This article by Dr David Zersen was delivered as a conference paper in various formats as a draft for the Foreword to Five Centuries: The Wends and the Reformation. David Zersen, Managing Editor of Concordia University Press.
In recent years, I’ve had several occasions to reflect on the significant impact that minority cultures have had on majority ones. One occasion involved a conference in Werben, Germany at which I was invited to lecture on the impact of the American environment on the Lower Wendish poet, Mato Kosyk. In learning about the work of a fellow lecturer, Dr. Christian Prunitsch, now a professor at the Technical University in Dresden, I came to be fascinated with a website he maintained on minority cultures in Europe. Unknown to most of us are the linguistic and cultural islands that exist, some only marginally, within the borders of larger countries. Representatives of such cultures as the Frisians in Germany, the Sami in northern Scandinavian countries, the Kashubs in Poland and the Basques in Spain struggle to maintain the significant strengths in their heritage.
Another occasion resulted from a friendship with Dr. Hans Boas, Professor at the University of Texas and Director of the German Dialect Project there. What fascinates me about the latter project is that Dr. Boas is trying to record as many people as possible from those who still speak Texas German, a mixed dialect that results from German immigrants from various parts of Germany settling in Texas and making Central Texas for over fifty years a tri-lingual (Spanish, German, and English) region. The contributions made to food, music, language, architecture and place names by this minority culture are significant, hence the goal to have current speakers of the language tell their stories before the opportunity disappears.
These two experiences influenced my desire to have the tri-lingual (German, Upper and Lower Wendish) text on the relationship between the Wends and the Reformation translated and published for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. On the one hand, Concordia University Texas has a long-standing relationship with the Wendish community of Texas, having been founded in 1926 by thirteen Lutheran congregations in central Texas, the majority membership of which had Wendish ancestry. Concordia still has many students, faculty and staff, who are of Wendish ancestry. With them, Concordia has treasured their love for their ethnic story, their church and their Texas ranches.
Additionally, however, the Wends of Texas came in 1854 to do just what minority groups always seek to do. The words of their spiritual leader, the Rev. Jan Kilian, make that clear: “Preserve good Wends, your father’s ways, the tongue and faith of ancient days.” To cherish and enforce this hope, the Texas Wendish Heritage Society was founded in 1970 and has provided broad support for educational events, communal gatherings, scholarships for students of Wendish ancestry and financial support for numerous publishing ventures on Wendish subjects, often together with Concordia University Press. This translation and book are significant in that both Concordia University Press and the Texas Wendish Heritage Society are jointly publishing it.
Both entities feel strongly that Five Centuries: The Wends and the Reformation is a significant publishing venture. On the one hand, it is clear that the Wendish community in Lusatia (the historic region of the Wends now within the borders of Germany) wants both to help its constituency value its heritage and to help Germans in general to treasure the gifts that this cultural minority has shared and is capable of sharing with the majority Germany community. On the other hand, this book shares information that has never before been available in English both with people of Wendish descent and also with scholars who have Slavic, historical or theological interests.
The Lutheran communities in the United States, as well as in Australia, know too little of the struggles that a significant Lutheran minority group like the Wends endured as they were suppressed or even persecuted in medieval times or under National Socialism or communism.
The stories told in these chapters about their heroic decisions to demand self-respect as Wends or to cherish their heritage as Lutherans can be appreciated by all readers of these words. The details shared about a lost style of public dress, the way in which education was gradually introduced in a society made literate through the translation of the Bible, and the desire to erect monuments to remember a language and heritage are worth hearing. To those responsible for coordinating this publishing effort bilingually, to the European scholars often unknown to us who shared their research in these chapters, and to the Domowina Verlag, the publishing house that made this book available to us, we owe much gratitude.
The challenges involved in presenting this tri-lingual work to English-speaking audiences were significant. A translator had to be found who understood the contexts and definitions for terms in use over 500 years. Careful attention had to be paid to American orthography and especially the Slavic and German diacritical marks employed in quotations. Additionally, definitions of terms and meanings of organizations had to be requested from knowledgeable people in Europe. Finally, owners of illustrations and those doing reproductions in Europe had to be contacted and paid. This is not a large book, but its importance justifies the challenges that were accepted in order to publish it
Many people deserve thanks for helping to bring this book to English-speaking audiences. The partnership in this project of Weldon Mersiovsky and the Wendish Research Exchange is gratefully acknowledged. The Wendish Research Exchange of The Texas Wendish Heritage Society provided the financial guarantees. Mr. Mersiovsky developed the Index, processed the ordering and acquisition of illustrations used in the book and contacted generous donors whose wholehearted support is gratefully acknowledged. We thank Maria Matschie of the Domowina Verlag for the permission to publish the book and the Wendish Lutheran Superintendent Jan Mahlink for the editorial work that made this research available. Enormous thanks are offered to Trudla Mahling for reviewing much of the translated subject matter that was unfamiliar to us. The excellent proofreading assistance provided by Dr. David Chroust of Texas A&M University was very helpful. The translation work of Dr. Wolf Dietrich Knappe is without peer. Our excellent typographic designer, Eric Mellenbruch, did yeoman’s work as well with orthography, linguistic analysis and proofreading. Although many people were involved in the entire process, I accept responsibility for the overall design, translation and proofing involved in the publication and will be happy to discuss the project with you now.