Ten Years After: Germany's
Lusatian Sorbs Determined To Survive
By Jolyon Naegele
Ten years ago, as communist rule crumbled in East Germany, leaders of the
country's indigenous Lusatian Sorb minority feared that the end of generous
government subsidies could sound the death-knell for the small Slavic group.
But laws enacted later ensured the Sorbs' survival. Now, however, the Sorbs
face their greatest challenge since East Germany imploded in 1990 -- a challenge
from within their own ranks. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele visits the
Lusatian community and sends this report from Bautzen/Budysin.
Bautzen/Budysin, Germany; 12 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The smallest
surviving Slavic group, the Lusatian Sorbs, have been declining in numbers steadily
since the 19th century, mostly through assimilation and emigration.
In the days of the communist East German regime, the Sorbs claimed that they
numbered 100,000. They enjoyed generous subsidies that enabled Sorb schools,
publishing activities, news media, folk and even rock music groups to operate
in the Upper and Lower Sorbian languages. Both languages are closely related
to Polish and Czech, although with a strong German influence.
In early 1990 -- after the Berlin Wall was opened and East German leaders announced
that they also wanted a united Germany -- Sorb leaders conceded that their numbers
had been inflated to ensure adequate subsidies. They said that in fact they
only numbered 60,000. They also expressed concern that with the demise of Soviet-backed
East Germany their existence as a Slavic people would be seriously threatened.
The August 1990 Treaty on German Unification -- signed by both East and West
Germany -- specifically guaranteed the right of Sorbs to their language and
culture. The state parliaments of Saxony -- home to some 40,000 Upper Lusatian
Sorbs -- and Brandenburg -- home to about 20,000 Lower Sorbs -- subsequently
passed several laws guaranteeing the protection and promotion of the Sorbian
The Union of Lusatian Sorbs is an umbrella organization, known as Domowina.
Spokesman Jurij Luscanski recently poked fun at all the laws in a conversation
with RFE/RL. His comments were made in Upper Sorbian:
"You know, the laws help. We have such a good situation that the whole Sorbian
people could be replaced by a law. But laws are just paper and are insufficient
if we ourselves aren't engaged. It is up to us to ensure that these laws are
The Domowina's monopoly is now facing its most serious threat since the collapse
of Communist rule. A group of Lower Lusatian villagers earlier this year founded
their own movement, "Ponaszemu" -- meaning "our way." Ponaszemu activists claim
they are not Sorbs but Wends. Wend is an old German word for Slav and in addition
to the Sorbs in the past also referred to Slavs and their descendants in Austria.
The Lower Lusatian Wends complain that the Lower Sorbian language that they
are taught in school does not correspond with the language, they call Wendish,
that they speak at home.
A co-founder of Ponaszemu, Klaus Lischewsky, a Protestant minister, says Wendish
is being suppressed in Lower Lusatia by what he terms "professional Upper Lusatians
from Bautzen." He says the end of communist rule brought no change for the Wends.
In his words, "the same people, having hidden their party badges, continue to
refer to the Wends of Lower Lusatia as Sorbs."
But Upper Sorb writer and former Domowina leader Jurij Koch rejects Ponaszemu's
claims. He notes that the GDR also used the term Wend in Lower Lusatia interchangeably
with the term Lower Lusatian. Koch recommends Lischewsky read a history book.
Critics say that what the Ponaszemu activists speak is just a dialect with
an inordinate quantity of loan words from German and that these activists fail
to understand the difference between a standard language and its colloquial
Although the population of Lower Sorbs is estimated at about 20,000, only a
small fraction -- no more than a few thousand -- are actually fluent in Lower
Lusatian or Wendish. Nevertheless, Ponaszemu may well succeed in ending Domowina's
monopoly by getting half the state subsidies granted the Lower Lusatians. Ponaszemu
is sponsoring its own candidates for the Council for Sorb-Wend matters after
the new Brandenburg state parliament is constituted.
In the view of the business manager of the independent Domowina publishing
house, Ludmila Budarjowa, with so few Sorbs or Wends in Lower Lusatia, the Ponaszemu
movement is about money. She says competition between the two organizations
for limited funds will be harmful to all Lusatians. Rather, Budarjowa says Ponaszemu
and Domowina should work together for the revitalization of the language, for
example by establishing Lower Sorbian/Wend kindergartens. She says they should
also try to reach agreement on what should be taught as the standard written
language and what elements of the colloquial language should be taught.
Budarjowa says worse may be in store if a similar movement develops among Upper
Lusatian Sorbs. As she puts it, "40 years of work to develop the language may
have been for naught". She says Sorbs continue to face linguistic assimilation
by the German majority. There is still no Sorbian language TV in Saxony and
only one hour a week in Brandenburg. Nevertheless, Budarjowa tells RFE/RL there
is still hope.
"What is new is that in the course of globalization and increasing uniformity,
a united Europe is trying to find its roots and relearn the language of the
Sorbs or Wends."
The Sorbian School Association, which Budarjowa headed until recently, has
launched an innovative "total immersion" project in which German and Sorbian
kindergarten pupils are taught in a combined Sorbian- and German-language environment.
In her words, "we are striving for perfect bilinguality."
Some Germans who have settled in Lusatia since German unification nine years
ago are setting an example by attending evening classes in Upper or Lower Sorbian
and by sending their children to bilingual schools. Thus there may still be
hope that the languages of the Sorbs will not die out.
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