THURSDAY, DECEMBER 2, 1999
A tiny minority fights extinction
The Sorbs - Germany's
The Christian Science Monitor
The dancers skitter to the zesty music and the crowd of young and old, packed
in a barnyard, loves every minute. It is not only music and merriment filling
the air, but Sorbian, a language spoken by the world's smallest Slavic
Other barnyards in Crostwitz, population 640, reveal similar scenes during
the village's third annual folklore festival.
Traditional instruments such as bagpipes, shawms (a double-reed instrument
resembling an oboe), and three-string fiddles are played at weddings and other
festive occasions. Older women can be seen wearing traditional Sorbian bonnets
and dresses on a daily basis, while younger generations proudly don folk
costumes on holidays.
But once the celebrations end, daunting challenges return to confront the
Sorbs who, not unlike Pennsylvania's Amish, are trying to preserve a culture
amid the larger society threatening to engulf them.
Women in traditional Sorb dress sing at a folk festival in Crostwitz,
Germany. The tiny ethnic group is struggling to preserve its
They have anything but a high profile. Many Germans in major cities such as
Berlin and Dresden, both only one hour's drive away, have never heard of the
Numbering only about 60,000 today, the Sorbs, a subset of a Slavic ethnic
group known as the Wends, settled large parts of Germany in the 7th century A.D.
Subsequent wars and industrialization squeezed the highly rural people into a
swath of land only 40 miles long and 25 miles wide in eastern Germany's Lausitz
Germany's two dictatorships this century dealt the Sorbs crippling blows. The
Nazis banned Sorbian schools, newspapers, community organizations, and public
use of the language. While East Germany's Communist government took steps such
as posting bilingual road signs to promote Sorbian, it also razed dozens of Sorb
villages for mining and restricted Sorbian-language instruction in schools.
The decade since German unification has ushered in new freedoms and a
heightened national awareness. In a step praised as an example of promoting
ethnic-minority rights, the governments of Saxony and Brandenburg, the two
states straddled by the Lausitz region, gave the Sorbian language official
status in March.
In daily life, this means Sorbs can now file their taxes, argue traffic
tickets, or speak with municipal officials in Sorbian.
"The terrible events in Yugoslavia are an all-too-bloody indication that the
European states cannot get around giving their minorities and ethnic groups full
equality as a prerequisite for the preservation of human rights," Jakob
Brankatschk, a Sorb official, declared at the time.
"It's a matter of equality. Just like every German can speak German, every
Sorb should be able to speak Sorbian," says Bjarnat Cyz, head of Domowina, a
national organization that looks after Sorb interests.
But Sorb officials are critical of planned cutbacks in annual federal funding
for Sorb institutions, from about $9 million to $8 million. The cuts will affect
the Sorb theater and publishing house, as well as education.
About 1,500 students attend Sorbian-instruction schools and another 4,000
take Sorbian as a foreign language. The cuts also threaten the expansion of
bilingual kindergartens, initiated last year, where children can grow up
speaking both Sorbian and German.
Assimilation and economic woes are taking a toll on the tiny community.
Unemployment exceeds 25 percent in some Sorb areas, driving many young people to
other parts of Germany or beyond, where they are cut off from the culture.
"How do you tie them to the area the way the economy is? It's a catastrophe,
and the politicians don't recognize it," says Bendikt Dyrlich, editor of Serbske
Nowiny, a Sorbian-language newspaper.
Keeping the language alive among younger Sorbs is considered key.
"The Sorb culture will die out only when the language is no longer spoken,"
maintains Mr. Cyz.
"It's not easy. There is a lot of media pressure, and the German language
environment is everywhere," says Rejza Senowa, principal at the Sorbian High
School in Bautzen.
Mr. Dyrlich's teenage son Kajetan notes, "Most of my friends are German, so I
speak German with them. That's a problem with Sorbian, when you have a German in
the conversation circle, you speak German so he can understand."
Jan Budar, a university student, says more needs to be done to keep the
language relevant to younger Sorbs. "It's a mistake when officials always try to
push the old traditions," he says.
Mr. Budar points to students who exchange e-mails in Sorbian, and listen to
the handful of Sorbian rock-bands.
"You have to get it out of people's minds that its an old-fashioned language.
It's important to show that Sorbian can be used in a modern way," he says.
The original URL for this page is:
(c) Copyright 1999 The Christian Science Publishing
All rights reserved.