Five Wends in Texas

I’ve been asked to expand a bit on my earlier blog on the Wendish language in Texas.  I’m titling this “Five Wends in Texas.”

Albert Miertschin

The first I wish to mention is Albert Miertschin. There was an article in 1962 or 1963 in the Austin American-Statesman about Albert and the Texas Wendish community. When I decided to write my M.A. thesis on the Wendish language in Texas, I looked up Albert at his home in Giddings since the article said that he knew Wendish. I asked Albert for leads on Wends in the community who still spoke the language fluently. I don’t know why I didn’t use Albert as an informant. Maybe he admitted that he didn’t know the language well. At this point in time, I can’t recall. In any case, although he may have been fluent at one time in the language of our grandparents and great-grandparents, I wanted to find people “kiž hišće serbowali” (who were still keeping it up). He gave me three names. Before I go further, it’s interesting that certain families were better than others at keeping up Wendish. Examples are the Miertschins, the Mitschkes, the Bigons, etc. These were the three names he gave me. It’s also interesting that these families seemed to intermarry, and this helped keep their use of the language alive. In fact, I remember one of the old Wends (I think it was Martin Miertschin talking about Ben Mitschke) saying something like “on my father’s side, we’re cousins; on my mother’s side, he’s my uncle.” Or maybe the other way ‘round. I guess someone would have to draw a family tree for me to figure that out, but I’ll take his word for it. It’s like when someone asks me if I was related to the famous Austin architect, Eugene Wukasch (died about a decade ago). It’s easier to say “he was my uncle,” but he was actually my half first cousin, once-removed. (Confused? I’ll have to draw you a family tree.) Wotpočuj w pokoju, Alberto! Rest in peace, Albert!

Martin Miertschin

Albert said “Martin Miertschin speaks good Wendish. He reads the Bible in Wendish.” Martin and Carl were brothers, Carl being the father of TWHS member Monroe Miertschin. I believe Martin’s wife was the sister of Herman Bigon, an example of how certain Wendish families intermarried and kept the language up. I interviewed Martin on a couple of occasions. My technique was to sit down with my informants and ask them how to say something in Wendish. I used a tape-recorder and may have made notes at the same time. For example, I’d ask “how do you say in Wendish ‘I’m drinking water,’ ‘you’re drinking water,’ etc.?” Since Wendish is a more inflected language than is English, I tried to elicit complete paradigms. My informants would answer “Ja wodu pijem,” “ty wodu piješ, etc.”

Martin lived on his ranch near Winchester on the road from Serbin. One thing I remember was his saying “I’d drive fifty miles to hear a sermon in Wendish.” It’s a shame that by 1964, Wendish had long died out as a church language. I can’t remember if it was Martin who told me this, but there was also a Miertschin in the community (by 1964 deceased, probably) nicknamed “Bull” Miertschin. He had one arm, whether by an accident or a birth defect (probably the former), that I don’t know. I think Martin had a beard, because Dr. Reinhold Olesch referred to him once as “the bearded Miertschin.” Someone, maybe Albert, told me that a group of the old Wends would get together on occasion to sing in Wendish. I believe Martin was in this group. Wouldn’t it be lovely if someone had tape-recorded those song and hymn sessions?

Martin passed away in, I believe, 1971. Someone said he was at home preparing breakfast when he suffered a fatal heart attack. Wotpočuj w pokoju, Mjertyno! Rest in peace, Martin!

Carl Miertschin

Carl Miertschin, as I said, was Martin’s brother. Carl wasn’t as fluent in Wendish as was Martin because, unlike Martin, Carl married a German. I interviewed Carl on several occasions in the 70’s and 80’s, both about the language and about the folklore of the Texas Wends. Carl, like Martin, had a ranch near Winchester on the road from Serbin. I remember attending the German service at St. Paul’s Serbin with Carl on one or two occasions. Carl knew some interesting stories, some true and some folkloric, about the Wends. To give one example, he told about an exorcism which Rev. John Kilian had performed.

A little girl was playing in the St. Paul’s cemetery and acting disrespectfully. She was dancing around a grave and saying “popajń mje! popajń mje!” “Catch me! Catch me!” A hand suddenly came out of the grave and seized her firmly. She began to scream, so Pastor Kilian ran to the cemetery to see what the problem was. He prayed her loose. After that day, she always had the mark of a hand on her arm where the occupant of the grave had grabbed her.

As I pointed out in an article on the folklore of the Texas Wends back in 2000, stories like that have a didactic purpose. In this one, the lesson to be learned is that children should be quiet and respectful in cemeteries. It’s like with stories and warnings about the wódny muž (the water troll); the moral is that children should not go swimming without their parents’ permission and supervision. Carl had a sense of humor. He once told me that he preferred to read the Bible in Wendish. If he read it in English, he could sense Satan trying to get his mind off the text of scripture and onto some other subject. But Satan couldn’t succeed when he was reading the Bible in Wendish. “The Devil doesn’t know Wendish.”

Carl told me a cute story about him and his brother Martin. When they were in their late teens, they had a job working on the railroad in the Serbin-Winchester area. The armistice which ended World War I was announced. They asked their supervisor if they could take the day off to celebrate the end of the war, but were told no. Work had to go on. When Carl passed away, we lost one of the last remaining speakers of Texas Wendish. Wotpočuj w pokoju, Korla! Rest in peace, Carl!

Herman Bigon

Herman Bigon was a retired farmer who lived in Giddings. I interviewed him on a couple of occasions, once in 1964 and later in, I believe, 1967. I remember when I began my first interview. I asked him how one said “I’m drinking water” in Wendish, but Herman replied “ich trinke Wasser.” I told him I wanted him to respond in Wendish, not German. When I later played the tape of the 1964 interview to the chair of the Sorbian (Wendish) Department of the University of Leipzig, he said “dieser Bigon spricht sehr gut sorbisch” (this Bigon speaks very good Wendish). For example, in “correct” Wendish, there is a separate ending for words denoting two of somebody or something. For example, “ja a moja žona” (my wife and I) would require a different ending on the verb. Wendish is a very inflected language, meaning lots of endings. Herman once said about his knowledge of Wendish “nobody can sell me in it.” (Nobody can trick me.) Herman’s son Alfred, who passed away a few years ago, was, like Carl Miertschin above, one of the last Wends in the area who still knew the language. And by “knew,” I mean who had learned it at home, not from books as I did. Herman passed away in 1972, I believe. Wotpočuj w pokoju, Hermano! Rest in peace, Herman!

Ben Mitschke

Ben Mitschke, who like Herman was a retired farmer, lived in a little house in Winchester. I don’t know if his little house is still there. I haven’t been back to Winchester since Carl Miertschin died. I believe Ben’s wife was a Miertschin. Ben spoke fluent Wendish and was a cheerful little man. I remember his friendly chuckle (heh, heh, heh!) when he found something amusing. His wife still remembered their courtship days and the time he bought her a big box of candy. Ben passed Wendish on to his children, at least to his son Harry. I remember someone telling me that Harry spoke good Wendish. Ben passed away at the end of 1964. I believe that he was actually at the doctor’s office when he suffered a fatal heart attack. Wotpočuj w pokoju, Beno! Rest in peace, Ben!

These Wends were proud of their heritage and how one wishes that the language was being passed on today to the current generation. Wotpočujće w pokoju! Rest in peace!

Charles (Korla) Wukasch

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