Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Ruthenia and the Rusyn language scarcely figure in our mental maps of Europe. But Rusyn life & culture are alive and well in the remote valleys of the Carpathians.

article summary —

Mukaceve is a curious place. Modern maps show it as being in the Ukraine, but only just, for within sixty kilometres of Mukaceve, there are borders with four other countries: Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland. It is easy to lose count of how many flags have fluttered from the ramparts of Palanok Castle that stands on a knoll overseeing this grey city on the River Latorycja. In the seventeenth century the Kingdom of Hungary and the Principality of Transylvania tussled over Mukaceve, and later it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the end of World War I, Mukaceve found itself free of Romanian occupation and now part of the newly constituted state of Czechoslovakia, and when, less than thirty years later, Europe's national boundaries were again redrawn after World War II, Mukacevites woke up one morning to find the flag of the USSR flying from their castle. And, fourteen years ago, more change as Mukaceve celebrated the new found independence of the Ukrainian Republic.

Mukaceve's peoples are as complicated a mix as this little tale of flags and borders implies. There may be few reminders nowadays of the once thriving Jewish community in Mukaceve, and it's easy to forget that this was the place that was known far and wide as an Iyr Imahot B'Yisroel ("a mother city of Israel"). To the Jewish community, their home town was called Munkacs, and a hundred years ago, it was a regional focal point for Jewish literary and cultural activity, and renowned worldwide for its Jewish commercial creativity. Serenity was not the watchword, though, for Munkacs was home to very different Jewish traditions, that often stridently opposed each other. The heady mix of assimilationists and Zionists, Orthodox Jews and neologues made for some tough tussles. In the late thirties, well over a third of the town's population was Jewish, but most of these people perished at Auschwitz. Nowadays, you won't hear much Yiddish at Mukaceve's busy market on the banks of the Latorycja river, but Ukrainian, Russian, Hungarian and Slovak intermingle. And even, now and again, the local Rusyn dialect.


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About the authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.

This article was published in hidden europe 2.