Slavic Germans by Dr Joe Wilson

Notes on assimilation, discrimination, and self-awareness of Wends in Germany and Texas[1]

Joseph B. Wilson

The Wends, or Sorbs, of Germany are a Slavic group in what is now southeastern Germany, in the area called Lusatia (Lausitz), around the cities of Bautzen and Cottbus. They were surrounded and infiltrated by the German expansion to the east in the Middle Ages. Even in the most Wendish regions, the majority has been Germanized for centuries. The German melting pot has similarly absorbed Danes, French, and other Slavs. Originally, the Wends had a rich oral folklore, but the large number of dialects and a lack of a written language were critical disadvantages, and there was pressure from the victorious German government in the direction of Germanization. Thus the Wends mostly adopted the German language, names, and culture.

Over the centuries, the Wends were discriminated against in choice of professions and otherwise. By the mid-nineteenth century their situation had improved and was apparently little different from that of other rural Germans. At that time, many of them migrated to Texas. As can be seen from the Ben Nevis passenger list and from the baptismal records of the Texan town of Serbin, among the incoming Wends were pastors, blacksmiths, locksmiths, tanners, bakers, often with the prestigious title ‘master’ appended. In Texas, they could freely use the Wendish language in churches, schools, books and newspapers. While many were emotionally attached to Wendish, it was of little practical use, whereas German was not only the language of the majority of immigrants from Germany but also a major world language. Thus Wendish tended to be used less and less.

In Germany today, the word ‘Wends’ is felt, at least by some linguists and historians, especially in eastern Germany, to have a pejorative ring, and the word ‘Sorbs’ is often used instead. Neither term is very exact: many people are confused by the old German usage of ‘Wends’ to mean the many different Slavic nations on medieval Germany’s eastern borders, and say that the present Wends are the remnant of a mighty race that controlled a vast region. Actually, the present Wends of Germany stem from two different Slavic tribes which had settled in the north and south of Lusatia in the early Middle Ages. In Texas, the descendants of these people have always called themselves Wends,’ if not simply ‘Germans,’ and the rather artificial new term ‘Sorbs’ is unknown among them.

The Wendish language is linguistically situated between Czech and Polish, as its geographical location would suggest. Like Czech, it accents the first syllable of the word. It exhibits the Slavic case system with even more than the normal complexity, and has preserved some features that other Slavic languages have lost, such as a full range of dual forms (that is, special plural forms for two) in verbs, adjectives, and nouns, and an aorist-imperfect simple past tense. There has of course been a great deal of German influence, in word order and in loan-words like sula (Schule, school), farar (Pfarrer, clergyman), bur (Bauer, farmer), srybar (Schreiber, teacher), or such loan translations as horjewzac (aufnehmen, take up).

Wendish has a multitude of dialects which are grouped into two major divisions, ‘Upper Wendish’ (in the higher country of the south) and ‘Lower Wendish’ (in the lower country of the north). While speakers of the two major dialects can understand each other, the differences are great enough to have caused the development of two separate written languages. The Upper Wendish has been best preserved, both in Texas and in Germany.

Owing to the saturation of the Wendish area with German (and, earlier, the use of Latin in church services), written Wendish did not develop until the Reformation. Since that time, the written language has been largely in the service of religion. The first Wendish hymnbook was published in 1710, with 199 hymns; within 50 years, in its reprintings it had grown to 629 hymns. In 1838, 104 new hymns were added; in 1888, additional 84 appeared. In 1930, the hymns were rearranged and renumbered. This 1930 hymnbook was used until Wendish church services were forbidden under Hitler. As this miniature history of hymnology indicates, the Wendish cultural identity remained vigorous even in the period of Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, when the large Slavic minorities in Prussia were discriminated against in various ways.

The struggle to preserve Wendish intensified in the nineteenth century. Of the various writing systems which were tried, there remained a Lutheran one which adapted German spelling conventions to Wendish and used German (‘Fraktur‘) type, and a Catholic one which was based on Czech and used Latin type (with ‘s’ rather than ‘sch,’ for instance). Thus, two different spelling and printing systems developed, compounding the problems of the split into two major dialects.

In mid-nineteenth century, there were 150,000 people speaking Wendish among a million Germans in the area. At present, there are perhaps as few as 20,000 speakers left, but estimates vary widely and exact statistics have not been kept by authorities in East Germany or in united Germany. After World War II, the East German government supported the teaching of Wendish in some schools, but the decline in usage was not halted. Since the reunification of Germany, much of the government support for Wendish has been eliminated. There still are a few newspapers and books being published in Wendish, however. Since World War II, only the Czech-type spelling has been used.

The Wends came to Texas in mid-nineteenth century and settled in what is now Lee County. They formed a colony where both Wendish and German were used. They were conservative ‘Old-Lutherans’ who were scattered throughout the Southern (‘Upper’) Lusatian area, politically divided between Saxony in the south and Prussia in the north. Pastor Johann (Jan in Wendish) Kilian had been serving as pastor of all the Wendish Old Lutherans in Prussian Lusatia who did not wish to become part of the Prussian state church. In Lusatia, Kilian’s headquarters were at the neighboring villages of Weigersdorf and Klitten, each of which had its own church, and from there he traveled every few weeks to the areas of Spremberg in the west and Muskau and Cottbus in the north, to serve his congregations there. Each of these branch-congregations in turn was the focal point for the Old Lutherans of the surrounding villages. Thus, Kilian was the pastor of several thousand Lutherans in Prussia. Previously, he had served congregations in Saxony, so he was well known in scores of villages in both the Prussian and Saxon part of Lusatia.

The first Texas arrivals included several Lutheran families from Kilian’s congregations. They departed from Bremen on 4 September 1853, and after many misfortunes arrived in Galveston and Houston, where they were met by one of the earlier Wends and escorted from there to the Industry-New Ulm area where they stayed temporarily.

The 1853 emigrants wrote such favorable letters about Texas that, in 1854, over 500 of their fellow Lutherans decided to leave for Texas. To this end they entered into a formal alliance, constituting their group as a new Lutheran congregation and as an emigration society (for mutual financial help), and called Kilian to accompany them as their pastor. In September 1854, they traveled by rail from Bautzen to Hamburg, then by ship to Hull, on the east coast of England, then by rail to Liverpool on the west coast, where they were to embark on the large sailing ship Ben Nevis. Kilian and his family were unable to go with the group, because he had to face charges of instigation of emigration. Luckily, he was able to clear himself and caught up with the group in Liverpool. In Liverpool they got caught up in a cholera epidemic, which caused many deaths and pursued them all the way across the Atlantic. Their sailing was delayed and when they did sail, so many still were sick and dying that the captain took the ship to Queenstown, Ireland, where they spent three weeks in quarantine aboard the Ben Nevis and another ship, the Inconstant. When they finally arrived in Galveston in December, seventy-eight people had died. They proceeded by steamer to Houston where some of the poorer ones stayed, lacking the funds to go further. Others continued, on foot and in wagons, to the Industry area, where the earlier immigrants received them. Here, again, lack of money forced some to remain, while a nucleus group, joined by some of the 1853 emigrants, continued westward to the land which became Serbin: they bought a league of land in what is now Lee County, south of the present town of Giddings. Nearly all of those who stayed at first in the Houston or Industry area proceeded to the Serbin area as soon as they could afford it, usually after a few years. Even though the Industry area was about forty miles from Serbin, the people who stayed there formed a branch of the Serbin church, and for twelve years Kilian regularly visited them, preaching and performing pastoral services.

The Wends who emigrated were bilingual. German was used for nearly all business matters, sometimes even personal letters among family members. Wendish was used in church services alongside German. Pastor Kilian taught the school in Wendish and German. The congregational meetings, which doubled up as the government of the group, were held in Wendish through 1865. The minutes of these meetings, nearly all written by Kilian himself, are the main documents we have of the Wendish language in Texas. The official church records: baptisms, confirmations, marriages, deaths, were kept in German. The grave inscriptions, often lengthy and eloquent, were also in German (with one Wendish exception at Serbin). The other major category of documents in Wendish are the handwritten, page-long obituaries, called in German ‘Lebenslauf‘. These were read in church the Sunday after the burial. About 60 of those that are preserved are in German and about 215 are in Wendish.

The Wends of Texas tended to mingle with Germans rather than with the nearby Czechs or Poles. They called their community Serbin, meaning ‘Wendland,’ from the Wendish word ‘Serbja,’ which is of course related to the word ‘Sorbs.’ It should be noted that the Wends of Germany and Texas are not the same as the ‘Windish‘ (German Windisch) Slavs of the old Austrian Empire, presently called Slovenes. The major settlement of these Windish people in the United States is in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

The Wendish-German culture in Texas is a unique double heritage. It is often difficult to decide whether a given custom or saying is originally Wendish or German. The custom of the ‘birds’ wedding’ (usually called by the German term, Vogelhochzeit) was originally Wendish, but the ‘Rumplich‘ (Santa Claus), sometimes touted as specifically Wendish, was German (Knecht Ruprecht).

After 1880, it was mostly only older people that spoke Wendish on a daily basis. Wendish church services continued to be held (alongside the German ones) until 1920. From 1920 until about 1940 the world of the Texas Wends was almost exclusively German. Only after the transition to German had been completed, did English begin to make any kind of impression on the group. The final assimilation to English began slowly in the 1930s, and a bilingual German-English life began to evolve. German was the dominant language until the 1950s, and it was the language of the congregational meetings at Serbin until 1966. In the 1990s, German among the Wends is in the same situation as Wendish was in 1919: still used for church services for the elderly. Only a few old people still speak Wendish with any fluency, and even for them it was their second language, after German and before English. Some other people, whose home language was already German, know quite a few Wendish phrases and can understand quite a bit, but they are not speakers of the language.

Pastor Johann (Jan) Kilian, the leader of the Texas Wends, was a Wendish patriot but considered himself ‘just as much a German as a Wend’, as he once wrote. Thoroughly fluent in Wendish and German, he had become a figure of some importance in the development of the Wendish language and literature, translating works of Luther and other theologians, and writing religious poetry and hymns. He was a member of the Wendish scholarly society Maçica Serbskaja from 1847 until 1852, and was acquainted with the Wendish scholars Chr. Tr. Pfuhl and Johann Ernst Schmaler, with whom he corresponded from Texas. Pfuhl’s monumental Wendish dictionary of 1866 credits Kilian (pp. xvi, xxxi) with a ‘small collection of words.’

Here are some samples of Kilian’s Wendish poetry, with English translations:

Wojny Bo sapala,

Wojazy padaja,

Konz je mjer a dobycza radosz.

Wandrowski sprozny

Widzi dom wotzny,

Tam Bo spokoji styska a zadosz.

Wars will ignite,

soldiers will fall,

the end will be peace and the joy of victory;

The tired wanderer

will see his father’s house,

where his yearning will be satisfied.

In Spjewarske Wesselje [Songs of Joy, 1846], Kilian admonishes his flock to remain true to their language and faith. The refrain of the first song has become quite famous:

Sserbjo, sakhowajcze Bwjeru

Bwojich Wotzow Rycz a Wjeru.

Wends, preserve faithfully

Your fathers’ language and belief.

Kilian led the group in Texas from 1854 until his death in 1884. His oldest son, Gerhard, became schoolteacher in 1872. Another son, Hermann, succeeded him as pastor and continued the use of Wendish for church services until his own death in 1920. His successor, Pastor Hermann Schmidt, worked almost exclusively in German, although he spoke Wendish and used it in private pastoral services when necessary.

The Wends and other Germans of the Serbin area prospered after the initial difficult years. Pastor Kilian had personally joined the conservative (similarly ‘Old Lutheran’) ‘German Evangelical Lutheran Church of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States’ (now called the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod). The congregation formally joined this Synod in 1866, after being delayed, in part, by the Civil War. As the original congregation grew in the early decades, it spread for miles around the town of Serbin, and daughter congregations were formed: Fedor, Manheim, Warda, Loebau, Greens Creek, Winchester, and Lincoln. The Greens Creek congregation was too small to survive, but the others are still alive and well – especially the mother congregation, itself, St. Paul’s of Serbin, which is thriving.

Between 1900 and 1950, Serbin became so thoroughly German that its Wendish heritage was practically forgotten. Wendish was treated like the German dialect that a person’s grandparents might speak: a curious and useless relic. My parents-in-law used to say (in German), “Oh yes, the old Wends, those were the old people; my mother was Wendish. We are German.” In the 1950s, a new interest in Wendish began to develop and the Wendish heritage began to be cherished. Texas Wendish Heritage Society was founded in the 1970s and has flourished: it has about 500 members, quarterly meetings are attended by about 100 people, and it has maintained a museum (in Serbin, near the church), which has displays of old artifacts and a considerable collection of books and archival materials.


Joseph B. Wilson is a retired Professor of German at Rice University and the author of Texas and Germany: Crosscurrents (1977).

[1] The best single book on the Wends in Germany and in Texas is George Nielsen, In search of a Home: Nineteenth-Century Wendish Immigration (Texas A & M 1989). I married into the Texas Wends nearly fifty years ago, and have studied their Wendish which was already in decline fifty years ago. In particular, I have been working on the manuscripts of the church archives of Serbin’s St. Paul’s congregation including Johann Kilian’s documents of the first thirty years of the Sorbian colony in Texas (1854-1883). The documents comprise several thousand ms. pages; of these, about six hundred pages are in Wendish. There are records of births, baptisms, confirmations, marriages, deaths, as well as letters and minutes of meetings. I published a translated edition of some of these documents (Southern Historical Press 1985). Other volumes are forthcoming, including an annotated version of the Ben Nevis passenger register. Parts of this article have been adapted from materials I have previously published elsewhere.


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