Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Sorbians in Bautzen - Then and Now


Having recently had the golden opportunity to be shown around the local Sorbian Grammar School and sit in a couple of lessons (not a word of which I understood), I thought it would be interesting to post about the unique and little-known Sorbian culture in this corner of the world.

Okay, so here is a little background info:

Once upon a time, over a thousand years past, a Slavic people settled in a faraway land known as Lusatia, an enchanted place that lies in the east of what is now called Germany. Legend had it that these folk had originated from somewhere north of the Sea of Blackness over 2,000 years before, but all we know for sure is that these people spoke a magical language. At first you might mistake it for Czech, or Polish, maybe even Russian, but alas - you'd be wrong. Very wrong. This magical tongue was in fact called Sorbian. 

These Sorbs lived happily and harmoniously in their land. And life was good. "How happy we are", said they (in Sorbian of course) as they grazed their cattle and gathered their wheat. But this idyll was not to last forever....

About three hundred years later, in the 9th and 10th centuries, their lives were destined to change forever; the Germanic peoples crept further and further east until one fateful day these two cultures were to clash, never again to be set asunder. Was there bloodshed, you ask? Oh yes, much. And who was defeated, I hear you ask again? The Sorbians, I reply sadly. In 932 they were defeated by the Duke of Saxony. Subjugation and assimilation followed, leading to the decline of their culture and this magical Sorbian tongue. Alas, today all that remains of this once great people is a mere 60,000 individuals and a language on the brink of extinction.

Bautzen town was actually founded by these Slavs in 1002 and is the Sorbian centre, with most here speaking Upper Sorbian (as opposed to Lower Sorbian, which is spoken mainly in Lower Lusatia). With these people having been oppressed and discriminated against historically, they have become a village folk culture and have over the years gone from being monoglots to a bilingual people. Forced 'Germanisation' during the Third Reich unfortunately led to a decline in the already small number of Sorbs with Sorbian as their mother-tongue; speaking the language was banned in 1937, meaning it could not be passed on to the younger generation. This law was overturned of course, but not until a few years later, by which time there were already many small Sorbian children whose only language was German.

Sorbians luckily had the support of the GDR on their side and after 1949 their right to maintain their native language and culture was legally recognised, and even heavily financially subsidised, and so they have not disappeared completely.


Bautzen now reflects its bi-cultural heritage, with bilingual signs (one example pictured above), a museum dedicated to the history of the Sorbs, Sorbian schools, and even a German-Sorbian Folk Theatre (which is Germany's only bilingual theatre).

Sorbian traditions are also kept alive here- I mentioned in a previous post that I attended a 'Vogelhochzeit' (Bird Wedding) show at the Folk Theatre. The 'Vogelhochzeit' is an old folk tradition that celebrates the end of winter: the night before Jan 25th, a dish of crumbs is left outside for the birds and overnight the 'birds' fill the dish with gifts for the children as a 'thankyou' for having kept them fed all winter. The next day is then filled with children performing and singing whilst dressed up as bride and groom 'birds'. It's a very sweet tradition.

I am also looking forward to the upcoming traditional Easter Sunday 'Procession of the Easter Riders', in which Sorbian men dress up in their traditional gear and sing whilst riding through the towns and villages on horseback. I am led to believe the Bautzen procession is quite large.
What a spectacle!