A shortened version of this article was printed in the January 2015 issue of the Newsletter of the Texas Wendish Heritage Society. It is printed here in it’s entirety.
Forty five years, give or take – that’s how long I’ve been studying the Wendish culture. Those studies began when I first learned that I was of Wendish heritage and descent. I wasn’t aware of that fact until I was about 21 years. A fellow by the name of George Nielsen had written a monogram entitled, In Search of a Home. The small book fell into my hands by way of my then father-in-law Rev. Eldor Mickan. Somehow he had gotten a copy of George’s book and upon seeing it on his desk one day, I asked if I could read it. Eldor Mickan began to share with me a bit about who the Wends were, that he was of Wendish descent and told me that I could gladly borrow the book, but to make certain that I return it.
Now upon further investigation, I found that there was, at the back of the book, a passenger list of Wendish people who had come to Texas in 1854. And among these names were last names like Kieschnick, Pillack, Birnbaum and others – to all of whom I was related. I was fascinated my George’s little book and wanted a copy. I soon learned that the book was somewhat difficult to find. So, I took the initiative to telephone this fellow, Dr. George Nielsen, to see if I could somehow become a distributor of sorts. Upon calling Dr. Nielsen, he graciously accepted my offer to distribute his book to folks here in Texas. Because the book was printed in Birmingham, England, George would order a few boxes of them and I would sell them out of my home for the price determined by George. Later Dr. Nielsen issued a revised and updated hard cover volume under the same name.
There can be little question that Dr. George Nielsen’s book was and remains the most in depth and scholarly book on the topic of the Wendish settlers in Texas ever published in this country.
Earlier on (the early 1970’s) a group of some 5 or 6 little, old ladies from the Serbin, Texas area formed a new group called the Wendish Culture Club. They did so at the behest of the University of Texas at San Antonio who had tasked themselves with annually honoring the early ethnic settlers to Texas. This was a throwback to an event that they had done in conjunction with “Hemisfair,” the 1968 World’s Fair, which began in 1968. Those two events, the founding of the “Texas Culture Club” and the publishing of Dr. George Nielsen’s book piqued my interest in my Wends of Texas. I had Dr. Nielsen’s book as my primary source of information.
However, if I was to learn more about the Wends, it made only good sense that I should visit a meeting of the Wendish Culture Club. So I made it a point to attend one of the early meetings of “The Wendish Culture Club” on a certain Sunday afternoon in Serbin, Texas. There were about 15-20 people there, all women, except for two or three men. One elderly man’s name was Carl Miertschin. I was fascinated by him because he spoke good German, but he was also one of the last fairly fluent speakers of Wendish in Lee County. I could tell that the group was in its early stages of development when the other man in attendance, Ted Lammert (the then president of the group) approached me and extended his hand in introduction. I had to do some readjusting, as I had two brief cases, one in each hand, ready to take notes and learn all about the Wends. I put the briefcase in my right hand down and extended that hand to Ted as I introduced myself. Introductions having been made, Ted immediately asked me why I had two briefcases. I answered saying that I had been studying the Wends a great deal and that I was ready to add to my education by attending the meeting that day. I then asked him who was on the program to speak for that day. Ted looked me square in the eye and said, “You!”
Thus was my introduction to what is now the Texas Wendish Heritage Society. As circumstances would have it, I had done a great deal of study on the customs and the folklore of the Wends. When the group gathered there that day learned that I could speak German and when they realized that I knew about things like “Vogelhochzeit” and “Rumplich” and “Osterwasser,” I had their undivided attention. The eyes of the group of mostly older women began to glisten as they heard me talk about these subjects. They most certainly knew about them, but remembered them only from their childhood. For most of them, they hadn’t heard those terms uttered since the time of their childhood. That was my “baptism” into both studying things Wendish and making occasional speaking engagements.
Now, all of the above is by way of introduction to the real reason for this article. One would think that a person extremely interested in things Wendish, would have a rather broad understanding of the subject matter. Not so! Something had been going on in Lusatia (the geographical area that the Wends called home) which had totally escaped the eye of this self- educated and self-acclaimed “guru” on the Wends. What was this thing that was happening to the Wends of Germany right under my nose and of which I was virtually oblivious? Well, it was that many of the little dorfs (villages) in which the Wends lived and carried out their culture in Lusatia, were being systematically destroyed and annihilated because of something which lay under the earth which these people had occupied since the 9th century A.D. – coal – braunkohl, to be more specific, lignite. Already prior to World War II, numbers of these very old villages were being wiped off the map so that lignite could be mined. I knew that in later years (from the 1960’s forward) the practice was still being carried out, but I had no idea to what extent.
The whole matter never really hit home until just about a year ago. You see, the little village of Mulkwitz in which my great great grandfather Oskar Horn was born, together with its larger and sister city of Schleife, was on the map for imminent destruction. That boggled my mind. I had visited these villages very briefly (for just a few hours) back in the year 2000. They were quaint and beautiful. They were very old, too.
First mention of these dorfs was made back in the 1300’s. In fact, a portion of the church at Schleife is said to have been built around 1300. Beyond that, Schleife is considered to be one of the cultural centers of the Wends, together with Bautzen to its southwest and Cottbus to its northwest. Schleife and the little villages that surround here are especially noted for their very beautiful and colorful “Frauentracht” (women’s clothing).
Schleife too is renowned for having been the source of many of the customs and folklore of the Wends. Schleife is so “exclusive,” so to say, that she has her own dialect of the Wendish language. There is Obersorbian in the area surrounding Bautzen, Niedersorbian in the area around Cottbus, and “Schleifesorbian” among those who live in and immediately around Schleife.
And now to hear that in only a short time this culturally rich dorf would be, in part, destroyed together with several smaller dorfs around her, made my head spin. I was outraged. I wrote letters of concern to several old friends who live in the area in order to see if there was any chance of sparing these villages. I joined a protest group made of people from all over the world to try to get this action stopped. But, to no avail. It was in the process of protest that many such dorfs had already been destroyed. In fact, it had been going on since prior to WWII with the earliest being destroyed already in and around 1944.
According to the book Verschwundene Dörfer im Lausitzer Braunkohlnrevier by Frank Förster (2014), some 90 villages have succumbed to the ravages of strip mining since 1944, with hundreds and hundreds of people being displaced, with their culture and heritage having been destroyed. The deep love of one individual for her own little dorf can be heard in the words of poem written by Hanza Budarka, a well-known Wendish poet. She wrote the poem in Wendish and it was later rendered into German by Elka Nagel. It is shown below in the German and I translated it into English. Note that the translation to English is not done metrically and therefore does not yield the beauty of poetic meter.
Ich liebe dieses Dorf hier, [I love this little village here,]
Wo ich geboren bin, [Where I was born,]
Wo man mich eingewiegt hat [Where I was cradled]
Und wo man mich geliebt hat [And where I was loved]
Wo man mich gerne sieht. [ Where people like to see me.]
Wo’s klare Flüsschen windet [Where clear little rivers wend their way]
Sich aus dem Tal hinaus [Throughout the valley]
Wo hohe Bäume stehen, [Where tall trees stand]
Manch schönes Haus zu sehen [To see many pretty houses,]
Ein prächt’ges Gotteshaus. [A magnificent House of God.]
Wo Gottes Wort des Sonntags [Where the Word of God on Sunday]
Man Sorbisch hören kann [One can hear Sorbian]
Wo wir noch Sorbisch singen [Where we can still sing Sorbian]
Und die Choräle klingen [And the chorals ring]
Tief in den Herzen dann [Then deep into the heart.]
Dies Dorf ist mir so lieb und [This village is so dear to me and]
So sehr gefällt es mir [It pleases me so much]
Erblick ich’s aus der Ferne [I see it at a distance]
Ich weiss ich bleibe gerne [I know that I will gladly stay.]
Zeit meines Lebens hier. [Here for my entire life.]
Zwar sah ich in der Fremde [Indeed, I’ve seen in foreign stations]
Schon manchen schönen Ort, [Already many beautiful places,]
Doch lieb’ ich diese Felder [I love these fields]
Und vertrauten Wälder [And the trusted forests]
Als Kind spielte ich dort. [Where I played as a child.]
Auf ewig will ich schlafen, [And I want to sleep eternally]
Wo meine Wiege stand [Where my cradle stood]
Mich ausruh’n möchte ich gern dort, [I would so happily rest]
Wenn dann der liebe Herrgott [When the dear Lord God]
Mich heim ruft in sein Land. [Will call me home to His Land.]
(This poem was found in Verschwundene Dörfer im Lausitzer Braunkohlenrevier, Frank Förster, Schriften des Sorbischen Institutes, 2014.)
Having now learned that one of the most culturally rich villages in Lusatia, namely Schleife, together with many smaller villages surrounding it were in the path of destruction and its people displaced, I felt that I must try to do something. Knowing that in all likelihood nothing could be done to stop the devastation, I felt that I needed to something. So, what was the next best thing to do? Well, in my opinion, it was to go back and visit again – and to capture what I could in still photos, videos, and interviews with the people. And that is what I determined to do. Knowing that to undertake such a task on my own would be difficult, I asked three other people to go with me.
The first was my long-time friend, Weldon Mersiovsky. Weldon is a goldmine of information on the Wends. He is constantly on the lookout for new research projects to undertake where the Wends are concerned. If you knew how much Weldon has done to capture and preserve the Wendish culture in Texas, and also in Germany and Australia, you would agree with me that we owe him a great debt of gratitude. Were it not for him and Dr. George Nielsen, much of what we have learned about John Kilian, the home life of the Wends, and just interesting facts about the Wends in general, would be non-existent to us today. So, Weldon accompanied me.
But, I needed someone to go as a videographer. For that task, I asked Dan Carter, a member of the Texas Wendish Heritage Society and a videographer to accompany us. Dan’s wife, Suzanna Schatte Carter, is herself of Wendish descent – and she also made the trip with us – thus, “prettying up” what was otherwise a fairly manly crew. I made prior arrangements with some dear friends of mine who live in Bautzen and/or Schleife, telling them what I wanted to accomplish. Thanks to the efforts of these dear people, Dr. Susanna Hose, Pastor Jan Malink, his wife Dr. Trudla Malinkowa, whom I already had known for 20+ years (all from Bautzen) we were able to meet up with other people who were so very kind and helpful, i.e. , Jana Pannusch of Schleife, Elvira Rathner of Schleife, Mr. Manfried Hermasch of Schleife, Dieter Becker of Schleife (my third cousin) and his wife Evie, the Buscha Family (Christa, Helmuth, and Falk) of Schleife, Mr. Manfred Nickel of Schleife, Martin Strauch of Bautzen, Dr. Juriz Luszczanski (a Wendish scholar from Bautzen) and Annett Scholze of the Domowina Verlag in Bautzen. There is yet another man who to whom much thanks is owed and who did much of the background preparations for us. This is Dr. Fabian Jacob of Leipzig, but whose roots are in Schleife. Strangely, our paths never crossed, but his work on our behalf was indispensable and deeply appreciated.
From a spiritual perspective, one of the more wonderful opportunities we had was that of participating in a Wendish afternoon worship service. Having heard the message of God’s love in Christ proclaimed in Wendish, I had the great blessing of sharing some thoughts from God’s Word in German. Wendish hymns were sung and Wendish prayers prayed. After the service there was the serving of some lovely baked goods made by the women of the congregation, served together with coffee. What a blessing!
Dan Carter’s ancestors were Polish. At the time of the trip, we didn’t not know precisely where in Poland they had lived. However, so that Dan could say that he had been on Polish soil, we all stepped across the border from Germany to Poland where a concert had just played and where there was food and drink a plenty. This came about because we had chosen to travel to Bad Muskau to see the restored castle of Prince Pückler of Bad Muskau and the very large and beautiful park that surrounds it. (My great great grandfather Oscar Horn had served as a forester/game warden for Prince Pückler). From the castle, we walked a few hundred yards, crossed a little bridge and we were in Poland. Dan, true to his word, got down on his hands and knees and kissed the ground of his fatherland.
Had it not been for Weldon’s very capable driving skills and the knowledge he has of Lusatia, it is doubtful that we would have gotten to see as much as we did. Having researched in Bautzen, Schleife, and Mulkwitz, Weldon saw to it that we got to see other villages from whence various of our ancestors had come, such as Weigersdorf, Klitten, Weisswasser, Dauban, Rodewitz, Hochkirch, Spreewitz and more. That the Lord’s hand was in this trip was evidenced by the fact that as we made several of these unscheduled stops – in a great many of them the pastor of the congregation just “happened” to be on the grounds (something very unusual) and took of his/her valuable time to show us around and share histories. So we thank Pastor Kruse-Michel of Spreewitz (who we met as she was leading a group of ladies through the church at Spreewitz and who also led a very beautiful devotion), Pastor Benjamin Rehr of Weigersdorf (whose spirit as a young pastor was evidenced by the large number of young people who attend his church), Pastor Thomas Hainchen of Hochkirch (a pastor, historian and capable organist) who toured the old church at Hochkirch with us and who pointed out such interesting things as a large cannon ball still lodged in the church wall (a remnant of the 30 Years’ War), and my long-time friend, Pastor Siegmund Matzke of Klitten.
Suzanna Carter’s presence, as said above, not only “upgraded significantly” the over-all appearance of this otherwise rather manly group, but, when we dined or associated with hosts where women were present, Suzanna put the women at ease. She also approached the trip from the eye of an artist, capturing lovely photos of nature, architecture and the like.
So, there it is, an overview of our 10 day excursion to the land of our forefathers. Our hope is to produce a short documentary about Schleife, Mulkwitz and surrounding villages. Ultimately, we would like to incorporate the shorter documentary into a larger one which will cover the history of the Wends in general both in Germany and in Texas. While it may seem like hope against hope, we continue to pray that these lovely old villages may yet be spared.