This article was written in February 1989 by Dr. Maria Beate von Loeben who was born in the village of Kuppritz in 1927 and lived there until 1945. Kuppritz is about five miles east of Bautzen in former East Germany. Dr. von Loeben is an instructor of English at Wurzburg University. In November 1989 the Wall came down and East and West were unified. This article gives a unique view into life as it once was. It was submitted to the TWHS Newsletter by George Boerger who traveled in Germany in the summer of 1990.
The town of Budissin (Bautzen) is the center of the Wendish country. It is a fine, medieval township, founded about the year 900, situated on the north slope of that range of mountains which surrounds the Bohemian Basin, or what is now better known as Czechoslovakia (Czech Republic). Looking down from the town fortifications you see, flowing in a deep valley, the River Spree, and looking up and south, you will see a chain of mountains of middling height, wood-covered, the last mountains of that size until you come to Sweden. On this mellow slope it is where the Wends have lived this last millennium, in this fertile landscape whose fields and meadows are characteristically dotted with clusters of trees wherever there are wells springing from the ground, a landscape whose fields and meadows are traversed by countless little streams which you can easily discern from afar, thanks to the trees that follow them.
Wherever there is a hollow of some size, the roofs of some village peep through the foliage of huge old trees; there is a pond in the center, and quite frequently the tall, mellow-tiled roof of some old manor-house can be made out. There are few churches, but their steeples are characteristic, high and impressive green clad baroque spires, and their bell s are heard far in this wide and light country. To be born into one of these manor houses, and to grow up amid a culture that had been self-subsisting since times immemorial, was an experience to be immensely grateful for.
The background of almost every Wendish family was an old farmhouse, almost always a timbered house with the stable under the same roof, the barn standing at right angles to it. The farmyards were facing the central pond, the fields lying behind the yard. In the old days the village could be thus shut off from the outer world if there was danger abroad. In times of extreme danger the population obviously took shelter behind circular earthworks (ramparts) with a now ancient oak tree in the center. These pre-historic constructions are of considerable size – about 500 yards in diameter and some of them are still intact.
Of the farms in the round villages each had its own well, if possible, but there was also a common well in the center of the village, and I remember the girls going there at night with their pails hanging down on either side from finely decorated wooden yokes carried across their shoulders. At the village where I spent my childhood, the well was in a very low little house, where you had to descend a few granite steps and then fill your vessels from the ever full basin that was continually replenished from an invisible source. The water was as tasty as only water coming from and underground of granite can be, and when you held it in a vessel of lighter color it appeared a deep blue-green. The richness of wells, streams, and ponds had given rise to numerous fairy tales about water sprites and water nymphs which had to be propitiated or praised, according to their pleasant or unpleasant propensities. All these waters, of course, abounded in fish (mainly carp and trout), and fishing was one of the annual features of country life in October. The white stork was – and still is – a frequently seen bird, and there were even some colonies of cranes.
The year was a sequence of quaint customs, beginning with the “Wedding of the Birds” on the 25th of January. On this day the children got little nests with tiny colored sugar eggs and little birds made of sugar or feathers. Occasionally artificial birds were thrown up into the air to tempt the real birds to start their mating season, which was – quite rightly – considered to be the first sign of burgeoning spring; the early date is indicative of a fairly mild climate: we did have snows every year, and the tinkle of horse drawn sledges to me is a familiar winter sound – but there was usually very little snow before New Year’s Eve, and even then the years when it stayed, and when there was a severe and prolonged frost, were considered rather the exception. The wonderful old fruit trees of the region bear witness to this fact. In sheltered places peaches and apricots are raised, and south facing house fronts are frequently grown over with vines. Every well-kept household produced its own wine, though generally made with currents, raspberries, and strawberries rather than with genuine grapes. It is a very good wine indeed, but not to be got in the shops! After the “Birds Wedding” the preparations for Easter began: a baby goat was fattened for the traditional Easter meal, where it replaced the biblical Passover Lamb. In shops lambs made from cake dough or butter began to appear as decorations, and the women began to color eggs, which were then covered with intricate ornaments or inscribed with pious or amorous verses. There were various ways to work on the eggs: the original one was to scratch away the color with a very fine and sharp knife. There were artists who could do almost anything with the point of their knife, from ornaments and flowers to landscapes and verses. The easier way was to use an ordinary steel pen, dip it into muriatic acid, and remove the color or rather dye of the egg that way. It was, of course, much easier thus to write on the eggs as well. Such eggs, being little works of art, were, in the course of time, no longer meant to be eaten but used for purposes of decoration, and in this case empty shells were used which required an extra delicate handling. These eggs have become quite famous, and nowadays you can buy them almost everywhere.
On Easter morn the girls of the village went out in the dark with jugs to fetch water from some stream; it was supposed to give you special beauty (but only if you refrained from speaking until you had used it), and if the surface of the stream was still you might see your future husband’s face in it, looking at you. These customs which are, of course, not confined to the Wendish speaking parts of the world, were, however, religiously attended to when I was a child, and as the most natural thing in the world we expected on Easter morning jugs with Easter water to stand outside our bedroom doors and our nanny saw to it that we used it and kept quiet until we had done so. In the afternoon of Easter Sunday most people went to the town of Budissin (Bautzen) to watch the “Easter Ride”, a procession of riders in old fashioned dress coats. The main attraction, however, and a unique local specialty, was a competition on the Proitschenberg, where competitors – mainly children – let their hard-boiled eggs roll down a steep hill and, according to some rules which I have never quite understood, lost their own eggs, or won those of their opponents.
The last day of April was celebrated with “Burning the Witches:” a life-sized doll was made of straw, clad in old rags and given an old broom (households in those days used nothing but genuine home-made brooms made of twigs); the doll was then carried to an open space outside the village (where in summer the annual fair was held), it was burnt after dark on a huge pile of logs. On Saint John’s Day in June, there was another bonfire; and when it had burnt down the young men and boys began to jump across it; he who first dared to jump was, of course, very much hailed, especially by the admiring girls. A young man who jumped the fire carrying a girl was considered engaged to her, but a girl who was unfaithful to her lover ran the risk of falling into the flames. There were, of course, corresponding tales to confirm this.
At Whitsun stems of birch trees were placed right and left of the doors. Thanksgiving Day was the next opportunity to make merry: the Wendish farmers, famous for their baking, produced wagon loads of cakes and the harvest helpers feasted on them. (Another local feature was the preference for linseed oil which was eaten with rolls of which about ten different shapes were produced daily, with potatoes, and for baking pancakes, sixteen of which – really – had to be given to each male farm hand for a meal, and dipped either in sweets, or in gravy. You could also stow them away in your pockets for a snack in between meals.) Thanksgiving Day was not only celebrated in church with the usual decoration of the altar, but also with a dance, with a banquet, and with games. A wide 1oft was decorated with wi1d hop shoots and autumn flowers, in which the gardens abounded; the floor was strewn with rapeseed, and everybody danced to the music of a band of home-made instruments. I never had a single dancing lesson in my life, I was taught it on our village dancing floor, and I was considered a very good dancer in my day.
The great event of the year, however, was “Kirmst” (Dedication Feast). For a week beforehand the village of Hochkirch – with its famous church where Frederick the Great of Prussia lost a battle (which did not happen very often to him) – smelled wonderfully of cakes, and you saw horse drawn, four wheeled carts standing in front of Kockel’s bakershop, which were loaded with flat round cakes of all sorts, a yard and a half in diameter: on a layer of straw came a layer of cake and so on, until the cart was filled right up. A proper farm household used a hundred weight of flour on these occasions, not to mention all the other ingredients. In Kockel’s shop there was a room with a
huge table, where six or eight women had enough space to make their cakes ready for the oven. Friends arranged with the baker to be given the same date: to prepare their cakes together was one of the social highlights, of the year: it was, of course, also the local gossip exchange and an important social center anyway, the other two being the Church and the Inn.
Whoever could afford it gave their farm-hands new shoes or some other item of clothing on “Kirmst Day”, and the children got their new outfit for winter. About this time people stopped walking barefoot and resorted to hand knitted woolen stockings and clogs. Proper shoes were only worn when you went to church or to town.
Busy as the people were in general: if anyone died there was no excuse whatsoever for staying away from the funeral. All their sense of beauty and all their skill with garlands and flowery bouquets was lavished in honor of the dead. The barn floor of his or her homestead was cleared, and the walls decorated with greenery and flowers up to the loft, even in winter time, and amidst all this splendor stood the open coffin, and we all went to say farewell to the deceased. Then everybody began to sing a hymn, and then some of the men took up the coffin, and singing, we wound our way in procession up to the church and the churchyard. If the deceased had been well to do the singing was accompanied by the trombones, or if poor, by the choir children in their black cassocks.
With the beginning of autumn, people began to stack their firewood in high piles in the farm yards; houses with less solid walls were literally built in with a coat of logs, the stable with a coat of dry leaves; while the former were used to keep the fires going, the latter served as litter for the animals. With the coming of spring, both house and stable had shed their winter coats.
Within, during winter-time, activities of various kinds called for gatherings when evening fell. Among those activities no longer practiced was “driving feathers” (separating the down from the quill). The Wends are great lovers not only of flowers but also of animals, and they were particularly skilled in the breeding of goats and geese. Every farm possessed a numerous herd of geese, which fed all summer long on the meadows behind the farm, and with the approaching evening the musical shouts of “Beela, Beela, Beela ” (Bila = white = goose ) kept echoing through the village . Now, in winter, the feathers of these birds were prepared for feather beds.
The living rooms of the farm houses were large, low-ceilinged, wood paneled places, always situated in a corner of the house with two sides of two or three little windows each. The walls at ground floor level being very thick (they were usually built from solid granite boulders), the windows, between their inner and outer wings (the latter opening to the outside) left ample space for voluminous flower pots which – as far as I recall were always in full blossom, even in winter. The corner opposite the windows was occupied by a huge tiled stove with a bench round it, and with two openings with brass doors, one above the other. They were both used for cooking: the one immediately above the fire to get the meals done, the one on top to keep them warm. A built in urn with a tap provided warm water all day long. On top of the stove there was a drying rack for clothes. With this simple kind of central heating going all the time, the houses had to be aired in summer mornings while the air was still cool. During day time the thick walls kept the heat out, but with the necessity of keeping a fire going practically all day, these rooms were always fairly warm. In winter time they were cozy places to sit. Very often a bench ran along the walls, with a huge square table in the corner between the windows, where most of the house work was done. Children very often did their homework kneeling on the bench, using the wide window sill for a desk. There were always a lot of cats about, one of the favorite animals of the Wends, figuring in many a Wendish nursery rhyme.
With Christmas approaching, new activities began. Under the influence of the Moravian Brothers, who had their main settlement Herrnhut in the immediate neighborhood, the Moravian Christmas Star appeared in every house with the first day of Advent season. This star is built on the basis of a Tetrahexaeder (so we were taught at school), and it has sixteen quadrangular and eight triangular points, of a length of over a yard each. In my childhood the farm people made this complicated affair themselves; nowadays you can buy it in the shops. It has become very popular, the illumination being no longer a problem (which it was in pre electricity days). After getting the great stars ready for Advent time, decoration for the Christmas tree had to be put in order. Stars made of straw, and of white, folded, finely cut paper, threaded on a piece of cotton, together with dark red apples, were the traditional decoration. About a week before Christmas Day, another great baking feast started, again with group meeting at the baker’s huge table, and carts carrying home the tasty load moved in a halo of sweet and tempting smells. The season’s cake has achieved worldwide fame under the name of “Dresdner Stollen”. What made the Wends such masters in all kinds of baking is, most likely, the neighborhood and close relationship to the people of Bohemia.
Christmas among the Wends was – unlike in the rest of Germany – not celebrated on the eve of the 24th of December, but on the morning of the 25th. On Christmas Eve, however, everybody went to church, carrying with them a candle which we planted on the bench in front of us. The service with the old songs went on under the light of literally hundreds of candles. This pretty and pertinent custom I have not found anywhere else.
In remembrance of the old date of Christmas, which is now the 6th of January, the twelve days between were spent as holidays: no work was done on the farms but what was absolutely necessary; some people literally lived on cakes in these days. From Christmas Night onwards, the fruit trees carried a stone on the lowest fork of their branches, or sometimes a bundle of straw; all the animals got fresh litter and some special treat with their feed. After New Year, there was usually snow and the sledges came out, and at the end of January we were already looking forward to spring.
Why and how did this culture survive for so long a time? The main reason is probably that the Church, Protestant Lutheran as well as Roman Catholic (and between those branches of Christianity there are less differences here than anywhere else) sent Wendish speaking clergymen to our churches who preached in Wendish – three times a month the first service on a Sunday. The one preferred by farming people was the Wendish one. Only then came the service for the German-speaking minority. The Protestant Clergymen of the church at Hochkirch are still wearing the surplice or the alb which is rather unusual in Germany, and the cathedral at Budissin (Bautzen) has always been used by Protestants as well as Roman Catholics. Faith, preached in their own language, is a uniting, not a separating force among the Wends. The inscriptions in our church were in Wendish in my days (they no longer exist). In our preparations for confirmation, the clergyman spoke Wendish with children from Wendish households, and they had to learn their texts in Wendish, not in German. Our Bibles and our Catechisms were bi lingual, the two languages facing each other, identical pictures on top of both pages! Children at school usually knew little or no German in their first year, if they came from a Wendish household. The teacher had to be bilingual, too. Twice a week we had lessons in Wendish; accordingly my knowledge of Wendish is limited mainly to songs and nursery rhymes. The district being – thanks to the Wendish population – unusually church abiding and pious, we always began and ended our days at school with a hymn and a prayer, and after the “Amen” we added “Pomhaj Bóh – Knjez wučer jo!”, meaning, approximately, “God speed – the Lord bless you! We were also told to greet everybody we met (as it is usual in country districts) with “Pomhaj Bóh!”, and reply, when greeted, with a “Božemje.” Of the adults everybody was bilingual, even the village idiot.
The word “Bóh” or “Bóhu” you came across everywhere, it meaning “God”, and it was used indiscriminately for the Christian God as well as for the representatives of a pre-Christian, heathenish faith, to which most people, though subconsciously, still adhered. The two major mountains of the dis trict are named “Czorneboh” and “Bieleboh,” meaning “Black God” and “White God;” the legends about Krabat, the Wizard, are still alive and thriving, and perhaps even today – who knows – the wise women are plying their arts with herbs and spells. My aunt, who as a child had a black spot on her chin which in those days was considered a blemish, was taken by her grandmother (my great grandmother) who was anything but superstitious, to the local wise woman, and after some rites and spells of which my then fourteen year old aunt didn’t understand a word, she came home without the black spot, which had disappeared for good.
The days I am now speaking of were the days of Hitler. With the Wendish population being completely uninterested in politics, and, thus, in Hitler’s doctrines as well, I cannot remember any of the Wends being a member of “The Party”, and they, and we with them, escaped the notice of the authorities for a long time. In Budissin (Bautzen) where most of the Roman Catholics among the Wendish people lived, the national costumes were still frequently seen, and the special Wendish newspaper was still permitted to circulate for some time. The clergy, keeping aloof from the newfangled activities for reasons of religion as well as of nationality, kept their sheep together and when our old pastor was transferred to another district where no Wends lived, it became clear that the authorities had decided to put their foot down. The end of the war prevented this.
In spite of the fact that the new authorities are trying hard to further and sponsor everything connected with the Wendish population, it is now that their culture is really in danger of disappearing. Whereas fifty years ago everybody spoke their native language, nowadays the children even of Wendish families have difficulty in speaking the tongue of their forefathers. One of the old manor houses has been turned into a boarding school for children from Wendish parents, where they learn the language they formerly took in with their mother’s milk. Centralization is now splitting up the close communities where, for a millennium, an old culture and language had survived almost unchanged.