When the Toaka calls

The Hutsuls – a forgotten people in the Carpathian Mountains

Dr. Claus Stephani
Translation by Google, Needs Editing

(Published in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung (Zurich), No. 280, December 2nd, 2002, p. 26.)
Published with the author’s permission, January 1, 2003
Posted February 12, 2021

On the edge of the eastern forest Carpathians, in the Romanian part of the Bukovina, there is a place that hardly anyone knows, Lucina (Lutschina), although this small settlement of shepherds and mountain farmers, with widely scattered hamlets, was already on Austrian maps of the 19th century is found. When the Bukovina, the beech country, still belonged to the huge empire of the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian monarchy, there was a famous stud here, it was the Carpathian or Hucul ponies that were bred in Luchina.

At that time there was also a path leading up to Lutschina, you could drive there from the valley of the Golden Bistritz in a horse-drawn carriage. The coachmen and carters were mostly Jews, they wore high boots, black fur vests, sailor’s hats and had long beards, as you can see in old photos. In the last few decades, however, the path has repeatedly been flooded by a stream, the Kirlibaba, and today the best way to get to Luchina is on foot, like mountain farmers and shepherds. It is a forgotten village in the Carpathian Mountains, where one thinks that time has stood still. But people have settled in their loneliness: they live humbly, as they did once, as a hundred years ago, as always: “What God gives us, that is enough for us.”

There is an old bridge near Lutschina that crosses a mountain stream. It is said that before humans moved here, it was built by the Karlyky, the gigantic beings. According to legend, sparrows from all directions gather here once a year. This happens when the Hutsuls celebrate St. Skoupnik Day in the many small hamlets and mountain villages. On this day, so the tradition goes, the devil appears every time with a huge Scheppa, a wooden measure into which he throws all the sparrows in to see how many birds of this species there are still. Then he keeps one part for himself and lets the others fly again.

That area in the north-east of Romania, which in turn is today in the south of Bukovina, in an area that covers 855 square kilometers – because the north of Bukovina with the old capital Chernivtsi (Roman Cernauti, Ukrainian Cernivci) has belonged to the Ukraine since the assignment in 1940 – That forgotten border landscape with dark forests and mysterious valleys, from Luchina to the Obtschina Mountains, is called Huzulschtschyna by the mountain farmers who settle there: the land of the Hutsuls, about 150 square kilometers in size. It was named after a tribe that speaks an archaic-sounding Ukrainian dialect and is usually mentioned together with the Ruthenians in statistical censuses, but they live beyond the mountains in Maramures (Marmatia) further to the west.

If you take the “Accelerat” from Bucharest to Suceava (Suczawa) – the capital of southern Bukovina, with a population of 76,527 today – the train stops for a minute in Pojorîta, a village on three mountain rivers: Moldova, Giumalau and Putna. Where the landscape opens up to the high mountains, because these, they say, support the deep sky, a sky that is always close, on the wide meadows near Pojorîta is said to have once been paradise. At least that’s what the old mountain farmers say. Two mountains still remind us of that time: Adam and Eve. If you ask which of the two is Adam and which is Eve, the answer is: “Easily recognized. The larger one with the steep rock is Adam, the smaller one with the lovely meadows is Eve. ”

Pojorîta was once called Poschoritta in German when, before 1940, besides Romanians and Hutsuls, Germans, so-called Zipser, mostly miners, and some Jewish families lived here. Other ethnic groups also settled further east, such as the Philippons or Lippowans, Russian “Old Believers”, and the Karaimen (Karaeans), a Jewish sect, allegedly descendants of the Turkic-speaking Khazars who converted to Judaism in the 8th century. The last Germans emigrated to Germany in the summer of 1990, the last Jews, those who had survived the Holocaust and the deportations to the Romanian death camps, had already emigrated to Israel in the course of the Aliyah at the beginning of the 1950s. Today only the overgrown cemeteries – the “place of rest” and the “good place” – remind of these two ethnic groups. Both have names and inscriptions in German and Gothic Fraktur, but on one there are also some old, bent stones with Hebrew characters and symbols. They stand there in silence, as if listening to the hurried chirping of the crickets with their eyes closed.

“If you want to report about the Hutsul people out in the world, then you have to tell legends, the stories from the people, because the lives of these people mainly consist of stories and legends, and nobody really knows whether they are true, but they are told over and over again ”, says Grigore Hau, pensioner and local historian, who goes to the fence of his garden twice a day to check the trains that sniff past here and then stop briefly at the small train station a kilometer further on. Why is he doing this? “Nothing else happens here, here, at the end of the world, and sometimes someone, but I don’t know, waves to me from the moving train.”

Pojorîta lies at the entrance of a winding valley that leads upwards and changes its face again and again. Along the Moldova, the Vltava river, you come through places called Fundu Moldovei (Luisental), Pîrîul Cailor) Pferdgraben), Colacu, Botus (Botesch), Branistea, Breaza (Braaß), and to the side the view opens again and again in lonely Valleys, with hamlets and small scattered settlements that are not shown on any map. At Breaza, 19 km north of Pojorîta, it is said that the actual Hutsulschtschyna, the old Hutsul country, begins, an area that extends across the Romanian border, from here only 22 km away, to the Ukrainian northern Bukovina, up to the vicinity from Kolomyja (Kolomea). In this city in the former Lodomeria, which was also part of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, besides Ukrainians, Jews also lived Poles and some German families. The Hutsulschtschyna, however, a total of 18,000 square kilometers, then borders further north on the Bojkivschtschyna, on the Bojkenland, where another Slavic tribe settles – the Bojken.

The Hutsul people (Romanian “hutani”), an ethnic minority who like to describe themselves as an “independent nationality”, even if the statistics do not always admit it, are around 30,000 according to censuses carried out in 1990. In the census of February 21, 1956, 60,479 inhabitants were registered as “Ukrainians, Ruthenians and Hutsuls”. That number has now risen to over 70,000, with Ukrainian and Romanian politicians trying to change it up or down, respectively. The main places where Romanian Hutsuls live are Vatra-Moldovitza, Moldova-Sulitza with Lucina (Lutschina), Izvoarele Sucevei, which is already close to the Ukrainian border, then, along the railway line to Radauti (Radautz), Ulma, Nisipitu, Paltin , Brodina, Falcau, Straja (Strascha), Vicovu de Sus (Oberwikow).

There are also some mixed ethnic villages and hamlets on the Golden Bistritz, between Iacobeni (Jakobeny) and Cîrlibaba Veche (Mariensee), such as Ciocanesti, Valea Stînei (Hüttenthal), Edu (Jed), and Tibau (Zibau), where, by the way, in 1911, the famous Yiddish poet Kubi Wohl was born. At that time, even small towns like this one, with their Hutsul, Romanian, Jewish and Zipser-German inhabitants, were multicultural, which is why Bukovina, which is tolerant in many respects, was often referred to as “Europe en miniture”. These conditions changed fundamentally after the last world war, and in today’s administrative district of Suceava, in the former southern Bukovina, which now covers 8,555 square kilometers, around 22 of a total of 486 communities and villages (with associated hamlets) can be described as Hutsul settlements.

Up until two decades ago, a Russian Orthodox priest, Michail Siniavski, who has made a name for himself as a folklorist, lived in Moldova-Sulitza, a large community with 1230 inhabitants, where traditional traditions are still maintained today. He also researched the origins of this mountain people and noted in his notes in Ukrainian, Romanian and German that the Hutsuls are a Turkic people who once settled here in the deepest Carpathians, probably after the migrations, and later was Christianized by monks and immigrant priests and thereby Slavicized. Other historians believe that from the 17th century onwards, parts of the Ukrainian mountain population, including refugee fron peasants, migrated to the southeast into Bukovina, to settle first on the upper reaches of the Cheremousch river and later further south. The fact is that Hutsul is a Ukrainian idiom or a South Galician dialect with almost 20 percent Polish, Romanian and German loan words.

Since the political change in 1990, there have been lessons in Ukrainian again in Moldova-Sulitza, as in some other larger settlements. But when the young people then attend a vocational school or high school in the next town, Cîmpulung Moldovenesc (Moldavian-Kimpolung), where only Romanian is taught today, they move further and further away from their idiom, which is later only preserved as a family language at best remains. The Ruthenians who settled further to the west in Maramures (Marmatia) also have similar problems. There, too, there are schools with Ukrainian language of instruction, such as in Poienile de sub Munte (Reußenau) and Rona de Sus (Oberrohnen), but in many, once predominantly Ukrainian villages – with few Jewish, German, Hungarian, Slovak and Armenian inhabitants.

But in Sulitza, as the locals call the place, the world is still “whole” in many respects, one might think as an outsider. The famous Hutsul pesanky, chicken and goose eggs, are still artistically painted here at Easter, and the subtle geometric patterns often provide the framework for miniature representations of the risen Savior, of saints and their miracles, of animal figures from folk mythology. And when on autumn Sundays, in front of the colorful backdrop of the vast deciduous forests – it’s Bukovina, the beech country – when the Toaka, the brightly sounding pickguard at the old church, calls out the women to go to church, as always in white, embroidered blouses , with brightly decorated fur vests, red-striped headscarves, with Katrinze, the brightly colored, two-piece aprons,

But first the men enter the church in boots, black felt trousers and fur jackets. Because they stand in front, in the naos, opposite the iconostasis, the icon wall, and behind that is the altar table, not visible. The women stay in the anteroom, the pronaos, which begins right after the entrance. There is a good reason for this separation. During the service you cannot see the women like this, and they in turn only see the men’s backs. In this way nobody gets “wrong thoughts”, they say. The natural grace and beauty of Hutsul girls and women have always been sung about by Ukrainian poets such as Jurij Osyp Fedkovyc and Ivan M. Valyhevyc, and it can be seen that nothing has changed to this day.

When talking to older people, you soon notice that the big events beyond the mountains hardly affect their everyday lives. Bucharest, the state capital, is far away, so far that in 2002 one often does not know what the re-elected president is called: “Iliescu? We don’t know him, maybe from Kimpolung. ”“ He’s the president of the country. ”“ Our ‘president’ is the pastor. What he says is correct. ”The picture of Emperor Franz Joseph still hangs in the living room in some residential buildings – it has survived all times, countless flies have left their mark, and so it has quietly turned yellow. Below, at a respectful distance, is the name of the Hutsul, who once did his kk military service in Chernivtsi or elsewhere in stiff Gothic handwriting. Next to the name is a small round window from which the soldier peeks out from a photo. In the meantime, however, the outside world has changed after almost ninety years.

But not only the president in distant Bucharest is an unknown quantity here, also the heroes of the so-called revolution, the heroes of the movie screen, the beautiful darlings of television friends, whose pictures populate the new capital city magazines, they mean nothing here, and it seems as if it didn’t even exist. And that’s because hardly anyone upstairs in the remote homesteads has a television. World events, delivered free every evening elsewhere, have not yet found their way into the old Koliben, the wooden crates. There the fire crackles in the evening on the Pripetschik, the stone oven, and at night the Huhuretz calls out from the forest. This fantastic bird-like creature plays a special role in Carpathian mythology, because from its whistling lament the fortune-tellers suggest

In addition, the Hutsuls still have their own and only “really great” hero, who lived between 1810 and 1850 and whose legendary deeds have remained alive in numerous legendary traditions. It is Dobusch, the noble robber, and Heiduck, a man from the Carpathian people, who took from the rich – they were mostly Polish nobles, Armenian or Jewish merchants – and gave to the poor. The poor, however, were the Hutsul mountain dwellers, and they still are today, because in this respect little has changed here either.

Dobusch, whose shadowy presence is reminiscent of caves, rocks and springs that bear his name, the noble Heiduck has meanwhile reached messianic size, because one day, so the hopeful popular saying, he will return from the “Upper World” to the rich and Judging the unjust – and that shouldn’t be difficult for him. Because he alone, it is said, has a miraculous divine gift: He is able to recognize at first glance whether “someone in high position” is telling a lie. Fortunately, Dobusch will only be in the Carpathian Mountains when he returns.