Town Finds Its Heritage Defies Time, Place

This article by Richard Whittle, Knight Ridder Tribune News Service, was printed in an unidentified newspaper in the early 1990s.

Note: The correct adjective for Sorbs is Sorbian not Sorbish.

Serbin Residents Cherish Ties To Near-lost Culture

Central Texas Town Holds Fast to Ties with German City Despite Upheaval

Klitten, East Germany — The Rev Siegfried Matzke and the 260 member Lutheran flock he tends in this tiny village learned last year that they had friends in Texas.

The Communist government, determined to dig up the filthy but cheap brown coal that has fueled East German homes and factories for decades, had decreed that all 1,800 residents of Klitten must relocate. The 14th-century village and every structure in it — including St. John’s Alt Lutherische Church, an 1846 structure where Matzke is pastor — were to be razed to make way for yet another of the gaping strip mines that scar this region like open graves.

“It would have been a catastrophe,” says Matzke, 47.

A Texan who happened to be visiting Matzke at the time, elementary school teacher Jack Wiederhold, took the news back to St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Serbin, a town 60 miles east of Austin. And last Oct. 22, on the 135th anniversary of St. Paul’s, the congregation took up a collection of $1,393 and sent it to Matzke to help rebuild his church elsewhere.

As it turned out, the collapse of communism in East Germany last fall saved St. John’s Alt Lutherische and Klitten.

Ironically, the ultimate reunification of Germany now appears to threaten the existence of St. John’s of Klitten.

The East German and Texas churches were born of a common culture — the obscure but proud heritage of a Slavic minority known as Sorbs.

In 1854, the minister of St. John’s Alt Lutherische, the Rev. Johann Kilian, left Klitten with about 600 Sorbs and settled in Texas, founding St. Paul’s Church and the town of Serbin. Both churches, in fact, were built from the same plan, from their stucco walls to the pulpits that tower 20 feet above the floor.

Sorbish culture and the Sorbish language, a complex Slavic tongue whose two major dialects are akin to Czech and Polish, virtually disappeared in Texas in the early part of this century.

In the past 20 years, however, a handful of descendants of the Wends, as the Sorbs of Texas came to call themselves, have become engaged in an effort to revive their heritage and preserve their roots. About 500 strong, they call themselves the Texas Wendish Heritage Society and have created a museum in Serbin.

In East Germany, by contrast, where the Nazis banned the use of Sorbish language after 1937 and had plans to exterminate the Sorbs, the Communist regime not only granted the Sorbs special rights but also funded the revival and promotion of their unique culture.

But the East German constitution, whose Article 40 guaranteed the Sorbs special rights, will be history when East and West Germany reunite Oct. 3. And that has leaders of East Germany’s Sorbish community, who number about 80,000, deeply worried.

One of them is Helmut Faszke, 58, the Moscow-trained head of the state-financed Institute for Sorbish Cultural Research.

“Who is going to finance us?” he asks. “Where will we fit into the landscape in a united Germany? Will there be anyone interested in such an institute? Will anyone be interested in preserving our culture?”

Faszke has held his position under the auspices of an organization called Domowina – Homeland – that also oversees groups devoted to preserving Sorbish music, dance, drama and other arts.

The Communist government was giving Domowina five million East German marks a year (then worth about $1 million) to subsidize its publications.

Faszke’s institute, meanwhile, has been receiving another subsidy to fund 23 scholars in studies of Sorbish culture.

Under Article 40, the Sorbs also have six elementary schools and two high schools where instruction is primarily in Sorbish. Another 60 schools in Lusatia, the region where the Sorbs are found, teach the Sorbish language.

But as he ponders the future in his dimly lit office in Bautzen, Faszke says it is “very unclear” how many of those benefits might survive Germany’s reunification.

Irony is also a central theme in the history of the settlement in Serbin, a dusty farm community just south of U.S. 290 near Giddings.

Kilian and his congregation left Lusatia, which in 1854 was ruled by Prussia and barely beyond feudalism, to seek economic hope, religious freedom and the salvation of their language and culture.

But one of their chief motivations, according to historians, was to try to save their Sorbish heritage from the pressure they faced to assimilate with the Germans.

After initial years of hardship, when they lived in dugouts and rough-hewn cabins and tilled a chunk of land around Serbin bought for $1 an acre, Kilian’s Sorbs began to succeed economically. Serbin thrived until 1890, when the railroads passed it by.

The Sorbs kept their pure brand of Lutheranism, becoming the mother church in Texas of the intensely conservative Missouri Synod.

But they founded their settlement in what was called “little Germany.” In that part of Texas, the number of German immigrants was so large that schools were taught in German until the 1940s, and German was the language of everyday life.

So while the Sorbs established their own school at St. Paul’s and held church services in Sorbish, the necessity of speaking German, plus mixed marriages and departures from the community, led to the elimination of Sorbish as a living language in Texas by the 1920s.

“Here in Texas,” Wiederhold, 42, declares, “the Wendish language is lost.”

A similar irony befell Klitten, which was swamped with German refugees from Poland and Czechoslovakia after World War II.

Since the war, services at St. John’s Alt Lutherische have been conducted in German, not Sorbish.

And while many in the congregation at St. John’s are Sorbs, Matzke guessed that about five percent of Klitten residents can speak Sorbish properly.

“As a public language,” he said, “it doesn’t work anymore.”


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