The Sorbs: a Slavic minority in Germany

Image taken from Wikimedia Commons

Image taken from Wikimedia Commons

Over the Easter weekend many of us will embrace traditional British Easter customs such as eating hot cross buns on Good Friday and simnel cake on Easter Sunday, in addition to the less traditional custom of buying and eating chocolate eggs. Thinking about Easter traditions reminds me of the very different Easter customs of the Sorbs which I had the opportunity to see first-hand in East Germany during the 1980s:

Photo taken by Katharine Dicks, Bautzen, Easter 1986

Photo taken by Katharine Dicks, Bautzen, Easter 1986

  • Egg decorating, a tradition common across many Slavonic countries, generally using dyes and wax to produce colourful and often intricate designs. According to Gerald Stone (The smallest Slavonic nation: the Sorbs of Lusatia) “among the Sorbs it has acquired a special significance and is still one of the most popular and highly developed forms of folk-art”


  • The Easter ride which takes place on Easter Sunday in villages in the Catholic community and involves processing on horseback from one village to the next. The horses are decorated and the riders wear frock coats and top hats and carry church banners

Photo taken by Katharine Dicks, Panschwitz-Kuckau, Easter 1986

The Sorbs of Germany (also sometimes referred to as Wends or Lusatians) are descendants of tribes which settled in the 6th century in a wider area of what is now eastern Germany. At different times in history the area was subject to Germanization and numbers of Sorbs reduced. Today those remaining live in an area known as Lusatia (spread across the states of Saxony and Brandenburg), south-east of Berlin, bordered to the east by Poland and to the south by the Czech Republic. Around 40000 Sorbs live in the south of the region, Upper Lusatia, and speak Upper Sorbian while to the north in Lower Lusatia, about 20000 Sorbs remain who speak Lower Sorbian. There is some debate as to whether the two languages are distinct or merely dialect forms of one, Sorbian, language but both are closely related to Polish and Czech.

The Reformation was a significant time for the development of the Sorbian language as the drive to have religious texts in the vernacular led to translations of the Bible into Sorbian as well as other Christian works. In 1548 the first translation of the New Testament into Lower Sorbian by Miklawus Jakubica appeared in manuscript form. The Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin holds a copy which is available to view online at World Digital Library; the UL has a non-facsimile edition from 1967 (779.c.94.43). 1574 saw the first printed book in Lower Sorbian: Albin Moller’s Gesangbuch und Katechismus (1959 facsimile edition at 779.c.94.17). This was followed in 1595 by the first printed book in Upper Sorbian: Wenceslas Warichius’ translation of Der kleine Katechismus by Luther, with parallel German and Sorbian text.   The UL has a facsimile edition of this contained within Die ältesten Drucke des Obersorbischen (777.c.200.139).

Page from Frencel's New Testament (BSS.234.D06 )

Page from Frencel’s New Testament (BSS.234.D06 )

Despite discrimination against the Sorbian language such as the order by Friedrich Wilhelm von Brandenburg in 1667 to destroy all Sorbian printed items, significant works continued to be produced. In 1706 Michal Frencel’s complete New Testament in Upper Sorbian (with German alongside) was published. Frencel had been working on this for some time and the work was published shortly after his death by his son Abraham. A complete version of the Bible in Upper Sorbian was produced in 1728, incorporating Frencel’s New Testament. We are fortunate to have Bible Society copies of both these works (BSS.234.D06 and BSS.234.D28).

Title page of the 1728 Upper Sorbian bible (BSS.234.D28)

Title page of the 1728 Upper Sorbian bible (BSS.234.D28)

During the early 19th century bans on the use of the Sorbian language increased and were a factor in the emigration of some Sorbs to Texas and Australia (there continue to this day to be small communities in these places of Wends, as they prefer to call themselves). As nationalism swept across Europe, the Sorbian national identity grew and helped to develop a national literature. The poet Handrij Zejler, considered by some to be the “father” of Sorbian literature, was a major writer in Upper Sorbian and his importance is reflected today in a recently initiated prize bearing his name and awarded by the Sächsische Staatsministerium für Wissenschaft und Kunst for outstanding contributions to the advancement of the Sorbian language.   The UL has an edition of Zejler’s collected works (758:83.d.95.64-69) and also holds works by other authors writing in Sorbian.

Sorbian national pride was also demonstrated by the publication of a bilingual book of folk-songs in 1841: Volkslieder der Sorben in der Ober- und Nieder-Lausitz (the UL has a 1953 facsimile edition at M758.b.95.1)

Although in a diminishing minority, Sorbs and their language and culture today appear to be in a relatively strong position. The Sorbian language is taught in many schools in the region and even some pre-school children are exposed to the language through the Witaj project. Sorbian continues to be taught at Leipzig University as it has been since the early 18th century. There is a daily Sorbian newspaper, Serbske Nowiny, and radio programmes in Sorbian are also available. The interests of the Sorbian people are represented by an organisation called the Domowina and the Serbski Institut, founded in the 1950s, promotes research into the language, history and culture of the Sorbs.

To find out more about the Sorbs in Germany you may like to read Gerald Stone’s clear 1972 introduction, The smallest Slavonic nation: the Sorbs of Lusatia (573:8.c.95.12). More recent books of interest are Peter Barker’s Slavs in Germany: the Sorbian minority and the German state since 1945 (570:25.c.200.3) and a 1993 exhibition catalogue Die Sorben in Deutschland (1996.10.259).

Katharine Dicks

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