This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for March 30, 2017, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
When I returned to my teaching post at Wharton County Junior College in 1974 or 75 from Michigan, where I had been in Graduate School, my wife and I settled in East Bernard somewhat unintentionally, and we’ve been here ever since. While we were still in Ann Arbor, I asked a realtor-friend of mine to find me a “cheap” (we were broke) apartment in Wharton. He replied, saying he found us an “affordable” apartment in East Bernard.
“What kind of place is that?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s a nice town full of Bohemians,” said he.
“Bohemians? Great, we’ll take it.”
It was at the University of Michigan, strange as it may seem, that I first embarked on what became a life-long quest for the elusive side of my family history, my Wendish ancestors. At Michigan, I took a course in Ethnic American Literature, and wrote a paper in search of my Wendish ancestors, who, like the Czechs, Bohemians, Slovaks, Slovenes, Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Macedonians, Bulgarians, etc., were Slavic. As a point of interest, the Wends were the only Slavs in history without a homeland.
My English Professor showed my paper to the Chairman of the Department of Slavic Languages, who had never heard of the Wends. Not only didn’t we have a homeland, but we weren’t very well known to the rest of the world. Recently, I went online and looked up a site for the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature at Harvard, and I noticed the Wendish language was missing from the list of Slavic languages in the world. Bohemian wasn’t listed, because “Bohemian” and “Moravian” are dialects of Czech. Actually, the Czech people and the Czech language were called “Bohemian” before they were called “Czech,” so it’s really not an insult to call a Czech person a “Bohemian,” or their language “Bohemian.”
As an English major, I had to study the history of the English language, tracing it back to the Indo-European “MotherTongue,” and the sub-group under that called “Germanic” or “Teutonic.” Many of the world languages are traced back to the Indo-European “Mother Tongue,” including the Slavic languages, whose sub-group is called “Balto-Slavic.” Some people use the term “Proto-Slavic,” “Proto-Germanic,” etc., to refer to the ancient sub-groups evolving from Indo-European.
What I discovered in my search was that the other Slavic languages closest to Wendish are Czech and Polish. My great grandfather claims that he could speak Wendish to the Czechs in Lee County, and they could “somewhat” understand him. Some language scholars believe the two Slavic languages considered closest to the Proto-Slavic (Balto-Slavic) “sub-Mother-Tongue,” are Macedonian and Slovenian. Most Americans had never heard of Slovenia or the Slovenian language before Melania, the wife of Donald Trump, came into the spotlight. Mrs. Trump is originally from Slovenia, which has a population of about 2.5 million people. Houston has a population of about 2.2 million, so you can see that the number of folks who speak Slovenian is not too much larger than those who speak Wendish.
Even though Slovenian may be the closest Slavic language to the original Balto-Slavic Mother Tongue, a Proto-Slavic speaker would not be able to understand a speaker of modern Slovenian, and certainly couldn’t understand any of the other modern Slavic languages. And it’s vice versa; if you speak modern Slovenian, you would not be able to decipher the ancient Balto-Slavic Mother Tongue. No doubt that’s why it’s so difficult to carefully trace the history of the Slavic languages.
It’s even harder to trace those ancient origins of the Wendish language, per se, because we were nomads, wandering all over Eastern Europe and west, even as far as England. Not only that, we never stopped being nomads until we finally settled in northeastern Germany in 300 A.D. (give or take a hundred years), where the Germans subjugated us and even tried to wipe out our ethnicity, even before Hitler’s rise to power. It’s absolutely amazing that our language and culture survived after the Nazi’s ruled Germany. Maybe that’s why we are so proud of being Wendish. The Slavic people were next on Hitler’s extermination list.
So, here we are, living in this wonderful little town, wherein my friend said lived a “bunch of Bohemians,” and we wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.