A tiny minority fights extinction

The Sorbs - Germany's 'Amish'

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 minority.

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.

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 Sorbs.

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 region.

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.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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