This article by Carlos Vidal Greth first appeared in the Lifestyles section of the Austin American-Statesman on Friday, May 26, 1989. Photos were done by Taylor Johnson.
NB: The 1853 voyage of the Reform that shipwrecked off of the coast of Cuba did not stay in Cuba long enough for anyone to be required to work in the fields to earn passage to America. The voyage from Cuba to New Orleans was financed by the German Society of New Orleans.
The Way of the Wendish
Serbin Home for Traditions of Ancestors
SERBIN – Norbert Groeschel, school and church custodian, performs some of the humblest tasks in Serbin.
Yet as a great-grandson of the founders of the Wendish community, he is one of the proudest fellows in town.
“The first pastor of St. Paul married a Groeschel,” he said, his ice-blue eyes alight with ancestral memory. “This is more than a church and a school. For Texan Wends, Serbin is home base.”
The annual Serbin Picnic on Sunday, a reunion of Wends from around the world, will provide ample proof that this quiet hamlet between Bastrop and Giddings embodies Wendish-American soul.
The Wends are Slavic immigrants to Texas from Lusatia, an area that included parts of Saxony and Prussia. The modern Wendish homeland occupies the southeastern corner of East Germany near the border of Czechoslovakia.
Although a few families immigrated to Texas in 1852 and 1853, a group of more than 500 Wends arrived in 1854 to found a homeland in what is now Lee County. They were joined throughout the 19th century by others who eventually formed colonies in Austin, Houston, Port Arthur and the Rio Grande Valley.
But it is tiny, pastoral Serbin – little more than a church, school, museum and cemetery – that most completely encompasses the Wendish immigrant experience – its faith, spirit, past and future.
Serbin life orbits around 118- year-old St. Paul, the first Lutheran-Missouri Synod church in Texas and the mother church of Wends in America.
As austere as its pious name sake on the outside, the church interior glows with fanciful stencils on the ceilings, pillars painted with feathers to resemble marble and what locals proclaim is the highest pulpit in Texas.
Norbert Groeschel tells weekday visitors that ushers have to provide folding chairs most Sundays to accommodate crowds.
From the beginning, the honest Christians who peopled the pews of St. Paul have been a hearty lot with a lust for life.
Church rules posted in Serbin stores in 1866, for example, established some ground rules at St. Paul: Gentlemen are forbidden to wear hats, chew or smoke tobacco, or pack 6-guns in the church.
The Rev. Paul Hartfield finds his Wendish flock as lively as it was in frontier days. Which isn’t surprising, considering that a stroll through the picturesque Serbin cemetery reveals on the hoariest tombstones names that appear among the congregation today.
“Martin Luther, who married a Wend, wouldn’t have dreamed of having a picnic without beer,” Hartfield said, chuckling. “He would have approved of the Serbin Picnic. He liked to have a good time. Maybe that’s why Lutherans are so fun-loving.”
And Wendish Lutherans love sharing their unique story with visitors.
Laura Zoch, 81, doesn’t need much of an excuse to slip into traditional Wendish costume for visitors. Her face creases in pleasure as she shows off a hand-embroidered scarf.
“In Europe, each Wendish community had its own distinctive dress,” she said. “Now Serbin has its own.”
People such as Zoch and Gloria Mae Gersch represent living treasures more precious than anything under glass in the local museum.
“Wends are so hard-headed,” said Gersch, 64. “We do things our way. That’s why the old ways remain. For instance, Wendish farmers were suspicious of tractors when they first saw them. Life, they figured, shouldn’t be so easy.”
And Wends, Gersch said, are a superstitious bunch.
She recalled that when she was growing up, a pickled plum or a penny set in a person’s navel was a folk remedy commonly prescribed for upset stomachs.
Gersch also remembered that in her youth, people spoke of witches and miracles as if they were real. But belief in supernatural powers and alternative healing systems is not extinct.
“It used to be I could read the future in coffee grounds,” she said. “I could find my cousin’s stray cattle and my mother’s lost hat. But I’m out of practice.”
Zoch and Gersch belong to the Texas Wendish Heritage Society, which has 400 members in the United States, Germany and Australia. The organization runs a museum that houses the chronicle of a fascinating people.
Rachel Schatte, a teacher at the 80-student St. Paul Lutheran School, has witnessed an interest in Wendish history develop among her charges.
“They see people coming from Austin and Houston to 1ittle Serbin and realize they must have something special,” said Schatte, 25.
“It is special being Wendish and knowing that though your ancestors were persecuted, they came to a new land with few essentials and succeeded.”
According to Sylvia Ann Grider’s The Wendish Texans (The University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures, 1982), Wends come from a group of Slavic tribes who occupied central Europe in the 10th century.
By the 1800s, however, the group had been decimated by war and cultural assimilation. During that period the Wends were exploited and harassed by the Prussians, who insisted that they speak German.
Perhaps the most intolerable imposition was the Prussian demand that the Lutheran Wends join Evangelical Reform churches in the Prussian-regulated Protestant body.
Seeking religious freedom, Wends fled to Australia and America.
A group of 35 emigrated from Prussia in 1853. Among them were Christoph and Maria Krause the ancestors of Laverne Gersch, vice president of the Texas Wendish Heritage Society.
“The Wends were shipwrecked near Cuba and lost all their possessions,” Gersch said. Everyone was supposed to cut sugar cane in the fields to earn passage to Galveston. But Maria was pregnant and unable to do the heavy work so she learned to roll cigars.”
“I never heard of her smoking a single one. Later that year, they saved enough to come to Texas.”
The largest group to migrate to the New World chose as their Moses the Rev. Johann Kilian, a scholar and writer.
“Most immigrants came to the United States for adventure or economic reasons,” said the Rev. Hartfield. “The Wends chose a pastor before they left Europe. They made a religious commitment that remains strong today.
“We are still in contact with the congregation where Kilian was pastor in Klitten, East Germany. St. Paul is a model of their church.”
Evelyn Kasper, who runs a ranching and trucking operation near Serbin with her husband Arnold, expressed local admiration for the early religious leader.
“We still talk about him as though he were alive today,” she said.
Kilian is remembered in Austin with a hall named for him at Concordia Lutheran College.
1854, Kilian led 558 Wends to Liverpool, England, where they boarded the three-masted ship, Ben Nevis. Cholera killed 59 on the voyage to Galveston.
The survivors traveled by oxcarts north to the banks of Rabbs Creek in Lee County. It was a hard January. The Wends lived in brutal conditions until permanent homes could be built.
But the people clung to a vision of Serbin as the capital of a new “Wendenland.” It would be a place where they could worship as they pleased and continue their Wendish language – closely related to Polish and Czech.
The irony is that in their effort to establish a colony to preserve their ways, the Wends lost them because of the harsh realities of the frontier.
Today only a handful of people in the United States speak Wendish, though pockets of Wends in Europe keep the language alive.
“Our language was one of the biggest things that separated us from the Germans, both in Europe and Texas,” Evelyn Kasper said. “But soon after arriving, our ancestors intermarried with the Texas Germans. We lost our identity faster here than we would have in Germany.”
Still, the Wends have made a special contribution to Texas history and economy.
“We are a hard-working people,” Kasper said. “Look at these hands covered with dewberry stains and barbed-wire scratches. One minute I’m a lady. The next I’m a cowhand. But this country is worth any sacrifice.”
The annual Serbin Picnic starts at 10 a.m. and ends at dark on the common grounds across from the Texas Wendish Heritage Museum on Sunday. Pit barbecue – which sells out fast – will be sold by the pound, as well as other dishes, beer and soft drinks. Visitors are advised to bring picnic tables and chairs. Handicraft and toy booths will offer souvenirs of the Wendish festival. Selected bands play oompah and other kinds of music. The picnic is free.
The Texas Wendish Heritage Museum is open 1-5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. To get there: Take US. 290 east from Austin toward Houston. Tum south or right on FM 2104 and east or left on FM 2239 into Serbin. Admission is $5 and donations are welcome. For information, call (979) 366-2441.