Vol 1, No 6, 2 August 1999
N A T I O N S:
A Unique Minority
Varnsdorf, a picturesque northern-Bohemian town just south of the Czech-German border, plays host to one of the most unique annual literary festivals in Central Europe. Members of the contemporary Sorb community gather in this Czech village to celebrate their language and culture and to honor the memory of Jakub Lorenc-Zaleski, their national poet. The Sorbian language, which is closely related to modern Czech, and the traditional culture with which it is inextricably bound, find release in song and poetry that blend modern elements with a history spanning nearly a millennium.
The namesake of Varnsdorf, a hermit named Wernar who lived in the region during the 14th century, wrote that, "Life cannot be put into words." But nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to the Sorbs. Their very existence depends upon the vitality of their language, which has seen a schism between "Upper Sorb," based in Cottbus, and "Lower Sorb," centered around the Bautzen region. The split is mainly due to the various influences of the German language in those areas.
Since the early nineties, Varnsdorf and the Polish town of Radibor have become something like satellites of the main Sorb settlements in Bautzen and Cottbus. It is possible to find the major Sorb publications in both of these towns, including the Upper Sorb daily, Serbske Nowiny, and Nowy Casnik, a Lower Sorb weekly.
Almost 600 years of attempted assimilation have failed, thus far, to Germanize the Sorbs. But if the current era of freedom, prosperity and uncertainty finally does see their assimilation into mainstream culture, as many fear, this minority will certainly be remembered as one of history's most unusual. Unlike most of Europe's minority groups, the Sorbs have actually managed to benefit from the various cultural shifts of the past centuries, and they voice no aspirations for independence.
Milan Hrabal, who works in the Cultural Ministry of Varnsdorf and translates Sorb texts into Czech, laughingly dismisses the idea of a Sorb homeland, saying that, "there is no such plan in the books, as far as I know." Hrabal is one of the many organizers of the festival who is fluent in Sorbian, although not himself a Sorb.
Nazi persecution brought the Catholic Sorbs to Varnsdorf from Germany, where the first Sorbian-language grammar school was established in 1946 in the impressive Varnsdorf Gymnasium. Sadly, the school only remained open for three years. Although they became the pet project of East-German Communists, who sought to demonstrate support for minority populations, the Sorbs' language and cultural identity were threatened by an influx of German workers sent to Saxony to work in the coal mines. Fearing assimilation and extinction, the Sorbs welcomed the chance to continue to teach in their own language and develop their culture in what was then Czechoslovakia. The links between the Sorb population and the town of Varnsdorf remain strong today, augmented by increasing international interest in Sorbian.
Milan Hrabal hopes that the exchange between the German, Czech and Sorb cultures will continue to flourish, supported by the relatively prodigious output of the Sorb press and youth culture on both sides of the border. He believes that the inclusion of his town in the Bautzen/Nisa Euroregion will help to speed the inclusion of the Czech Republic into the European Union and expose the world to the little-known Sorb people and culture, by promoting tourism and investment. The Luzice mountains, which surround Varnsdorf, have been a traditional winter destination for Czech skiers, and some believe that the area's popularity will increase, due in part to the cohesion of the Sorbs across national borders.
The Sorb press, which is controlled by the publishing house Domowina-Verlag and includes a handful of radio stations, a weekly television program and a body of scholarly texts, is heavily supported by the German government. Last year, a recent trend of cutbacks was reversed, in what Hrabal describes as a major victory for the Sorbs of both Germany and the Czech Republic, who number around 60,000 at last count. "The money is primarily used for purposes of education," says Hrabal, although the literary tradition of the Sorb nation has also benefited through grant programs and support for Sorb-language events such as theater productions.
The Varnsdorf library, located in an enchanting villa just a few blocks from the beautifully preserved town square, hosted the modest crowd of 50 Sorbophiles, who gathered to hear 15 different poets read their most recent work. Translations into Czech followed the Sorb texts, and musical interludes were provided by the talented duo of Istvan Kobela and Marko Dyrlich, who performed traditional folk songs as well as original tunes and finished with an energetic, and somehow appropriate, translation of The Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun."
Kobela, a resident of Bautzen, is the primary songwriter for the band Crying Blue, which performs original songs in German and Sorb. He was surprised to be described as, "active in the Sorb community," saying that the younger generation of Sorbs are, with few exceptions, "very aware of their language and culture." Significantly, he also noted that the minority population is freely accepted within the culture of modern-day Germany and the Czech Republic. The young Sorbs also seem to have escaped the sad predicament faced by members of other minority groups in Europe, especially Romani minorities, whose troubles appear to be far from over.
So what is the secret of the Sorbs' success? Is it the similarity of their language to other Slavic tongues or their diligent dedication to preserving their culture? Maybe it is related to the land that they call home; the gateway to the Lusatians is an area of astounding physical beauty and relative affluence. The Hermit Wernar was known to stand beside the road outside Varnsdorf, warning traveling merchants of marauding knights in the area. Present-day Sorbs carry on Werner's mission by demonstrating to all of Europe the various benefits of blending national pride with tolerance.
Micah Jayne, 28 July 1999
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