Odyssey is a bit of an exaggeration since my literary talents are far from those of Homer. Still, I’d like to share my love affair with my Wendish roots (on my father’s side, that is – on my mother’s side, I have no Wendish “blood”). One of the dictionary definitions of Odyssey is “a series of experiences that give knowledge or understanding to someone.”
I first learned that I was Wendish at about the age of 13 or 14. I had always thought that Wukasch was a German name, but my dad explained to me that we were actually Wends. I began to explore my Wendish roots and wrote an essay my senior year (1957-58) in high school on the Wends for a competition sponsored by Junior Historians, the youth branch of the Texas State Historical Association. I was proud when my essay won one of the prizes.
At the University of Texas at Austin, I majored in Russian for my B.A. degree. I later went on to get M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in linguistics with Slavic studies being my main area of language interest. In the fall of 1963, I took a graduate course in Old Russian from Dr. Reinhold Olesch, a visiting scholar from Germany. Dr. Olesch was a professor at the University of Cologne. He had been a professor earlier at Karl Marx University in Leipzig before leaving the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) for the greener pastures of the German Federal Republic (West Germany).
I remember with amusement that at a party one night, Dr. Olesch said in reference to the Texas Wends who were keeping up their Wendish language “we must make tips” (meaning, of course, tapes). I drove Dr. Olesch down to Serbin once or twice, also to Panna Maria since he was interested in Polish. I recall Dr. Olesch seeing an armadillo in the Serbin area and chasing it for a short distance. I also recall one rainy day when Dr. Olesch said “this is perfect fieldwork weather. On a rainy day, everyone is at home.” However, I don’t think I did drive him down to the Serbin area that day. My dislike of driving on slick roads probably overruled the “perfect fieldwork weather.”
I decided to write my M.A. thesis on Sorbian (Wendish) in the Serbin area. There had been an article in the Austin American-Statesman (probably around 1963) on Wendish in Texas and Albert Miertschin of Giddings was mentioned. I looked Albert up one day and asked him for leads on Wends who still spoke the language fluently. (I guess Albert had told me that his Wendish was rusty. I can’t recall for sure.) He gave me three names: Ben Mitschke in Winchester, Herman Bigon in Giddings, and Martin Miertschin between Winchester and Serbin. He especially recommended Martin Miertschin, saying that he read the Bible in Wendish. He also mentioned that Martin was part of a Wendish singing group. (How I wish someone had tape-recorded those singing sessions!)
I interviewed Mitschke, Bigon, and Miertschin. My interview technique was to ask how my informant said an utterance in English. For example, I would ask “how do you say in Wendish ‘I am drinking water, you are drinking water, he is drinking water’, etc.?” My informant would answer “ja wodu pijem,” etc. Interestingly, when I began my taping session with Bigon, he answered in German for the first question. I told him that I wanted him to answer in Wendish, not in German. I turned my research into an M.A. thesis at the University of Texas.
Back to Dr. Olesch, he had suggested at one point that I apply to Karl Marx University for a fellowship to study in the Sorbian Institute. I did and they offered me a fellowship for the spring semester of 1965. Unfortunately, I spoke German there instead of Sorbian. Still, it was a cultural experience. I spent Easter weekend in Radibor (Sorbian: Radwor) as the guest of a fellow Sorbian student. I attended a couple of Sorbian church services and also saw the famous Easter Riders, men on horseback riding from village to village and singing Sorbian hymns. I also later spent a week in Bautzen.