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« My Wendish Odyssey by… | Home | Five Wends in Texas »

Question on German Orthography

Monday 05 September 2016 at 12:24 pm.

Weldon Mersiovsky asked me to look through the 19th-century issues of Serbske Nowiny to see if there were references to  the Wendish migrations. I went through a number of them on-line and found a few things.  One thing that surprised me was that, although 99.9% of the articles, advertisements, etc. were in the old Fraktur script, I did come across one article from 1850 or so in the modern script. Did editors experiment with the modern script even back then, but decide that readers preferred Fraktur ?  What do you know about this?

As I've said, a fascinating topic for further research would be the loss of German in Lee and Fayette Counties.  Suppose a grad student came to you and said s/he was looking for a topic to do his/her MA thesis or Ph.D. dissertation on or at least for a paper at a conference.  Wendish died out in 1920 when Rev. Herman  Kilian passed away (why Rev. Herman Schmidt, who spoke Wendish, didn't keep it up as a liturgical language is a separate question).  However, St. Paul's discontinued German preaching on a regular basis (Wendish Fest doesn't really count) in the 1990's probably.  To the best of my  knowledge, the present pastor doesn't even know German. 
How about the other Lutheran churches in the area?  Warda, Lincoln, etc.?  Did they at one time preach in German and if so, when and why was it discontinued?  The older generation dying off?  The pastor not knowing German?  The feeling during World War I that the use of German was unpatriotic? 
As I've said before, the loss of German in Texas parallels to a large extent the loss of Wendish in the Lutheran areas of Lusatia.  It's the Catholics who are putting us Lutherans to shame by keeping up Wendish preaching.  In the Lutheran town of Lohsa, for example, the church warden told me in 2012 that they stopped preaching in Wendish in 1960.  The Rev. Handrij Zehler, a famous Lutheran poet who is buried there, is probably turning over in his grave now.

eleven comments

Dr Hans Boas

[Response to first paragraph] Nothing. I have no idea, sorry.

[Response to second paragraph] Yes, this would be a great topic for a thesis or a dissertation, I totally agree.

[Response to third paragraph] These are all important questions. The answers are most likely to be found in

- the church minutes at the time (we did a small study of St. Martin’s
Lutheran church in Austin and they have a ton of interesting materials
in their archive)

- local newspapers, especially letters to the editor

- public announcements, fliers printed by the government, etc.

[Response to last paragraph] This is fascinating. If you know of specific church archives that are open to the public and that welcome researchers, please let us know.

I’d be happy to see whether any of our graduate students is interested
in exploring this topic. THANK YOU !!!

Dr Hans Boas - 09/5/2016 12:36
Richard Gruetzner

The use of German was crushed during and immediately following World War One by both legal and “extra-legal” measures. Public use of German was forbidden. Societies (such as the Cat Springs Agricultural Society) were forbidden to hold their meetings in German. Churches were one of the few places were German survived in places where Pastors were bold enough to stand up to government and quasi-government forces, but most caved in to pressure and ceased using German or at least severely restricted the use of German. There were many cases of German speakers being arrested or fined, beaten or hung or otherwise “discouraged” from using German. Before the war, German was taught in hundreds of schools in Texas. After the war, there was said to be maybe fifty. Hundreds of German language newspapers around the country went out of business. (BTW: These measures were not just occurring in Texas but all across the United States.) Towns were forced to change their German related names to “patriotic” names like “Liberty.” In areas where German influences were very strong, the use of the language returned but never to the extent that existed in the US before the war. When World War Two came along, with the shame associated with the Nazi actions, German speakers again were informally pressured and the use of German receded ever more. Ironically, the military was at this time beginning to realize it might have proven useful to have more people fluent in the enemy’s language. Some details of the issue can be found in the book “Turning Germans into Texans: World War I and the Assimilation and Survival of German Culture in Texas, 1900-1930” by Matthew Tippens.

Richard Gruetzner - 09/5/2016 12:42
Charles Wukasch

Dr Hans Boas wrote: When you did “fieldwork with die alten Wenden,” did you also record any Wendish on tape, perhaps? Or would you know of anyone who might have? Thanks for letting me know.

My field work with Martin Miertschin, Ben Mitschke, and Herman Bigon was in 1964, with some later field work with Bigon. I did field work with Carl Miertschin (Martin’s brother) in the mid to late 70’s. Dr. Reinhold Olesch did field work with some of the old Wends in 1964. I’m afraid my tapes have long disappeared, and even if they haven’t (e.g., they’re in the attic somewhere), they’re warped from the heat. However, copies of my 1964 tapes should still be in Bautzen. Olesch’s tapes have been digitized and are in archives in Germany. Others have done field work, for example, a former prof. of mine. I’ve asked him about tapes and photos of the old Wends, but his reply has been “they’re somewhere.” (He probably doesn’t feel like poking through boxes in his attic or files at home.) Dr. Sylvia Grider (prof. emeritus) at Texas A&M did work on the Texas Wends in the 70’s, and we are hopeful that she might share her archival material with the TWHS. There were also a couple of grad students at UT who taped people, but I can’t recall their names.

As I’ve said before, an old joke goes this way: When is the best time to plant a tree? Ten years ago. One could say something similar about a dying (or dead) language: When is the best time to work with informants who speak a moribund language or dialect? Several decades ago.

I’m in Poland temporarily and can’t help at the moment, but those of you in Serbin or the vicinity should round up a few of the old-timers who still speak some Wendish (even if not fluently) and bring them to a TWHS meeting. That might make for a good presentation.

Charles Wukasch - 09/5/2016 12:51
Dr Hans Boas

Thanks so much for letting me know. If there’s any way that one could
find out who has tapes and where exactly (even the folks in Bautzen),
then we could go ahead and inquire about getting copies (or making
them ourselves).

Do you think there’s still folks in Texas speaking Wendish (as in:
having learned it at home growing up, NOT learning it as a second

Thanks so much for all the interesting information!

Dr Hans Boas - 09/5/2016 12:53
Charles Wukasch

Thanks, Richard, for the fascinating – although shameful – history of anti-German hatred in Texas. There have been echoes of that with the hysteria of our own time. I remember that when France refused to go along with Bush’s (Bush # 1) war with Iraq in 1992, one restaurant renamed French fries as “freedom fries.” And during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-81, there were cases of Middle Easterners being beaten up, harassed, etc., regardless of whether they were Iranian or not. My dad (even though we were Wendish) remembered being beaten up by neighborhood boys during World War I because the name Wukasch sounded German. Let’s hear it for “liberty and justice for all!” (sarcasm intended)

It’s interesting that when the Russians were sweeping through the Wendish areas of Germany in the closing days of WW II, some Wends put up announcements on their door in Russian reading “we are Slavic-speaking people, not Germans” (words to that effect)

Richard, you ought to work up a presentation for one of our meetings on the topic you wrote me about. That would be fascinating! But save it for next summer when I’m back.

Wendish Fest is right around the corner. This will be only the third that I’ve missed. Everyone drink a beer and eat a plate of sausage and noodles for me, bitte. I’ll be there with you in spirit and will look forward to Wendish Fest 2017.

Charles Wukasch - 09/5/2016 12:56
Charles Wukasch

Hans asks: Do you think there’s still folks in Texas speaking Wendish (as in: having learned it at home growing up, NOT learning it as a second language)?

I wish I could be optimistic, Hans, but if you mean “really fluent” (like the speakers I worked with in the 60’s), the answer is almost certainly negative. Red Arldt (former TWHS president) has mentioned a couple of people (Lorine Bamsch and Marvin Mitschke), but I don’t know how fluent they are. I suspect (but I’d love to be proven wrong) that, although they may have learned it at home, they didn’t keep it up over the years. David (Goeke), you’ve worked with Lorine. Would you say she really speaks Wendish (as opposed to, for example, remembering how to say “Božemje!”)?

As I pointed out once in one of my articles in the scholarly literaturę, “some people may claim they know a language when in reality they merely mean they can still count to ten or say the Lord’s Prayer in the language.”

On a humorous note, I remember when I was sitting with Ben Mitschke in his home in Winchester back in 1964 and tape-recording him. His wife entered the room and she rattled off something in Wendish. (That’s a good example of really knowing a language!) She was probably saying “it’s about time for lunch – how long is this guy going to sit here and tape-record you?”

Charles Wukasch - 09/5/2016 13:00
Dr Hans Boas

Thanks for your assessment of the situation, even if it sounds pretty
grim. I didn’t expect there to be any fluent speakers left, but
perhaps what is known as “semi-speakers:” People who remember some
phrases, perhaps can recite a song, prayer, or poem. Or a story etc.
If there are any people around who you think would fit that category,
that would be fantastic, I have a colleague who is extremely
interested in finding out more about Wendish in Texas.

Dr Hans Boas - 09/5/2016 13:01
Dave Goeke

I’m jumping into this conversation in a rather unorthodox manner (what else is new), but, I wanted to just add a bit of info regarding the question that Charles posed regarding the use of German in worship here in Texas, and when it ultimately died out altogether.

In the first place, I cannot speak with complete authority on when the language was no longer used in the various congregations in Texas. I can say with some authority, that German continued go be used in worship services where those congregations were located in Lee County, specifically, well into the 1950s and in some cases into the 1960s. There was such a heavy concentration of German/Wends in that area that German still remained the major tongue spoken in the home and in worship despite political and social pressures. Gradually, because it became so necessary that folk learn to speak English (from the perspective of business, etc.), that German gradually died out. I speak especially from the perspective of one Lee County congregation in particular, namely, Ebenezer, Manheim. I vividly recall attending German worship services in Manheim well into the 1950s. Gradually, the frequency of German services changed from every Sunday to twice a month…to once a month…to a total transition to English. It made sense because fewer children were speaking German, thus there were fewer “hearers” in the congregation who could understand German, and, finally, there were fewer pastors to be found who could speak/understand German…much less preach in the language.

I was blessed in a number of ways as I grew up. Having had German speaking parents (who, by the way were married in 1936…in Manheim…in the German language…and whose wedding certificate is in German), I was blessed to have had my German speaking, Wendish grandmother from Manheim, come to live with us on a “farm” (we lived a farm life, but with precious little land) on the edge of Austin. Being of an impressionable age (maybe six or seven), I was blessed to have German spoken to me on a regular basis. My responses were largely in English, because I had to use English in virtually every area of my life (school, church, stores, etc.). But, I was spoken to in German until adolescence.

But, I was blessed, too, to have had close relatives who were pastors who preached in German. Most notably was my uncle, August Horn, who pastored the Ebenezer, Manheim, congregation on two separate occasions…and who was the second to last pastor at Manheim who regularly preached in German. He did so up until the early 1960s. Another relative who regularly preached in German was my great uncle, Rev. Dr. J. A. Birnbaum. His story is somewhat different, however. He, too, grew up in the Manheim community. As a result of a “Mission Festival” sermon by Rev. G. Fischer, he became convinced that the Lord was calling him to ministry. This was well before Concordia, Austin, had been founded. He first attended a pre-seminary program at Clifton. Ultimately, he attended Concordia Seminary, Louis. In 1916, he received his first call to serve as a missionary in South America. The fact that he was considering this call greatly distressed his mother, Bertha née Kieschnick Birnbaum. J. A. Birnbaum declined the South America call and, instead, accepted a call to serve a newly organized congregation in Vernon, Texas, called St. Paul. This small congregation was made up of some Lee County Wends, with names like Teinert and Graf.

Dr. Birnbaum would be the first full time pastor of this congregation and would remain there for the duration of his ministry, 50 years hence. Dr. Birnbaum preached and taught school the German language…until.

I have been blessed and honored in many ways in my life. Among these are two occasions when I was asked to play an integral part in the celebrations of anniversaries of the Texas District of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, namely the 75th and 100th anniversaries. One of these occasions is germane to this email. On the occasion of the 75th anniversary, there were yet living a number of the “old timers”…teachers and pastors, who had wonderful oral histories and tales to tell of the early days of the district. I was tasked with the pleasant opportunity of interviewing a number of these old teachers and pastors. Why? Well, in the first place, I had a proclivity for that sort of thing. Secondly, I personally knew a number of these folks through their relationships and friendships with my family. Finally, I could converse in German, and some of these folks, in their old age, would revert to German instead of English. So, armed with a portable cassette tape recorder, I was sent around the state to interview some of the wonderful folks. Among them, was my great uncle, Rev. Dr. J. A. Birnbaum. It is from that perspective that I even mention all of this. One of the questions I asked him was regarding his preaching and teaching in the German language. The following is a transcript of a portion of that conversation:

Birnbaum: We had some excitement here in, you know, in 1918….war in Germany. One morning I stayed with Mr. Teinert, he lived only about ½ mile from the church. So, when I got there [to the church/school] I noticed that the windows had been knocked out…and a “ticket” attached to the front door of the school. [It stated] if you are wise you will leave Vernon. And, it was winter and I made a fire, to warm the school. I took that ticket and went to the Sheriff. And he looked it over and he said, ‘You just stay where you are.’ So, I went back and told the children to go home, it won’t be no school today. And, the sheriff told me, “Let’s go the editor, Mr. Nickleson, and see what he will say about this.” Mr. Nickleson, the Vernon Record editor, he told me, “Well, I’m going to put something, don’t know what it will be, but something has to be done”. He says, “This won’t happen. Nobody’s going to attack you.” And the next day the paper came out and the headline said (and I lost that piece of paper…I’ve looked high and low for it and I can’t find it). After that paper was printed, I got I don’t know how many calls…high officials of Vernon, preachers, editor of the newspaper, doctors, bankers…that I should stay right where I am. Nickleson made the statement in the paper, “The act of yesterday, destroying church property and giving threats, is in the highest degree un-American” and so forth and so on. I had no trouble ever since.

Goeke: “Was this because you were German?”

Birnbaum: “Ya, sure. Because I taught German school…taught German, preached German. But, that was the beginning. We had English services from that day on.”

Goeke: “And there was no more German?”

Birnbaum: “No.”

Birnbaum’s wife, Rosa, interjects: “Well, let’s see, did it break off entirely…right away, or for a while you had….

Birnbaum: “Well, we had a meeting. That’s when the editor of the Vernon Times suggested that we should pass a resolution to cease preaching German. We did.”

Goeke: “Simply because of outside pressure?”

Birnbaum: “Uh, huuh” [Then noticeable silence]

Birnbaum’s wife, Rosa, interjects: “It was quite bad during that time. People hated the Germans.”

Goeke: “Were you married at that time”

Birnbaum: “Ya.”

Birnbaum’s wife, Rosa, interjects: “No, not at the time when this happened we probably weren’t married.”

Goeke: “Do you remember your first Texas District Convention? Can you share anything about that?”

Birnbaum: “Let me see. I believe that first convention that I attended was held in Giddings. Rev. Moerbe was pastor in Giddings. You know that. I think that was my first.”

Birnbaum’s wife, Rosa interjects: “I thought that was in Serbin. We were just married.”

Birnbaum: “It could have been Serbin. I just don’t remember.” [There is some very short discourse between Birnbaum and his wife which is in quiet tones so that not everything discussed is not altogether intelligible.]

Birnbaum: “It was either Serbin or Giddings.”

Goeke: “Anything that stands out in your mind about that conference? Any memories that come to your mind when you think of that conference?

Birnbaum: [Birnbaum starts to laugh]. “Yeah,” and laughs even harder. “I maybe shouldn’t answer this.”

Goeke: “Aw, that’s fine. You go right ahead.”

Birnbaum (still chuckling): “Everything was in German, you know. That was, that was, uhh, understood. The Lord doesn’t understand English. (Continues to chuckle). We had a Rev. Allmann, a missionary at La Mesa. He was there. He had a delegate. The delegate had forgotten his credentials. And they wanted to join the Synod. But, they had to give credentials that they have the permission of the home congregation to become members of the Texas District. Everything went alright. And Allmann [next couple of words not intelligible.]. The delegate had forgotten his credentials…left them at home. And the committee decided that they will not take them in as members since they had forgotten, had no credentials. And they asked, the President asked (I guess Behnken must have been…no…was either Kramer or Studtmann). The president, the chairman, asked the pastor, Allmann, to give a little information about this matter. He [Allmann] got up and said in German (he answered in German…and he didn’t know any German).

Goeke: [ All those present at the interview, began to laugh] “He didn’t know any German? What did he say?”

Birnbaum: “Der Delegate hat vergessen sein Credentials mitgebringt.” [ Birnbaum, his wife and myself are now bursting out with laughter.]

Birnbaum: “And everybody laughed! And Allmann didn’t know why in the world they laughed. Er hat sie nicht mitgebringt.” [Birnbaum is laughing almost uncontrollably at this point in the interview.]

(End of this portion of an almost two- hour interview)

So, in the case of Uncle August Birnbaum, German preaching and teaching ended earlier than it did in Lee County. Again, I maintain that because of the large population of German/Wends in Lee County, the resistance against Germans was not as intense as it may have been in other parts of the state and/or country.

One other thing that I find of interest where the Wendish language is concerned is that it (the Wendish language in Texas) did not find its only home in Serbin. This is, of course, common knowledge. Chronologically speaking, the first “offshoot” congregation from St. Paul, Serbin (aside from St. Peter….which is, effectively, Serbin), was “Die Evangelische Dreieinigskeit Gemeinde zu Fedor.” I think that I am correct in stating that this was the name given to the congregation. I may be wrong about that, and, if so, I’d be happy if someone would correct me…but, I’m pretty sure that I’m correct. As said, it is common knowledge this congregation was made up of a goodly number of Wends.

In a history of the Fedor congregation, Rev. Michalk, in conjunction with the assistance of Rev. Gotthilf Birkman states the following: “Mittlerweile heilt John A. Proft, warscheinlich ein Kandidat des heiligen Predigtamstes, ein Wende, mit einigen Kindern Schule vom Herbst 1870 an. Er wurde dann der erste Seelsorger deer Gemeinde. Die Gottesdienst waren deutsch, aber vielmal des Jahres heilt er noch Abendmahlsgottesdienst in der wendischen Sprache.” Now, it is also common knowledge that due to health (and other) reasons, Proft would move to the San Antonio Prairie…and that a number of congregants from Fedor followed him and there organized the Eben Ezer congregation. Michalk, in his history of Fedor makes reference to this as follows: “Mancherlei kam in den nächsten Jahren in der Gemeinde vor, was Pastor Proft bewegte im Oktober, 1875 zu resignieren. Er hatte sich ein Pfarrhaus gebaut an der Lincoln Prairie [known later as the San Antonio Prairie], 5 Milen südöstlich von Fedor. Dort gründeten einige Glieder, die von Fedor mir Pastor Proft abgingen, die Eben-Ezer Gemeinde, die später sich auflöste.” Again, all of this is common knowledge.

Allow me to interject a bit of information here. Forty plus years ago, when I became intensely interested in not only Wendish history in Texas, but, also in the history of Serbin’s daughter churches, I made it a quest to learn about the daughter church that most interested me, namely, Ebenezer, because my forefathers were founders of this congregation. Way back then, I asked if I could see the old church records. Well, no one knew exactly where they were. After seeking these with the help of the then pastor and church leaders, the records were found…bedraggled, rat-eaten, etc. Back then, Rev. Reinhardt Wuensche was the voluntary archivist of the Texas District archives. I asked the congregation for permission to take those records to the Texas District in order to make copies, one copy for the District and one copy for me…and that I would then return the originals to the congregation. Permission was granted. This, then, became the catalyst for Rev. Wuensche to seek out other congregational records from early congregations and make copies of them. But, I digress.

Of particular interest in the Ebenezer congregation is the fact that the first congregation, located on the San Antonio Prairie, would ultimately go defunct and a “new Ebenezer” would be constructed in what is now Manheim (originally known as Schulzberg…though short-lived). Finally, I am coming to the point which I have been intending to make all along. In the original records of that earliest Ebenezer congregation, one reads the following: “Unsere Gemeinde soll den Namen führen: Deutsch-wendische Eben Ezer Gemeinde in Lee County, Texas”. Now, you ask, “So what?” Insofar as I know, this congregation was the only congregation, aside from St.Paul, Serbin, to have in her title the term “Wendish”…or “Deutsch-Wendische”. I find this significant in that both the Fedor and the original Ebenezer held to their Wendish form of worship…at least for a period of time. Ebenezer San Antonio Prairie was founded on April 2, 1876, and went defunct a few years later. But her name attests to the fact that Wendish was still practiced in places other than Serbin. I maintain, too, that it was because of this that the large number of Wendish immigrants from Germany in the late 1800’s, made the area around Fedor, Manheim and Lincoln their choice of settling. That’s my take, at least. Again, this may be common knowledge to all of you…and, if so, my apologies for taking up your time.

I’ll end this lengthy tome now. Seien Sie mir bitte nicht allzu wütend für meine Ausführlichkeit. (Please don’t be all too angry with my verbosity).

Dave Goeke - 09/5/2016 16:36
Charles Wukasch

Danke, David! Your reminiscences are very interesting and you might consider giving a talk at a TWHS meeting sometime. Let me comment on a couple of things. I wonder if the pattern of “once a week, later twice a month, then once a month, finally nicht mehr (no more)” was a common pattern in all the originally German-use congregations. I believe that back in the 1980’s and 1990’s, when Carl Miertschin was alive and I went with him on two or three occasions to the St. Paul’s (Serbin) German service, they had gone over to twice-a-month services. Maybe going over to only once a month occurred during the latter part of that time frame, too. I can’t recall.

Another interesting topic for research was the extent to which Wendish was used in the school in Serbin as a medium of instruction. I once asked Carl about that. If my memory is correct, he said that when he was a pupil there (early 1900’s, I guess), they had Wendish just once a week and that was in their geography class. Or we may have been talking about English, but I believe it was Wendish. (I should have had a tape-recorder going, as I did when collecting Wendish-language data.)

I’ve asked this before – does anyone want to jump in on this question? Wendish-language preaching at St. Paul’s ended in 1920 with the death of Rev. Herman Kilian. However, Rev. Herman Schmidt spoke Wendish and up until the 60’s, the Serbin area still had a fair number of Wendish speakers. I wonder why Rev. Schmidt didn’t continue the Wendish services.

Finally, your comment reminded me of something somewhat similar. Grandma Wukasch (nee Hannusch) spoke German and remembered some of her childhood Wendish. I never learned any German growing up, but do recall the following incident. Grandma Wukasch would say “Ach!” as a sign of disapproval. When I was in the first-grade at Trinity Lutheran School, my teacher was Irene Spaatz (spelling?) (She later married a Teinert.) She wrote “OK” on one of my class assignments. I cried, understanding it as “Ach!” (something negative).

Charles Wukasch - 09/5/2016 16:44
Richard Gruetzner

Nice information, Dave. It fits in with the general narrative of the demise of German very well. Churches were the last and best bastions of German during and following the wars. As a side note, my father, a descendant of those Wends in Fedor, has always stated that he had to learn English in order to start school. (He was born and raised in Giddings after the family left Fedor for Lincoln and then went to Giddings.) I don’t know if Wendish was spoken by his parents or not. I never heard reference to it in the family, but then the family didn’t come to Texas until 1872. They would have known Wendish, obviously, since Rev. Proft was my 2xGreat-Grandmother’s brother. But the language may have died out before the birth of my father.

Richard Gruetzner - 09/5/2016 16:46
David Zersen

Ach isn’t necessarily a sign of disapproval. It could be a sign of amazement at your brilliance! As in “ach was!” Oder “ach Du!” Oder “ach so!” Now, if it were “ach, Du schande” oder “ach, nein” then you probably should have cowered. If it were “ach, Du Lieber,” then you should have checked to see if there were a smile or a frown on her face. (grins)

David Zersen - 09/5/2016 16:48

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