would think this was a Boiki house.”

Yes, the Huculs look down with scorn upon their poor cousins in the Verchovina. A young Hucul would not stoop to marry a Boiki girl such a thing is “not done.” The Huculs are a determined, resolute, go-ahead and self assertive people. The relative passivity, acquiescence and inefficiency of the Boiki are characteristics they despise.

There is something harsh about their manner. They do not hesitate to express disagreement in the plainest terms. They fight for their interests and convictions. At the same time they arc shrewd enough to extricate themselves by cunning from a ticklish situation.

 Perhaps a Jew wants to borrow money from his Hucul neighbour. He comes in the evening to his cottage, knocks at the window and asks: “Andreiko, Andrciko . . . are you asleep? “

“Who is it? “  “Oh, it’s me, Moishe. I’ve come to see you . . . but perhaps I bother you. .Andreiko is suspicious, because the Jew owes him some money. “What do you want? “He asks sharply. ‘: To-morrow I’m going to town on business - it’s good profit I can make . . . and you can make profit too . . . “ The Jew waits for a reaction, but Andreiko keeps silent. ‘C Andreiko, I’ll share my profit with you if you lend me fifty crowns, only fifty . . . “a Silence indoors - long silence. The Jew becomes restless. “Andreiko! Aridreiko, are you asleep? “Of course I am!”

 It does not follow that the Huculs are stingy; in fact, they are very hospitable and a visitor is usually well received. Even when a guest is not very welcome, their pride alone would urge them to offer him food and drink.

 Pride is an essential part of their character. They are proud of their racial individuality and have been in the van of all local efforts for national self-assertion. They stoutly resisted the attempts of their former Hungarian masters to Magyarise them;rather than send their children to Magyar schools many Huculs kept them at home and arranged locally for improvised elementary education in their native language. Whenever it appeared that the country might throw off alien oppression, the Huculs have been at the head of the movement No wonder that during the war the largest percentage of the local guerrillas was recruited from the Hucul community.

 One of the outward marks of Hucul pride is the tshakan. This beautifully carved wooden stick with an axe-shaped handle is a cherished possession, handed on from family to family. It plays a part in wedding ceremonies. “One cannot marry without a tshakan, “the Huculs say. The bridegroom needs it on the wedding day when he calls on his betrothed. Having knocked at the door with it, he has to hand it over to his girl’s brother before he is admitted to the house.

 A special mark of distinction is the broad leather belt. Dark red in colour, ornamented with stamped patterns and metal insertions, this belt is the Hucul’s shield. ft is a precious family heirloom and a Hucul never parts with it- except, perhaps, when he has drunk too much and gives it in pledge. The Jewish inn-keeper readily accepts such gilt-edged security, knowing quite well that it will soon be redeemed. Without the belt the Hucul would feel degraded and would lose caste; but with the belt - you will not easily find his equal.

 For more information, see Hungary and Her Successors, C.A. Macarthey, Oxford University Press, 1962


East Slovakia Genealogical Research Strategies