Rather serendipitously I visited the Österreich Volkskundemuseum (Austrian Folklore Museum) today to take in an exhibit of interest when I came up this one, and was captivated by both the art and the story of the refugees, yet another part of WWI history that I am so fortunate to learn about in this centenary year.

This is a map (thank you, Internet) of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with current political boundaries.  To the northeast lies Galicia, the empire’s poorest province. Galicia wasn’t born impoverished; the border lines had cut off trade routes with Poland and so the good Galicians had little more than agriculture as a livelihood. Plus, the empire kept any notion of Pan-Slavism in check by conscripting its men for military service.  Add to this that the borders also divided Ukrainian Rusyns of Poland (Galicia) and Russia. Poland wanted Polonization of “its” Galicians; and “ethnic” Ruthenians had divided loyalties between the Russians and the Hungarians. The perfect simmering first course of a world war.

Within the first two months of the war, tens of thousands of Ruthenian refugees streamed into Austria. One of the cities tasked with setting up refugee camps was Gmünd, a town about 120km from Vienna. The town’s population of 5.000 swelled to almost 40.000 with the influx of refugees!

I found this photo card on the Internet of a Galician family coming to safety in Austria. Imagine.

The refugee camps included basic, very basic housing, but also schools, a pharmacy, and opportunities for cultural enrichment. In exchange, the able-bodied men (and women!) worked the fields and forests. Other women contributed to the war by creating small embroidered pieces and glass bead necklaces indicative of local culture that were part of the War Aid Exhibition.  The exhibit naturally focused on the positive aspects of refugee camp life; the rest is another story for another time.  I see a road trip to Gmünd in my future.  For now,  though, I’ll share some of the beautiful work I was privileged to see today.






Quite often the works were identified by the region of Galicia in which the design was prominent.

Central Europe’s WWI history is unbelievably complex, and each time I visit an exhibit I realize just how fortunate I am to live in the former capital of the empire.