The survival of a culture: an interview with the Sorbian author Jurij Brezan. (WLT Interview).
Jurij Brezan, Ohne PaB und Zoll
JURIJ BREZAN HAS LIVED in Germany for almost his entire life, but, more than ever, he is an outsider in his own country. Brezan is and has always been a German citizen, yet as an ethnic Sorbian has experienced a life filled with trauma, persecution, war, threats of genocide, and, perhaps most troublesome for an author, the continual fear of the extinction of his language.
The Sorbians are a Slavic minority who have lived in present-day Germany since the sixth century, in an area known as Lausatia in eastern Germany, between the rivers Oder and Neisse. Unlike other West Slavic tribes in Bohemia, Poland, or Moravia, the Sorbians were unsuccessful in creating a Sorbian state or political entity, and have been subjected to German rulers for more than 1,500 years. Not just the smallest Slavic minority, the Sorbians are the smallest ethnic group in Europe, with a population of approximately sixty thousand, and those numbers are decreasing every year. Historically, Sorbian is an oral language. A written language developed only in the sixteenth century, when the Bible was translated into Sorbian and other religious texts appeared. Gradually, a normative language ensued, and by the late eighteenth century a literary language had developed.
Brezan's literary career has spanned more than a half-century, through World War II, the Soviet occupation of eastern Germany, the rise and fall of the German Democratic Republic, and German unification. Despite these political changes, one aspect has remained constant in Brezan's literary life: his concern for his people, the Sorbians. The self-defined storyteller is recognized as the most influential and outspoken champion of Sorbian culture and literature, indeed of the survival of the Sorbian language. Bilingual, Brezan wrote almost all of his works in both Sorbian and German until health concerns limited his production in the late 1990s. Though not all of these works deal with Sorbian matters, the most prominent theme in his oeuvre is Sorbian identity, how it has been preserved, cultivated, and endangered throughout their history. Many of his works problematize Sorbian culture of the twentieth century, how the survival and welfare of the Sorbians have been closely linked to the Nazis, later the communists, and finally to the almighty economy in a capitalist eastern Germany. In his biographical work Ohne PaB und Zoll (Without Passport and Customs; 1999), Brezan writes, "Our [i.e., Sorbian] literature was a major reason that our intellectual life did not become as fragmented as our political situation." (2) For Brezan, writing in Sorbian, and also in German, not only contributed to the linguistic survival of his Sorbian mother tongue; it also provided a necessary escape from the dreadful political situation in which he lived.
Beginning with his earliest works, such as "Wie die alte Jantschowa mit der Obrigkeit kampfte" (How Old Jantschowa Fought with the Authorities; 1951), Brezan developed a unique literary style, in which he combines the individualistic with the stylized character type, resulting in "everyday" protagonists with whom readers can easily identify. In his autobiographical works, Brezan mentions that he has heard from readers throughout Europe who claim to have known the individuals on whom characters were based. With Brezan's literary career beginning during the first decade of the German Democratic Republic, critics have often compared him to such contemporaries as Franz Fuhmann and Erwin Strittmatter, because of his interest in and concentration on the everyday life of his characters and the realistic and historical setting of his works. Unlike Fuhmann and Strittmatter, both excellent examples of the Heimatsdichter (native or home-country writer), Brezan and his works reveal a complex relationship between literature and history, layered with levels of reality and fantasy. He interpolates reality and fantasy to construct narratives about the history of the Sorbian people and voice criticism of the East German government and its policies concerning the Sorbians in a more subtle manner.
Brezan's literary oeuvre cannot be reduced to one opus; rather, several works or series of works define his career. The first of these works is the "Hanusch Trilogy," a series of three novels -- Der Gymnasiast (The High Schooler; 1958), Semester der verlorenen Zeit (The Semester of Lost Time; 1960), and Mannesjahre (Man's Year; 1964) -- which trace the historical development of the Sorbians through the eyes of the protagonist Felix Hanusch, the son of a peddler and later Communist Party member. Brezan continues the grand German tradition of the Entwicklungsroman or developmental novel, the exalted form of Goethe's masterpiece Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795) and Novalis's Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1802), and portrays Felix's development as a Sorbian, his relationship to his culture, language, and people, and his search for a place in a society where Sorbians are confined to the periphery. Throughout the three novels, Brezan problematizes the contradictions of Sorbian cultural, intellectual, and social life, while reflecting on actual problems facing the Sorbians. These works underscore as few others in his career his concern with questions of Sorbian identity, identity politics, and the need to preserve the Sorbian language.
More than anything else, Brezan's literary career is associated with the mythical figure of Krabat, the magician. Though the exact origins of Krabat are disputed, legend suggests that he is based on Jan Schadowitz, a former Croatian officer who was invited by the Saxon king, August the Strong, to settle in a Sorbian village, where he was given a farm. As a foreigner, Krabat was popular with the Sorbians, who gradually came to the conclusion that he possessed magical powers because he continually helped the poor, oppressed Sorbian peasants. As a child, Brezan was attracted to the specifically Sorbian myth of Krabat, and he has returned to it constantly throughout his life. In 1954 he translated the myth into German, and in 1968 he wrote in Sorbian and then in German the modern fairy tale Die Schwarze Muhle (The Black Mill). In 1976 he published what many critics consider to be his most important work, Krabat oder die Verwandlung der Welt (Krabat or the Metamorphosis of the World), an extended fairy tale which combines the mythical with contemporary reality and the possible with the actual. Krabat, the symbol of the Sorbian people, their past, present, and future, moves freely in time and space to various historical epochs and confronts Sorbians in their continual struggle to survive. The novel transcends Sorbian mythology and posits a new one based on contemporary society, underscoring the Sorbian search for happiness and contentment as outsiders, a minority, and an endangered ethnic group. However, to reduce the work to simply Sorbian problems or questions about Sorbian identity would be to diminish the novel's depth. The work raises questions about truth and knowledge, the quest for knowledge, power, and recognition, and identity and its preservation. In 1995, Brezan returned to the Krabat myth and wrote Krabat oder die Bewahrung der Welt (Krabat or the Preservation of the World); although not necessarily a sequel, it continues many of the same themes introduced in the previous work.
During the autumn of 2000, I had the opportunity to interview Jurij Brezan, and we talked about his life as a Sorbian in Germany under both the fascist and the communist regimes, as well as about Sorbian history, Sorbian culture and literature, and the most pressing challenges facing Sorbians at the beginning of the new millennium. The following is a transcript of that interview, which was conducted in German and is presented here in my own English translation.
Gregory Wolf: You were born in 1916 in Rackelwitz, a small village in Upper Lausatia. Were you raised bilingually, German and Sorbian, or did you learn German in primary school? (3)
Jurij Brezan: I learned to speak Sorbian at home. One of our neighbors, a postman, was German. There was also an old castle next to our house that had been remodeled as a hospital. The nurses and pastors who worked there were all German. I was able to speak German before starting school because of neighbors like these and because I became active in church services as a youth.
GW: Did your parents speak German?
JB: My mother spoke German well, but my father did not speak German quite as well.
GW: Describe Sorbian cultural life in Rackelwitz in the 1920s. How many people spoke Sorbian in your village? Were there Sorbian schools and religious services in Sorbian?
JB: About eight hundred people lived in the village in the 1920s. They were all Sorbian, except the police, the postmen, and those who worked in the hospital, namely the nurses and the pastor. Everyone else spoke Sorbian. There were perhaps two German families, but they had learned Sorbian. In the primary schools we were taught Sorbian. At the more advanced grade levels, we had the option to continue learning Sorbian in a formal setting. German was the language of instruction for almost all courses except religion. Sorbian cultural life there was quite dismal. We celebrated Christmas and Easter in a traditional Sorbian manner.
GW: Did you celebrate the "Birds' Wedding"? (4)
JB: Yes, the "Birds' Wedding" was another holiday for us. As children, we considered the "Birds' Wedding" the best holiday, even better than Christmas.
GW: Do the Sorbians continue to celebrate this holiday?
JB: Yes, we still celebrate it.
GW: Do the Germans in Lausatia also take part in the festivities?
JB: Yes. Every baker bakes special cookies for the "Birds' Wedding." That custom has endured. The children learn songs about the "Birds' Wedding." In the villages there are parades with children who are dressed as guests of the wedding parties.
GW: You still reside in Rackelwitz. How have the lives of Sorbians in your village changed since your childhood?
JB: My village has changed greatly. It was once a village whose residents were almost all miners. Then the quarry closed because the granite was too hard and it was impossible to use newly developed mechanized mining tools and machines. The closing of the mine changed the entire structure of the village. Villagers began to migrate to cities and to factories. Young men began apprenticeships as craftsmen. The many small family farms continued to operate until about 1960, at which time they were absorbed by agricultural co-ops. (5) This affected the social structure of the village. After World War II, many immigrants from Poland and Czechoslovakia settled in villages in Lausatia. This was also the case in my village. The influx of immigrants altered both the national and linguistic structure of Lausatia and the individual villages. (6) Instead of villages with almost 100 percent Sorbian speakers, villages were now 80 or 85 percent Sorbian. It is more difficult to determine the magnitude of change in larger cities, such as Bautzen or Cottbus. To this day, we still have schools where children learn Sorbian. Currently, we are developing plans to keep the few remaining Sorbian junior high schools from being closed. We have two Sorbian high schools: one in Bautzen in Upper Lausatia, and one in Cottbus in Lower Lausatia.
GW: How was the relationship between the Germans who were forced to immigrate from Poland or Czechoslovakia and the Sorbians in Rackelwitz or in Lausatia in general?
JB: It is hard to generalize. Many parents allowed their children to play with Sorbian children, and through this type of contact many Germans learned to speak Sorbian. However, this was not always the case; some German children were forbidden to have contact with Sorbian children. Most Germans attempted to integrate themselves into the village, though the elderly rarely learned to speak Sorbian.
GW: Although the Sorbians have never had an independent state, they have lived in Lausatia for more than 1,500 years and have maintained their language and culture. In your opinion, what are the reasons for this success?
JB: (Laughs) I do not think that anyone can answer that question. It is hard to comprehend that we have lived for centuries in the middle of Germany, surrounded by German culture and influenced by it, but have been able to retain our specific culture and language. There is no logical reason. I have thought about this question my entire life, but have not found an adequate answer. It is amazing that we have had Sorbian schools for only the past 150 years, but our language has developed over the last one thousand years and can be compared to any other Central European language. (7)
GW: Yes, especially when one compares the situation of the Sorbians and their language with the situations of Scottish, Welsh, and Irish Gaelic in Great Britain. Cottbus in Lower Lausatia and Bautzen in Upper Lausatia are two centers of Sorbian culture. Do you notice any cultural differences, not including linguistic variances, between these two areas? Are there any characteristics you would consider to be typically Upper or Lower Sorbian? (8)
JB: Yes, there are differences. In each region there are typical types of folk art, as well as folk festivals and other celebrations; but other than those and the linguistic distinctions, I really do not perceive any major differences between the Upper and Lower Sorbians. It is possible that the Lower Sorbians are a bit more Prussian.
GW: (Laughs) The Sorbians have lived in Lausatia since the sixth century. They refer to themselves in Sorbian as Serby -- Sorbians. Germans have traditionally called the Sorbians Wenden (Wends), a term that originated with Roman historians. Do you find the term Wenden demeaning or discriminatory?
JB: Yes! The negative connotation of the term developed around the beginning of the nineteenth century. As far as I can determine, Wenden did not have a negative connotation in the eighteenth century or earlier. I have a good example to illustrate how the term has been used in demeaning way. At one time, many people who lived in Dresden called Lausatia "die wendische Turkei." (9)
GW: I have never heard that phrase.
JB: Yes, but it's true! You shouldn't be familiar with the phrase and may well have never heard it before because it was rarely spoken after World War II. After the war, we Sorbians demanded that the Germans stop using the word Wenden in social and political discourse. We wanted to forget the past and begin a new phase.
GW: After the Nazis seized political control of Germany in 1933, they initiated a plan to suppress systematically the Sorbians and their cultural expression. Sorbian newspapers were closed, the Sorbian language was officially forbidden, and Sorbians were confined to the margins of society. The Nazis even referred to Lausatia, where the Sorbians have lived for 1,500 years, as a "typically German" region, and commissioned "anthropological" studies to prove the "German" character of Lausatia. I read that you were active in the Sorbian resistance during the Nazi period. Were you active in organized resistance groups, like Mina Witkojc, the well-known editor of the Sorbian newspaper Serbski Casnik, or did you work alone? (10)
JB: In my autobiographical work Mein Stuck Zeit (My Piece of Time; 1998), I have written extensively about my involvement with the resistance movement. I was a member of a group that was formed in 1937. I was approached by the group and joined it. With the group in Poznan, Poland, I learned how to conduct covert activities. Upon my return to Germany in 1939, I was immediately arrested and remained in jail until the conclusion of the invasion of Poland in late 1939. Following my release, I continued to conduct illegal and guerrilla activities with the group. It is difficult to explain the situation. We were, if one wants to call us such, a civil-resistance organization. We did not have an ideology and only wanted to protect ourselves as Sorbians. We were convinced that Hitler would not last forever. We were able to develop a network of men throughout the area. At the conclusion of the war, we saw how successful we were, and were then able to begin the process of rebuilding. I was a soldier in Russia and, while there, met another Sorbian with whom I conceptualized a Sorbian primary reader for children after the war. We organized the reader quite well. Near the conclusion of the war, he was arrested and was tortured until he revealed other names that the Nazis wanted. On 20 April 1945 a warrant was issued for my arrest, but I was saved by a general, a German general.
GW: During the first few years after World War II, several East German politicians in the Soviet zone, such as Friedrich Ebert and Wilhelm Pieck of the Socialist Unity Party, voiced their concerns about a rejuvenation of Sorbian culture and identity. Active members of the Sorbian cultural organization "Domowina" were harassed, persecuted, and even arrested. Why did high-ranking East German politicians suppress the Sorbians in those years, and what factors or events led to a gradual policy shift in 1948-497? (11)
JB: I do not quite understand why the state and specifically Ebert and Pieck were initially so adamantly opposed to the Sorbians. I did not return home from the war until 1946 and thus did not experience the events of 1945 in Lausatia. I assume it was the attempt to initiate Soviet national and ethnic politics in our region, just like Stalin had done with the Germans in the Volga region and elsewhere. The Soviets wanted to implement those policies here as well. The Soviets and the above-mentioned East German politicians, however, had no understanding of many of the issues facing the Germans and Sorbians in Lausatia. Why did the policies change so suddenly in 1948-49? The change must have been a result of external Soviet pressure. In the meantime, I assume, the German politicians began to learn more about us. It is also possible that the politicians wanted to prevent an irredenta that might have very well happened otherwise. There were, however, many politicians who were truthful with us. (12)
GW: How would you characterize the relationship between the Sorbian cultural organization Domowina and the Sorbian National Council in the immediate postwar period? Were there tensions between the two after the war? (13)
JB: Yes. Tensions existed between the two institutions until around 1948, at which time they were able to resolve some differences. The tensions arose from two central questions: "Do we want to create an independent Sorbian state?" or "Should we become an annex of Czechoslovakia?" The National Council argued for the latter option, and Domowina was opposed to that plan. I was convinced that we should not become a part of Czechoslovakia. I found a letter from 1943 which I wrote, and it said that I do not want to be annexed by Czechoslovakia because we would become "czechified" within one generation. In addition, I thought this idea was politically impossible. Between our Lausatia and Czechoslovakia was a strip of land, approximately forty kilometers long, that was inhabited by Germans.
GW: How did the German Democratic Republic support Sorbian culture?
JB: The support was generous, but it had an unforeseen disadvantage. Because of the state's official support of the Sorbians, our Sorbian political functionaries were faced with the danger of subjugating themselves and our interests to the East German state and the state political party. Unfortunately, there was no escape from this danger. State support, consequently, had certain negative effects. There was also the problem of state-sanctioned atheism, which Domowina was forced to accept and represent. Most Sorbians were religious and belonged to either the Catholic or the Lutheran Church. It was a disaster for our development that Domowina toed the official atheistic party line. These disadvantages must be considered when one evaluates the benefits of state sponsorship and support of Sorbian culture.
GW: I read an article about coal mining in Lausatia and how mining destroyed countless Sorbian villages. (14)
JB: Mining destroyed many of our villages, and it cannot be seen as a form of support for Sorbian cultural life. Coal mining was an attempt to industrialize an area of Lausatia, and this area happened to be a center of Sorbian culture which was soon completely destroyed.
GW: I also read that many Sorbians were disappointed that the leadership of Domowina did not protest more vehemently against the coal mines and their effects.
JB: Yes, that was definitely the case. Sorbians debated this issue quite fiercely with one another. Generally speaking, the Sorbian civilian population was against the coal mines, while our functionaries were for them.
GW: Since German reunification in 1990, there have been renewed efforts on behalf of the German government to increase support of Sorbian culture and language and to guarantee all Sorbians their political and social rights. Have you perceived a Sorbian cultural renaissance since 1990? (15)
JB: We have definitely not experienced a cultural renaissance; rather, the opposite is true. Our situation and problems are not the result of bureaucratic decrees and pressures, but quite simply a byproduct of the current economic realities. For the first time in recorded Sorbian history and since we have had documented church records, we have more coffins than cradles. In my youth, an average healthy family had four or five children. Now the average family has 1.2 children. The decline in birth rate is related to the general economic situation of our region. Lausatia is one of the poorest regions in all of Germany. Too many Sorbians are unemployed. Younger Sorbians are emigrating to [the formerly West German states of] Baden-Wurttemberg and Bavaria, where they are more likely to find jobs. They remain in those states and do not return home. That is one major problem we face; another is embedded in our culture. We still have enough Sorbians in Lausatia to cultivate and continue a vibrant culture, but every year there are increasingly fewer Sorbians, even though we might be earning more money. The state, however, has increasingly less money to support Sorbian culture in an effective manner. At one time we had an organization, a club for Sorbian authors, and had fourteen active members. Today we have five or six members who write, but none of them can earn a living exclusively as authors. That is completely impossible. I continue to write in Sorbian and German, but in the last few years I have written my larger works, autobiographies or novels such as Mein Stuck Zeit or Ohne PaB und Zoll, in German and not in Sorbian. On the other hand, I continue to write children's books; in fact, I am writing one right now, but I no longer write them in both languages as I once did. I write these only in Sorbian. Due to physical limitations, I can no longer write everything in both languages. I write each book in one language only. I could no longer live solely from my earnings as an author. You may not be aware that my books had sold more than 2.5 million copies by 1990.
GW: I read your article "Unser aller Angelegenheit" (A Matter for Us All), which appeared in the Sachsische Zeitung (The Saxon Newspaper) on 11 February 2000 and in which you wrote about your relationship to Dresden, to Germany, and to the Germans. You decided to write the article because of the decision of the minister of culture in Saxony to develop a contingency plan for closing the only two remaining Sorbian junior high schools. How is it possible to close these schools if the state is legally responsible for supporting Sorbian culture and specifically the language?
JB: That is a complicated issue to which you can return later. Perhaps I should begin to answer the question by offering a historical perspective. Kaiser Wilhelm I called the Sorbians "a jagged stake in the body of the German people," and Bismarck attempted as best he could to remove this stake. He was not successful! But this mentality -- many Germans still have this attitude. There is another approach to your question: I lived before, during, and after World War II in Germany. After Germany defeated France in 1940, many Germans were more vocal in their hatred of certain ethnic groups. When the war was over, the West Germans crawled to the Americans and we in the eastern zone crawled to the Russians. For better or for worse, that was the reality. We are a small, insignificant group. When one considers himself strong and powerful, he ignores the weak ones and especially the weakest, like the Sorbians. The relationship between the Germans and the Sorbians has a unique history that I do not understand completely. I have argued that the Germans should consider us to be normal citizens of Germany just like they are, not because the law says that we are, but because we are their neighbors in this land where we have lived for 1,500 years. This country is also ours. Not long after the conclusion of World War II, someone screamed at me, "Get out of our country!" That comment reflects a history that is difficult to ignore.
GW: What are the greatest challenges facing the Sorbians and their culture in the twenty-first century?
JB: The greatest challenges are unfortunately already facing us. In fact, we are currently facing the most serious challenge in our history. There simply are not enough young Sorbians. We have dwindled to a group of no more than sixty thousand. Because there are so few Sorbian children, our schools are in danger of being closed; our art and literature are threatened by extinction. We have to fight for survival, and this struggle has never been so difficult. There are few jobs in Lausatia, and we spend too much emotional energy searching for jobs and providing for our families. To complicate matters, you must understand that there has never been a Sorbian middle class; there are no Sorbian factory owners, and there never have been. We are poor people and have always been poor. It is difficult to create an existential foundation for our community, and we are living in dire straits. I would like to tell you an anecdote: around 1600, not long after Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, the Bible was also translated into Sorbian and was supposed to be published. (16) The local nobility, primarily the larger landowners, prohibited its publication. In response, a delegation of Sorbian priests traveled to Wittenberg to plead their case directly to Luther. Luther supposedly replied: "My brothers in Christ, certainly you have the right to read the word of God in your language, but my dear friends, why? In fifty years there will not be any more Sorbians." Luther was obviously mistaken, and when it appears that we are headed for extinction, then.... I counted the grandchildren of my parents, and came up with a figure of eighteen young people who speak and read Sorbian. Many families can do the same and will find similar positive or even unexpected results. I think that we will overcome even our current population problems.
GW: I have seen various statistics about the population of the Sorbians, but have found no definitive figure. The figures seem to range from 70,000 to 300,000. How many Sorbians are there?
JB: There are about 60,000 Sorbians.
GW: Sixty thousand who can read and write Sorbian?
GW: Do you have any suggestions how the Federal Republic of Germany can support the Sorbians more effectively?
JB: Yes, and my suggestions do not involve money. One cannot achieve everything with money alone. If [German] Chancellor Schroder has no idea that the Sorbians exist (Wolf laughs).... Yes. He had never heard of the Sorbians. He learned about them on a political trip to Dresden. His lack of knowledge illustrates a point: the Germans do not know anything about the Sorbians, and they do not want to know anything. The best form of support would be if the political establishment, or whatever you would like to call the political elite, were to say: "There is a courageous and valiant ethnic group in Germany: the Sorbians. They have endured more than 1,500 years of suppression, but now need our help to survive." Such a public-service announcement would be much more helpful than one million marks of federal assistance. It is imperative that the Germans recognize us as equal citizens in this country.
GW: I have friends in Berlin who have not heard of the Sorbians or know very little about them.
JB: It is no more than a hundred kilometers from Berlin to Lower Lausatia. Your comment illustrates my point that the Germans do not know and do not want to know about us.
GW: Want is perhaps the operative word in this instance. What do you think the situation of the Sorbians will be like in 2050?
JB: I cannot imagine what it will be like. It will ... No, I cannot imagine what it will be like. I can only hope that my grandchildren will be living at that time and that they will strive to retain and cultivate their Sorbian culture and identity, as my generation has done.
GW: As an author, you write in both German and Sorbian. What Sorbian authors have been influential in your literary development?
JB: Sorbian authors have been influential primarily in the development of my literary language. I spoke the Sorbian dialect of my village at home and did not learn standard Sorbian in the first few years of primary school. Only later did I learn standard Sorbian and then a literary language. The literary language is the most important influence from Sorbian writers. The way I write, the forms I use, the way I think, even the way I conceptualize a work -- these are uniquely mine. Sorbian writers have not influenced my development in this realm. I do not fit within any Sorbian literary or narrative tradition. (17)
GW: Your novella "Wie die alte Jantschowa mit der Obrigkeit kampfte" and many of Marja Kubasec's short stories thematize and problematize the suppression and Germanization of the Sorbians in the first half of the twentieth century. How do you treat Sorbian history and culture in your literary works?
JB: Sorbian history, culture, and identity are the points of departure for my literary works. In 1946 I could not decide if I should become a Sorbian or a German author. I decided to become a Sorbian writer, and my decision has had certain negative repercussions that I still experience today. One can read about Sorbian history, culture, and identity in my Krabat novels. At some point I decided that my people deserve more than just short literary pieces in almanacs and calendars. Even in our lives as Sorbians, there is a larger narrative to which we also belong. That is the case with history too; our history is intertwined with other histories -- German history. My father and I had nothing to do with the kaiser and Hitler, yet we were their soldiers. My and my father's fates are tied to German as well as universal history. Starting from an entirely personal history, I attempt to give my readers perspectives of a larger, overarching history or narrative. My works are not filled with Sorbian propaganda, didactic messages, and national pathos. However, I want to bring my people closer to history, their history, and the history of the Sorbians, and how it is embedded within a larger context.
GW: In your 1976 novel Krabat oder die Verwandlung der Welt and its 1995 sequel Krabat oder die Bewahrung der Welt you unite Sorbian legends and fairy tales with the present day. What meaning or importance do Sorbian fairy tales and myths have for you? Are there structural or archetypal similarities between Sorbian legends and myths and classical Greek or Germanic legends and myths?
JB: I have thought about archetypal similarities between Sorbian and other national mythology and folklore. The original Sorbian sagas and legends were all lost in the Middle Ages. They disappeared because of the terrible situation of our people, who were beset by economic hardships and intense suffering. Throughout the Middle Ages we did not have any teachers or priests who could have written and preserved our literary traditions. Consequently, the greater portion of our sagas, legends, and folklore has disappeared, except for a few verses of folk songs or a few lines from fairy tales. Krabat first appeared in the late Middle Ages, and his story is our most well known and oldest saga. I am knowledgeable about classical Greek mythology and cannot find any similarities between Greek and Sorbian mythology. Classical mythology was twisted and subverted by the rise of Christianity, so it is difficult to compare precisely the effect of one on the other. Strangely enough, there are similarities between French and Sorbian folklore. The fox and the wolf are two of the most popular figures in both French and Sorbian folktales. There are many Sorbian folktales and fairy tales with a wolf and a fox as primary characters. I have always been fascinated by fairy tales, and have read many French ones. To my surprise, I have discovered unexpected similarities between the two that I have encountered nowhere else.
GW: Is there a generation of young Sorbian authors who write in Sorbian, German, or both languages?
JB: Yes. There are several young, talented women who have just published their first works, and there are several lyric and prose writers who seem quite talented. We need to wait to see how they develop. It is difficult to assess their work and their importance after just one or two publications.
GW: Since the 1990s at German and American universities, there has been an increase in the number of literature courses and seminars dealing with German literature written by minorities, especially Turkish writers but increasingly Bosnian authors as well who publish in German. It appears to me that Sorbian authors have been neglected almost completely, not just by the literary canon but also by these courses that specifically target "minority" literature. Why do you think many professors of literature and literary critics have overlooked Sorbian literature?
JB: The entire situation is quite puzzling. (He laughs) I cannot explain why our literature is not recognized. But that is not the case just for contemporary authors. If you were to ask a student at a German university who Jakub Bart Cisinski was, I am sure he would not be able to give you an answer. (18) Had Cisinski published in German, however, he would have been one of the most important German Romantic authors. But he wrote only in Sorbian. I can tell you another anecdote, but it is apropos. A man came to me and told me that he had read one of my books, that he really enjoyed reading it, and wanted to discuss it with me. Then he told me why he had read that specific book. At some point he desperately wanted to read a book, and so he went to a library and asked the librarian for advice. The librarian offered a few suggestions, but he had already read those works. Then the librarian showed him my book, and he replied, "Oh, no! That is by that Sorbian. I don't want to read that book." (He laughs) Nevertheless, he read my book because he had no other choice. So you see, I have achieved some success, at least here in southeastern Germany. West Germans recognize me, if at all, as a writer of children's books or as the author of the Die Schwarze Muhle, a work I wrote for young adults. I have written several texts for children, but I am not exclusively an author of children's books. Still, that is the perception of me in western Germany. For many years, my book Die Abenteuer des Katers Mikosch (The Adventures of the Tomcat Mikosch) was a best seller in West Germany. Decades ago, a friend of mine who happens to be an editor -- though not of literary works -- contacted an important West German publisher to inquire about publishing my first Krabat novel. The publisher asked my friend, "How old is the author?" This publisher did not recognize my name. My friend replied that I was sixty-three years old. "Oh," the publisher replied, "he is too old to develop and refine his talents." The publisher's comments are indicative of the public's perception of Sorbians. Germans do not recognize our existence.
GW: What would you like to tell an American audience that is probably unfamiliar with the Sorbians?
JB: (He laughs) I would tell them that we are like the Indians of Europe: courageous and with a will to survive.
(1) "Und mein kleines Volk -- ich sehe die Enge, die Zerrissenheit, Lebenswillen und Lethargie, sehe, wie der Raum und Sprache brockelt, ich schreibe Bucher fur ein paar Schock Leser heute, morgen wird es weniger sein. Ich sehe mit fremden Augen von auBen zu und befinde mich, wo ich mich immer befunden habe, in seiner wirklichen Mitte. Ich sehe von auBen und schreibe von innen." Jurij Brezan, Ohne PaB und Zoll, Leipzig, Kiepenheuer, 1999, p. 214.
(2) "Unsere Literatur hat wesentlich dazu beigetragen, daB im Geistigen nicht ganzlich zerrissen wurde, was politisch zerrissen war." Ibid., p. 174.
(3) Lausatia is separated into two regions, which also correspond to the two distinctive dialects of Sorbian. Lausatia is the area located between the Elbe and Neisse Rivers, near the Czech and Polish borders. Upper Lausatia, the southern region, is characterized by mountainous terrain and located in the state of Saxony, whereas Lower Lausatia, situated on the bank of the Spree River in Brandenburg state, is dominated by a swamplike landscape.
(4) The Vogelhochzeit or "Wedding of the Birds" takes place annually on 25 January. Little is known about the history of this important and popular Sorbian holiday, which celebrates the marriage of a raven and a magpie. On the evening of the 24th, children place a plate outside a window or their front door and awake the next day to find the plate filled with cookies and sweets.
(5) Lausatia was located in the German Democratic Republic. The process of collectivizing private farms in East Germany began in the 1950s and continued throughout the 1960s.
(6) Between 1944 and 1950 approximately seventeen million ethnic Germans moved westward, and more than two million died in transit. As the Red Army advanced westward in 1944, Germans fled from Eastern and Southeastern Europe, especially from Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia into Germany. In 1945, the Allies at the Potsdam Conference agreed to relocate the remaining German populations of those areas into Germany. Ethnic German migration during those immediate postwar years is the largest single migratory movement in modern Europe.
(7) Sorbian, in both its Upper and Lower forms, belongs to the group of West Slavic languages, which includes Polish, Czech, Kashubian, Slovak, and the now-extinct Polabian.
(8) There is an ongoing scholarly debate as to whether there are two distinct Sorbian languages or just one with two different dialects, an Upper and a Lower Sorbian. There are, however, two different standard written languages. See R. Lotsch, "Das Problem der obersorbisch-niedersorbischen Sprachgrenze," Zeitschrift fur Slawistik, 8 (1963), pp. 172-83; Gerald Stone, The Smallest Slavonic Nation, London, Athlone, 1972, pp. 90-122; and H. Schuster-Sewc, Grammar of the Upper Sorbian Language, tr. Gary H. Toops, Munich, Lincom, 2000.
(9) "Wends" has several forms in German, and can be used as a noun, die Wenden, or as an adjective, wendisch. "Die wendische Turkei" is a racial slur that insults two groups simultaneously and can be translated as "Sorbian Turkey," equating Sorbians with Turks, a typical and historical slur in Germany, and implying an explicit difference between Germans and Sorbians.
(10) In 1933 the Nazis began to close Sorbian cultural organizations, clubs, and newspapers. Some newspapers were allowed to remain operational until 1937, the year that all newspapers, except for a few Catholic ones, were officially closed. Due to the Nazi Concordat with the Vatican, some Catholic publications received a reprieve until 1939. The Serbski Casnik was closed in 1933. Its editor, Mina Witkojc, was a leading spokesperson for Sorbian rights throughout the 1920s and attended the European Conference for Minorities in 1926. The Nazi mistrust and maltreatment of the Sorbians have historical precedents. Even in the democratically elected Weimar Republic, the government established a "Wendenabteilung" (Wendish department) to monitor Sorbian activities. The "Wendenabteilung" continued its operation during the Third Reich and collaborated with the Nazi organization "Bund Deutscher Osten" (Organization of the German East). See Stone, pp. 32-36; and Peter Kunze, Die Sorben in der Niederlausitz, pp. 57-60.
(11) In 1948, Ebert, the head of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands or SED (Socialist Unity Party) in the state of Brandenburg, wrote Pieck, who would become the first head of state in the German Democratic Republic, that he did not perceive any Sorbian agitation in his state, and to avoid any struggle for Sorbian ethnic identity or liberation, Domowina should remain prohibited. Domowina was founded in 1912 as an organization promoting Sorbian culture. It was closed by the Nazis, reformed without Soviet permission in 1945, and received its legal mandate in 1949. It still serves as the main umbrella organization for Sorbian culture.
(12) Brezan refers to an irredenta, but there seems to be little proof of this. He suggests that East German politicians may have changed their views to ensure that Lausatia remained a part of Germany, and to avoid its being annexed by Czechoslovakia, or even Poland, under Soviet decree.
(13) In 1945, the Sorbian National Council was formed in Prague without Soviet permission by Sorbians released from concentration camps. Whereas Domowina was a cultural organization with a political agenda, the National Council was purely a political organization. The Soviet takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948 led to the end of the National Council. See Stone, pp. 36-40; Kunze, pp. 65-67; and Walter J. Rauch, Presse und Volkstum der Lausitzer Sorben, Wurzburg, Holzner, 1959, pp. 150-56.
(14) Lausatia sits atop one of the world's largest lignite (soft) coal deposits in the world. Between 1950 and 1989, no fewer than forty-five Sorbian villages were razed and countless others partially destroyed in order to construct coal-mining operations.
(15) The official government document outlining the process of unification of the two German countries contains an article (Note to Article 35) that guarantees the national identity of the Sorbians and protection and support of Sorbian culture. In 1991 the "Stiftung fur das sorbische Volk" (Foundation for the Sorbian People) was established to sponsor and finance Sorbian cultural activities and expression. Individual states such as Brandenburg and Saxony have also passed laws guaranteeing political rights to all Sorbians.
(16) The New Testament was translated into Sorbian in 1548, but remained unpublished. It was not until 1728 that a complete Sorbian translation of the Bible appeared in print, though individual books of the Bible appeared before that date. See Stone, pp. 40-45; and Kunze, pp. 23-24.
(17) After more than twelve centuries as primarily an oral language, Sorbian developed as a literary language in the eighteenth century. Prior to that time, there were few texts published in Sorbian. During the first half of the nineteenth century, under the influence of German Romanticism, Sorbian literature began to flourish.
(18) Cisinik (1856-1909) was one of the most influential and productive Sorbian authors, a figure whose literary works raised the standards of Sorbian literature to European esthetic norms.
GREGORY H. WOLF is Assistant Professor of German Studies at Saint Louis University in Missouri. His research interests include eighteenth-through-twentieth-century German literature and culture, Sorbian literature and culture, and, most recently, the history and culture of German immigrants in the United States. He has published numerous articles and reviews in such journals as the German Quarterly, the ADFL Bulletin, Michigan Germanic Studies, Seminar, Sichtungen, glossen, and World Literature Today.
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|Author:||Wolf, Gregory H.|
|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2001|
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