Survival on the German fringes

Olaf Martens

Why are the dances of the Sorbs and Wends not just folklore? Because it was and is good old politics to divide the Upper Lusatians and Lower Lusatians with their two languages, their two religions, into two federal states so that they were more concerned with themselves than with asserting their own culture. Their surprisingly wild dances are not only historic relics, but more and more often also embody punk, zeitgeist, and resistance.

Freelance writer and language teacher from Lusatia

Choreographer Diefer Wendisch carries his origin in his last name

“Wow, you could fit a pig through there,” Dieter Wendisch says pointing to a dancer’s feet. Mathilda, 14, slaps them together, startled. She is one of the new generation of dancers. The others, about 25 young women and men, most of them in their twenties, stand to attention. They are wearing leggings, t-shirts, sweatpants, light shoes. Their faces are sweaty, their gazes directed forward. Some exhale, directing their breath upward to cool their faces, others suppress a grin. Dieter Wendisch, 77, artistic director of the folk dance group walks along the rows, correcting postures. “You have to show pride,” he says, “back straight, Fabian. Let’s do it again.”

It’s a Saturday afternoon in late February. The Schmerlitz folk dance group has resumed rehearsals after a months-long break caused by the pandemic. Those dancing here are young people from the surrounding villages, centered around the Rosenthal pilgrimage church in the district of Bautzen. This Sorbian Catholic church is a mighty yellow building with a roof like a spiked helmet and sits atop a hill.

Schmerlitz is located along one of the narrow, hilly country roads of Upper Lusatia. As if aboard a ship, you go up and down, past fields, groves, pastures, meadows, and ponds. The streets are lined with small, medium, and large crosses featuring figurines of Jesus. Church towers appear at intervals as you go and again and again, the blue Zittau Mountains peek out amid the landscape. Behind them lies the Czech Republic. We are in the East German border region, where Germany meets Poland and the Czech Republic.

Nearly 200 people live in Schmerlitz, a typical village within the core settlement area of the Sorbs between Kamenz, Hoyerswerda, and Bautzen in the federal state of Saxony. Most families here speak Sorbian – or rather Upper Sorbian – because there are differences.

In Lower Lusatia people speak or spoke Lower Sorbian, also known as Wendish. The denomination, if any, is Protestant. Meanwhile, the Sorbs and Wends in Lower Lusatia are de facto assimilated, meaning that the long-established families living here have Sorbian or Wendish roots but speak German.

Things used to be different. All of Lusatia used to be Sorbian; the population was monolingual, Sorbian. The only German enclaves were in the cities and the mountains. The people who cultivated the land and practiced handicrafts were those Sorbs who were once known as Wends: successors of two West Slavic tribes who migrated to what is now Lusatia in the course of the mass migrations of the 6th and 7th centuries. Until 150 years ago, most of the villages surrounding the cities of Bautzen and Cottbus remained Sorbian and Wendish. However, these juxtaposed terms distinguishing between the Upper Sorbs and the Lower Sorbs did not exist until after 1945. Until then, all Slavs who lived on German territory and had no other motherland were called Wends – a pejorative term. In the Soviet occupation zone and the GDR, the terms Wends and Wendish, which had been used until then, were officially replaced by the terms Sorbs and Sorbian. After all, these were closer to the proper designations for Upper Sorbian “Serbja” and Lower Sorbian “Serby.” While the new terms were adopted in Upper Lusatia, the Lower Lusatians rejected this designation for themselves.

“There is something like a wall, a magic circle, around us,” says Gabriel Schneider, chairman of the Schmerlitzer folk dance group. By “around us” he means around the core settlement area, the region where Sorbs still live as Sorbs. “Perhaps it’s because of the remoteness, and also because we’re far away from the coalfields.” Another reason, he says, is religion. “Three factors separate us from the Germans: religion, language, and culture. So we kept to ourselves.” One interruption to Sorbian continuity was the period of National Socialism, when a total ban was imposed on the language. But after the end of World War II, cultural activities and the promotion of the language resumed immediately in Upper Lusatia. “This was very much encouraged in the GDR.”

The Schmerlitz Association House in the core settlement area of the Sorbs, supported by the local craft industry

On this rehearsal day, 57-year-old agricultural engineer Schneider is sitting in the corner of the Schmerlitz community hall, operating the laptop. At a signal from Dieter Wendisch, he presses play. Slavic folk music, composed especially for the group, plays for the Schmerlitz folk dance. The music is reminiscent of a polka – fast, Slavic, slightly melancholic, but also joyful. The couples twirl around each other, the girl’s hand resting loosely on the boy’s shoulder. The boy holds her by the waist and they look into each other’s eyes, chins thrust forward. There is tap dancing, thigh slapping, then come the jumps and now and then a whoop.

“One, two, three, hop” – calls Dieter Wendisch. “And hop … Stop.”

The music stops, the dancers stand still.

“Come on, you know that the higher the girls jump, the higher the flax grows. The boy is the crane, but the girls have to help. Jump properly, up you go.” And it starts all over again.

The Schmerlitz club has 60 active members. The junior groups are for the 12- to 16-year-olds; after that, you become a part of the main group, comprised of the 16- to 30-year-olds who perform Sorbian folk dance throughout Lusatia, all over Germany, and abroad. Theres Wenk, 25, is one of them. The childcare worker has been dancing in Schmerlitz for 15 years. “It is very familiar and laid back,” she says. “We speak Sorbian with each other; there’s a great sense of community.” She is proud to be a part of it, “to show that our culture exists, to create awareness of it.”

Antonio Mattick, a 19-year-old medical student, has been dancing in the club since he was 12. “His father was already a very good dancer,” says Dieter Wendisch, who in some cases is coaching the third generation of a family. Antonio Mattick likes the high expectations that the coach, the professional, has of them. For him, the trips they all take together are the real highlight. In normal times there would be a training camp once a year, and then there are the many festivals all over the world. “On the trips we sing Sorbian folk songs all the time,” adds Theres Wenk. “It’s amazing how many we know.”

The Sorbs and Wends have always been considered a musical people. They have their own instruments, the large and small Sorbian bagpipes, the large and small three-stringed fiddle, and the tarakawa, an instrument similar to the oboe. As early as the 18th century, folklorists described their dances as “astonishingly wild.” In some places, church and Prussian officials worried about the observance of moral standards at the dance events, reporting that the dances were quite liberal. The people would seize every opportunity to celebrate exuberantly with music, drink, and dancing.

A country without a fatherland

“For us it’s an identity,” says Volkmar Scholze. The 57-year-old Sorb lives in Höflein (Wudwor in Upper Sorbian) and is another dedicated promoter of Sorbian folk dance. As a young man, athlete, and amateur dancer, he was discovered by the Sorbian National Ensemble and trained as a professional dancer, dancing actively from 1983 to 1993. He then started a painting company and devoted himself to the local folklore ensemble in Höflein. “Young talent is very important to us,” he says. “We are a country without a fatherland.” Every conscious Sorb understands it as their basic duty to pass on the tradition. Otherwise, it will be lost. “Dance is first and foremost a form of socializing. But it also serves as a means of passing on traditions.”

The Höflein dance ensemble is the other major amateur ensemble in Upper Lusatia. In addition to the 75 active, young members, there are about 30 “of older age who just can’t stop dancing,” according to Volkmar Scholze.

Wedding eve party

The intention was to describe the “Sorbian wedding eve” at this point, a folklore gala evening in the program of the Sorbian National Ensemble. The premiere was scheduled for the end of March. Shortly before the performance in the Bautzen civic center Kronen, the coronavirus once again burned through the ballet and choir and the premiere had to be cancelled. A charity concert in support of Ukraine took its place.

The Sorbian National Ensemble, SNE for short, is the professional vocal and dance ensemble of the Sorbs and is based in Bautzen. This year marks the 70th anniversary of its first performance, which took place on Stalin’s 73rd birthday in December 1952 in Cottbus. In its socialist beginnings, the goal of the SNE was to reelevate Sorbian and Wendish folk culture – which had been reduced to relics after National Socialism – in song, music, dance, and traditional costume and to make it fit for the stage. Extensive field research was carried out in the GDR to this end. Journalists, sociologists, and artists traveled across the country and documented everything they could find on Wendish/Sorbian culture. This field research, the interviews, sound recordings, and descriptions of what was said, danced, and sung and how and when exactly, are still the foundation on which Sorbian folk art is based today.

The first members of the ensemble came from the amateur movement. These were Sorbs with enough talent to be trained as professional artists. Professionals were brought in from the neighboring Slavic countries and from other regions in the GDR as instructors. The most influential choreographer to work with the SNE was the Slovak Juraj Kubánka, who died in 2021 at the age of 92 and is a legend in his homeland and in Lusatia. Kubánka’s new forms of expression for the ballet elevated the three-division ensemble (ballet, orchestra, choir) to its now widely recognized high artistic standard.

Dieter Wendisch also came to Sorbian folk dance through the SNE, starting there as a dancer in 1964. He later continued his education as a dance educator at the Palucca University of Dance in Dresden and became a ballet master, assistant, and choreographer at the SNE. Since then, Sorbian folk dance has had a firm hold on the non-Sorb. “They call me Knjes Wendisch,” he says. Knjes means “Sir” in Sorbian. “I’m proud of that.”

After leaving the ensemble in 1991, he founded a dance school in Bautzen and supported the Schmerlitz folk dance group, for which he also develops the choreographies, as artistic director.

“Folk dance comes from the people,” says Wendisch. It is linked to the life of farmers and craftsmen here in Lusatia, so it has a strong regional connection. When he works on a new choreography, he looks very closely at how the people might have danced. He says that is always ethnological work as well. “First, I take music from the region, which is then arranged by a Sorbian musician. Then I immerse myself in the time, the place, I visit the museum, look at pictures, traditional costumes, and ask myself how they might have moved. There’s a difference between a fisherman from the Spree Forest or a blacksmith from the mountains playing a role in a choreography. They walk very differently.” Wendisch demonstrates the swaying of a man on a barge and the emphatic stomping of someone climbing a steep hill.

The diversity

The “Sorbian wedding eve,” as it was titled on the SNE program, reflects the breadth of Sorbian culture. After the “Dumbańca” (Sorbian for “wedding eve”), the ensemble leads the audience through four Sorbian weddings. First through the Catholic wedding. This is the type of wedding that is still celebrated most frequently today and is typical of the core settlement area. After that comes the Schleife wedding. Schleife is a border region between Lower and Upper Lusatia where poor soil and the location, largely shielded as it is by dense forests, have shaped the regional customs. Schleife is the smallest of the eleven areas that are distinguished by their different traditional costumes. There is a Schleife dialect, Schleife melodies, and numerous folk tunes. Then follows the Bluno wedding, and finally the Lower Sorbian wedding. All four weddings differ in their music, traditional costumes, storytelling, and the types of dances.

“The fact that there are four weddings shows how distinctive and diverse the culture of the Sorbs and Wends was,” says Tomas Kreibich-Nawka. The 42-year-old musician took over the artistic directorship of the SNE in 2021. “As cultural ambassadors, we are responsible for showcasing this diversity. That means presenting the Sorbs in their entirety.” He further believes that it is vital to be taken seriously outside of Lusatia. In order to achieve this, the folklore must be modernized.

Modernize tradition? Isn’t that a contradiction? “Not at all,” says Kreibich-Nawka. “It’s exactly what we need in order to make ourselves heard outside the local radius. We need more visibility.” To accomplish this, he says, you have to combine the traditional with the contemporary. Kreibich-Nawka is thinking of a range that could extend from traditional costumes to punk. For example, traditional music has been used so far, but not the original music, says the musician, who is experimenting with old sound recordings from the field research mentioned earlier. Combining Sorbian folklore with elements of Gaga dance would be one form of radical renewal he could envision, for instance.

Tradition and modernity

“Tradition is always also connected with the future,” says Mia Facchinelli. Working with this dialectic, she says, is one of the special appeals of her work at the Sorbian National Ensemble. The 48-year-old Italian came to the SNE in 1994 after training as a dancer in Switzerland. At that time, she knew nothing about the Sorbs in general and their folk dances in particular. Today, she leads the ensemble’s international dance crew as ballet mistress and choreographer. We meet her during rehearsals for the “Sorbian wedding eve.” There are currently twelve dancers and two students who come from Great Britain, (West) Germany, Italy, Brazil, Ireland, Austria, and Slovakia. None of them is Sorbian by birth.

“For us as professionals, it doesn’t matter,” says Facchinelli. “We are dancers first and foremost.”

And yet, she says, it is unusual for a classically trained dancer to do folk dance. They are two very different dance forms that stand side by side. The ensemble’s repertoire ranges from folklore evenings to modern dance theater and operettas, always with a connection to Sorbian culture.

Compared to classical dance and ballet, folk dance is much more “peripheral,” she explains, and the movements are more expansive. “We don’t float lightly like a feather. We also rarely dance on pointe.” Our breathing is different; we use other muscle groups. Folk dancing is rougher, more powerful. “We jump a lot, stomp, and tap. And we can switch instantly, bang!” she snaps her fingers. “From one second to the next, we switch from folk dance to modern dance.” That is unique in a Western company, she says.

Folk dance definitely plays a role in Slavic countries, but not so much in the Western world, and certainly not in the professional sector.

Open to all

Today, the Sorbs are one of four national minorities in Germany, along with the Danes, Frisians, and the German Sinti and Roma.

It is estimated that there are some 60,000 Sorbs living in Lusatia, 40,000 of them in Upper Lusatia and 20,000 in Lower Lusatia. These numbers are estimates because anyone who professes themselves as Sorbian is considered such. Such profession is unrestricted and may neither be disputed nor verified. Anyone who feels like a Sorb can call themselves a Sorb – at least theoretically, if it were not for the problem of the language(s).

Not all Sorbian is the same

Fundamentally speaking, there are two written languages: Upper Sorbian and Lower Sorbian, also known as Wendish. Upper Sorbian is similar to Czech and Slovak, while Lower Sorbian is closer to Polish. There are also a number of dialects, mostly variants of Lower Sorbian, because up until the 18th century there were many more Wends (Lower Sorbs) than Upper Sorbs.

Both languages are on the UNESCO list of endangered languages; Upper Sorbian is classified as endangered level two, Lower Sorbian as “severely endangered,” i.e., level three out of a total of four levels. The only classification worse than that is critically endangered. It is estimated that there are currently only 5,000 speakers of Lower Sorbian/Wendish.

Lower Sorbian

Franziska Albert is one of these 5,000 speakers. The 39-year-old pursued Sorbian studies in Leipzig. Although she is Sorbian herself and has always been interested in the language, it was only there that she learned Lower Sorbian, studying it as a foreign language. She went to the Lower Sorbian secondary school in Cottbus, but the Lower Sorbian taught there had little in common with the language spoken in Lower Lusatia.

Today, Franziska Albert works as a linguist with young people in the Cottbus area. In collaboration with the recently founded Lower Sorbian Cultural Institute, she offers recreational activities for young people in Lower Sorbian. The idea is to enable adolescents learning Lower Sorbian at school to also use the language in their free time. Unlike in the Upper Sorbian core settlement area, Lower Sorbian is not spoken among families. The Sorbs and Wends in Lower Lusatia are all but assimilated – that is, their identity, their language is German. Lower Sorbian is on the brink of collapse.

In order for the language to survive, and with it the culture of the Lower Sorbs, it must return into the families. “It’s difficult because the young people are very busy and German is everywhere. It takes effort to really speak Lower Sorbian,” says Franziska Albert.

We meet in the parking lot in front of the Netto supermarket in Cottbus. She also dances Sorbian folk dance. Her group is known in the region by the acronym TEF, which stands for the name TanzErFolk (a play on the words Tanz, Folk, and Erfolg – dance, folk, success). Earlier, in GDR times, the acronym stood for “Tanz-Ensemble Freundschaft” (dance ensemble friendship). As with the Upper Lusatian groups, the origins of this amateur dance group lie in the early GDR. But that is where the similarities end. TanzErFolk currently has twelve members, ten of whom are active. The average age is 50 and up. “I’m the youngest at 39,” says Franziska Albert, “and the only Sorb, or rather Wend.” For the others, Sorbian folk dancing is primarily a local tradition. The group trains in a school on the northern edge of Cottbus, nestled amid discount stores, a McDonald’s, gas stations, and apartment blocks – an access and exit road like those found in many places where the surrounding countryside merges with the city.

Franziska Albert came here straight from work, yet another meeting that ran long. Training starts in an hour, but before she goes, she has to take her daughter home. Do I want to come along? Sure. “Franziska,” she bids me call her by her first name and smiles broadly. Her long brown hair is tied into a loose braid, her face girlish with a determined chin and glasses. Parka, sweater, jeans. She seems a little stressed, rushed, and highly focused. We drive to Werben, twenty minutes from Cottbus.

“Our problem is the language,” she says. “Like many people here, I learned Sorbian at school. I really enjoyed it. But when I tried to speak it in the family, my grandmother and great-grandmother always looked at me funny. For many years I thought I must just not be saying it right.”

Franziska talks fast; she has a lot to tell. She talks about her great-grandmother, who raised her children to speak Wendish despite a ban on the language during the Nazi era, but then gave up her traditional costume in the 1960s after all. She speaks of Bibles in Lower Sorbian taken from the homes of the Sorbs and Wends even before Nazi rule. And of the restructuring here in the region. The coal, the population explosion, the industrialization of a formerly rural region, plus the power plants, the energy center, and then their collapse. “We experienced the greatest possible structural change not once but twice in just fifty years.” What has remained are the customs, the festivals in Lusatia, folk dancing, the music, the traditional costumes. “It’s a way of holding on to us,” she says. Technically speaking, it is “danced tradition.”

She did not have her “coming out” as a Sorb/Wend until she was 18. Although she had always known that she came from a Sorbian/Wendish family, “the topic was somehow avoided.” Whenever her curiosity got the better of her and she asked questions, she was met with embarrassed silence. “It was incredible. There were the photos, my great-grandmother in traditional costume, a typical Sorbian wedding – that was in 1937, when the Nazis were already in power. Then, after the war, she still wore her traditional costume, but she stopped in the 1960s.” Even though Sorbian culture was so strongly supported in the GDR?

“Upper Sorbian was,” she explains, “but not the language of the Lower Sorbs.”

The city is behind us, the road lined by forest with a few houses here and there. We turn off into the darkness, following a dirt road. “Over there, where it is darkest, that’s where we live,” she says, beaming. It is a starry night, dogs barking in the distance, the trees rustling, the lights of the cars twinkling on the country road a few hundred meters away toward Burg. The wind blows across the fields, which are only vaguely visible. In this moment it feels as though we are in an intermediate world. Werben, Franziska’s home village, is one of the oldest villages in the Spree Forest, a prototypically Sorbian village. The name comes from the Sorbian word wjerba, which means pasture.

The magic circle

“Easter is the high point of the year for Sorbs and Wends,” says Franziska. She says this is because so many Sorbian/Wendish customs are celebrated at Easter.

There are the brightly painted Easter eggs from the Spree Forest, the many Easter bonfires, Easter singing, and the spectacular Easter ride in Upper Lusatia. The latter includes thousands of riders dressed in top hats, frock coats and boots who ride through the Upper Lusatian countryside singing and praying in some nine processions on richly decorated horses, telling of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The most important thing is that the processions must not meet. That would be bad luck.

“I think what’s so great about the customs,” says Franziska, “is that for all their religiosity, they all have pagan origins. It’s about protecting the fields and the villages, about driving away evil spirits, and completing a magic circle.”

When time permits, she attends the Easter singing, when the women gather in traditional costumes on the night before Easter Sunday. At the edge of a field, they sing Sorbian/Wendish songs until dusk, facing east. “It’s very spiritual and special. In the end, I learned that my grandmother also used to participate in the Easter singing.” This custom served to protect the burgeoning life of spring. In the 17th century, it was still the men who walked around the fields singing. Later they mounted their horses and the women took over the singing.

Retired costumes

Traditional costumes have now all but disappeared from everyday life in Lusatia, only reappearing for stage presentations, parades, and festivals, and of course Sorbian weddings. The latter are becoming more frequent again. Nevertheless, the general trend is downward: “Just fifteen years ago,” recalls SNE director Kreibisch-Nawka, “you could still see wowkasin Bautzen, elderly women in traditional costumes.” Wowka is the Upper Sorbian word for grandmother. “That doesn’t happen at all anymore.”

Specifically, in the 1950s, more than 10,000 women throughout Lusatia wore traditional costume every day. 60 years later, there were only 400 mostly older women who did so, and only in the Bautzen area. Since then, the traditional costumes have been retired and stored in chests. They have become historical clothing that is no longer used in everyday life.

Wearing a traditional costume is and has always been a declaration of ethnic identity, both outwardly and inwardly. Each costume conveys a range of information about the wearer. You could tell from the costume which village the wearer came from, whether there had been a recent loss in the family, and whether the wearer was a widow or a married woman. In a traditional costume such as those the people of Schmerlitz still use at their performances today, the shape of the flower pistil shows whether the wearer is “taken” or still unmarried.

In Lower Lusatia, Zapust is the festival of all festivals. Originally it meant the end of work in the spinning rooms. The “Spinte,” or spinning room, was an attic where the women, mostly maids, met in winter to spin. There was a lot of singing, storytelling, and teaching. At the end of this period there was a celebration – the last before Lent. Zapust heralds the arrival of spring and the custom has been preserved to this day.

The Sorbian schools organize their own processions, and when Franziska finally got a traditional costume, she took it to her great-grandmother. “I was so proud,” she recounts, “but she was very reserved and less than enthusiastic.” When I asked about it, she said: “Oh Franzi, I don’t understand what you’re always talking about. We didn’t speak like that. You can forget our Wendish. You can burn all the photos of me, and I threw away the traditional costumes back in 1961.”

It is a story typical of Lower Lusatia. Most women who still dressed as Sorbs/Wends after the war stopped at some point. Suddenly they were a minority: ridiculed, misunderstood, backward people.

Despite the fact that Sorbian culture was promoted in the GDR?

“The folklore, yes.” Maybe it was all just a kind of balance? “I don’t know. The fact is that what we learned in school as Lower Sorbian was strongly influenced by Upper Sorbian,” says the linguist. In the GDR, the intention was to adapt Lower Sorbian to be more like Upper Sorbian in terms of pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. A sort of real socialist rationalization.

The Lusatians – Divide et impera

In former times one referred to the Lusatians in the plural – because of their geographical differences, but also because they were assigned to different, frequently changing dominions. Even the Sorbian/Wendish population originated from two related yet distinct West Slavic tribes. In the 6th century, the Milceni had immigrated to today’s Upper Lusatia. Today’s Lower Lusatia was settled by the Lusatians. That is why there are two different written languages. In addition, the Upper Sorbs are mostly Catholic, the Lower Sorbs Lutheran, if they are religious at all. Until the foundation of the German Reich, most of what is now Lower Lusatia belonged to Prussia, while Upper Lusatia belonged to Saxony. In a similar but not identical vein to this historical border, today’s Upper Lusatia belongs to the Free State of Saxony and Lower Lusatia to Brandenburg. However, some districts in the border region have decided to switch to Saxony, because the Sorbian culture has more of a presence here. This has clear disadvantages because their historically evolved language is Lower Sorbian. It is recognized as a foreign language for learners in Brandenburg, but not in Saxony. In general, the division of Sorbs and Wends, the administrative split across two federal states and different districts, leads to difficulties time and again in carrying out projects encompassing both groups. Despite all of the policies in place for minorities, one question remains unanswered, and Franziska Albert is not the only one asking it: “Why are we still not being granted territorial unity?”