Wending Through Rumplich Country by Joe Holley

The following article was written by Houston Chronicle writer Joe Holley and appeared on Page A3 of the Saturday, December 24, 2016 issue of the Houston Chronicle. (joe.holley@chron.com). You can view the article and see pictures by clicking on the following link: online.

NATIVE TEXAN

Wending through Rumplich country

            SERBIN — Meandering through the pleasant, wooded countryside where Rabb’s Creek trickles down from the small line of hills known as the Yegua Knobbs, I feel a little bit like my nephew Matt, a Big Foot true-believer. I know I’m not going to see one of the big guys — Matt tells me they hang out in the Pacific Northwest, mostly —but at this time of year I’d love to spot another legendary creature known in years past to haunt the stands of mature cedar and gnarled post oaks near this tiny farming community southwest of Giddings. Locals call him Rumplich, and unlike bashful Big Foot, he has a habit of making a ruckus around homes on Christmas Eve.

            Rumplich arrived with the Wends, a Slavic people from Prussia and Saxony who landed in Galveston in 1854 and put down roots in Lee County. Along with the Wendish language, the immigrants brought with them their conservative Lutheran beliefs, their respect for education and hard work, and their folk customs, including intricately decorated Easter Eggs, a tasty way with noodles and black wedding dresses symbolizing the grief and hardship of marriage. (These days Wendish brides wear white.)

Treats or the sack?

            The folk tradition of Rumplich — sort of a Wendish “bad Santa” — also has faded away, although Joyce Bise, executive director of the Texas Wendish Heritage Museum in Serbin, misses the rancorous fellow.

            “Santa Claus is now the expectation of presents,” she says, “while Rumplich was the expectation of good behavior without rewards.”

            Rumplich was one of the young men of the community chosen each Christmas to carry a large gunny sack and to disguise himself with a homemade mask and garish, striped costume. Accompanied by a half-dozen or so of his pals, also in costume, Rumplich stomped around on front porches and beat on doors and windows until allowed inside.

            Children brought before the fearsome visitor faced a ritual interrogation. Could they correctly recall a Bible verse to prove they’d been good? Could they recite a prayer?

            For nice children, Rumplich reached into his bag and bestowed a treat of fruit or nuts. The naughty? Well, they ended up in the gunny sack. “Der Rumplich wird kommen!” (“The Rumplich will come!”), parents warned throughout the year.

            “He tried to put me in one time,” a Serbinite told the Houston Chronicle’s Sig Byrd long ago. “I lost a year’s growth, but he didn’t get me in that bag.”

            “It was quite frightening,” said Bise, who encountered Rumplich in the 1950s during her childhood on the family farm between Serbin and Warda. “But it was good incentive for good behavior year-round, not just two weeks before Christmas.”

Central European roots

            Most Texans, I’m guessing, have never heard of the Wends — who also call themselves Sorbs — in part because they settled among Central Texas Germans and quickly began to assimilate. Those who spoke Wendish also spoke German, the Wends’ primary language by the early decades of the 20th century.

            “I grew up with the firm conviction that I was German through and through,” said Richard Gruetzner, a retired Travis County deputy sheriff who drives over from his home in Burnet one weekend a month to volunteer at the museum. His maternal grandfather revealed the family’s Wendish ties after coming to live with the Gruetzner family in Austin. “That piqued my interest,” he said,” and got me started on a genealogical search that’s still ongoing today.”

            Gruetzner’s Wendish ancestors were descendants of a group of Slavic tribes that spoke a common language and in the 10th century occupied a large swath of Central Europe, despite never having a nation of their own.

            By the 19th century, invading armies had forced them into a small area of eastern Germany called Lusatia. Living under Prussian rule, the Wends were forbidden to own land, were barred from membership in craft guilds and were pressured to abandon their language. When the authorities tried to combine their Lutheran churches with the Calvinist Evangelical Reformed Churches in a state-regulated Protestant body, they began seeking a place to start anew.

Settled in Lee County

            In the fall of 1854, a group of nearly 600 Wends set out for Texas under the leadership of the Rev. Johann Kilian, a scholar whose translations of religious texts into Wendish helped keep the language alive.

            The group traveled by rail and steamship to Liverpool, where they boarded a three-masted English vessel called the Ben Nevis. Although the emigrants didn’t realize it, a number of them had contracted cholera in Liverpool, and 15 died before the ship reached Ireland. Another 23 died during a three-week delay in Queenstown, Ireland, to remove the sick and fumigate the ship. Eighteen more died at sea. When the Ben Nevis finally reached Galveston in December, a yellow-fever epidemic was raging.

More Wends died.

            The 500 or so survivors spent Christmas in Houston, where a few decided to stay, while the rest set out on a two-week trek by foot and oxcart to New Ulm, Frelsburg and Industry. Two men went on ahead and purchased a league (4,428.4 acres) of grazing land and a labor (177.1 acres) of crop land in what’s now Lee County. The newcomers set aside 95 acres for a church and school.

            After erecting their tiny log church, St. Paul Lutheran, the original settlers built crude dugout dwellings, divided up the land for farms and founded Serbin. The community prospered for a few years, but decline set in when the railroad spurned Serbin for nearby Giddings in 1871.

            Today, Serbin is little more than a road sign and a scattering of farm houses, but the rural church and school are thriving. The dignified house of worship is plain to the point of starkness outside, but inside it’s a riot of color. The walls and ceiling are bright blue, with gilded chandeliers and orange stenciling atop the wooden pillars. This week, two huge Christmas trees frame the high pulpit.

             While Gruetzner was showing me around the museum, Mildred Moebus, 87, dropped by with her daughter, Rachel Haberer.

            From 1954 to 1971, Moebus’s late husband was St. Paul’s school principal and church organist, and she taught for a couple of years in the two-room schoolhouse, first through fourth grade in one room, fifth through eighth in the other. “The people were just wonderful here,” she recalled. “They’re family here.”

Relic of hard times.

            Moebus, 87, gave me instructions about cooking noodles the Wendish way: Place noodles, cold water and chicken broth in a big covered pot; simmer for about an hour, strain and enjoy. (Of course, she would have made the noodles by hand.)

            Bags of dried noodles are on sale at the museum gift shop, but if you want to taste what the experts do with them, make your way to Wendish Fest, an annual celebration held at Serbin every fourth Sunday in September. A venerable Rumplich or two likely will be in the crowd enjoying a plate of noodles and sausage, but he’d never let on. Rumplich is a relic of hard times, hard lives. For the Wends, things are better now.

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October 8, 1936 Something New From the Old Wendish Homeland

As I was translating one of the many articles which my grandfather, Rev. Gotthilf Birkmann, submitted to the Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt during the 1930’s, that are now in the Birkmann Blog on the Wendish Research Exchange website, I spotted this article immediately following his in the October 8, 1936, issue of that paper. Mr. Proske, the publisher and editor of the Volksblatt does not identify the source, but quite evidently he is quoting from what must have been a periodical from Germany, perhaps one to which Proske subscribed. This particular account of a major Wendish festival in the old country, whether it was one of a kind or an annual event, will be of interest to current readers. Worthy of note is that German people, by and large, in 1936 were still optimistic that Adolf Hitler and his Fascist Party would provide them desperately needed economic and social recovery and not yet aware of his full agenda.

Something New From the Old Wendish Homeland

Whoever believes that the Wendish language and Wendish culture perhaps have no more place in the new Germany is greatly mistaken. The Wendish language and Wendish singing still resound today in the Wendish countryside, just as they did formerly. There are still large Wendish cultural events as well. No German is able or permitted to take away from the Wends their cultural activity. The Fuehrer of the German people, Adolf Hitler, himself said that he is not even thinking about forbidding the cultural activity of the Wends.

            Thus the federation of students in conjunction with the Domovina (Federation of the Wends) arranged a very important festival on Sunday, August 16, in the open air at the old fortress of Proschwitz in the administrative district of Kamenz. The festival was begun with musical renderings by a Wendish band directed by senior teacher Melzer.

After that, all the people sang the Wendish national anthem, “Rjana Łužica – Beautiful Lusatia,” resounding powerfully. Then Wendish singing clubs sang, “Hory Modre – Blue Mountains” and “Domčk mej luby – My Dear Homeland” under the direction of teacher Paul Jenke. [Titles written in Wendish and German.] After that, the leader of the Domovina, teacher Paul Redo, greeted the Wends who had appeared from far and wide at the festival. Wends had come by the thousands. That is surely proof enough that the Wends, despite all resistance, are intent upon paying attention to and keeping their mother tongue and the culture inherited from their forefathers. But the leader of the Domovina also greeted most warmly the German guests who had appeared in large numbers. One can tell from that that also the Germans have an appreciation for the work of the Wends.

The high point of the festival occurred in the performance of the Wendish drama, “Palikawa – The Dragon.” In it the land of the Wends is threatened by a frightful palikawa. The Wends try to defend themselves, but they can be freed from the palikawa only by a pure virgin—The reader will learn to know a full account of this drama in the next report.

The Wendish band struck up again at the end. The leader of the Domovina, teacher Redo, once again thanked all who had contributed to the singing at the festival and exhorted all Wends to stand together faithfully in good times and in bad. A threefold “Heil!” to Fuehrer Adolf Hitler and the joint singing of the German national anthem closed the official day of the festival. In the evening, the Wendish young people gathered again in the halls of the surrounding villages for a joyful dance.

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