Ada Abroad: Living and Working in Germany

An online journal recording two years spent as a Fulbright/Pedagogical Exchange Service Teaching Assistant at secondary schools in Germany. (2003-2004 I was in a village near Bautzen; 2004-2005 I will be in Nordrhein-Westfalen.)

Location: Münster, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany

I'm an American living in Germany, working as a foreign language assistant at a secondary school. Future plans: getting my Ph.D. (probably in Germanic Linguistics), becoming a professor, living an ethical and meaningful life.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

The Germans and the Sorbs

I am a teaching assistant in Germany. More specifically, I am a teaching assistant in a region of Germany that is called “Lusatia” in English. Lusatia has two other names. The German name is Lausitz—it rhymes with “How, Fritz?” And the original name is Luzica (pronounced “WOO-zhee-tsah”).

Luzica is Sorbian. Sorbian is the language of the Sorbs.

I will address a frequently-asked question right away: no, Sorbian is not a misspelling of Serbian, and the two languages have no more to do with each other than English and Icelandic. (Which is to say, they are only distantly related.)

The Sorbs are the original inhabitants of this part of Germany. They are a West Slavic people, like the Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks. This region was uninhabited when the Sorbs arrived here 1,500 years ago. It’s a swampy area, so they called it Luzica, “the swampland.” They established villages, fished, practiced subsistence agriculture, and pretty much happily went about their business, not bothering anybody, until Germanic tribes from Thuringia invaded around the year 1000.

And ever since then, the Germans have been calling the shots. The Sorbs were actually serfs until 1815(!) –the peasants tilling the flax fields were Sorbs, but the Lord of the Manor was always German. There has never been a Sorbian ruling class. The process of Germanization began back when those Thuringian tribes arrived but accelerated during the 20th century, first due to aggressive anti-Sorbian policies under the Nazis (among other things, they forbid schools and churches to use the language), then after the War when large numbers of refugees from the former German territories east of the Oder-Neisse line were resettled here. Virtually overnight, purely Sorbian villages became majority-German ones.

There are only about 70,000 Sorbs in Lusatia today. Fewer can actually speak the language. My village is theoretically in a bilingual area—the village has two names, and all of the street signs are in both Sorbian and German—but I’ve only actually heard Sorbian spoken in public here once: by an old couple in the grocery store. (Things are better for Sorbian in the Catholic villages west of here. There, some children still learn Sorbian as a first language and you can hear the language spoken on the street.)

Our school offers Sorbian as an elective. Of our 200 or so pupils, 2 take Sorbian lessons. That’s right: two. There are around a dozen students of Sorbian heritage, but the rest of them don’t want to stay after school to learn the language. They’d rather go home and play video games like their friends.

Despite the small number of Sorbs and the fact that their language is seriously endangered, the Germans still find the Sorbs threatening. They resent the fact that Sorbs tend to keep to themselves and don’t care for Germans (can you blame them, after what the Germans did to them for the past 1,000 years?) and that Sorbian schools are allowed to remain open with low enrollment while German schools are closed. (This is because if the Sorbian schools were closed their pupils would have to attend German schools, further imperiling the language.)

But mainly, I think that they resent the fact that the Sorbs were here first. The Germans in Lusatia consider it their homeland, and don`t like to be reminded that they aren´t actually indigenous to the area. Even if their grandparents were born in Lower Silesia.

A sample of local German attitudes toward the Sorbs:

-“They’re underhanded (hinterhältig).” This is what Germans say about people they don’t like. People from the Heath region (my area) say that the mountain-dwellers to the south are underhanded, and the mountain people swear that anyone who lives north of Bautzen is not to be trusted. Protestants will also tell you that all Catholics are underhanded (and the Catholics probably say the same thing about the Protestants, though I haven’t met enough of them to be sure--Catholics are a minority in this area.) –-I have yet to personally meet an underhanded Sorb, and though they probably exist, I doubt they’re in the majority. I have, however, gotten to know quite a few underhanded Germans! (See my previous entries for examples.)

-“They shouldn’t go around talking to their kids in Sorbian. This is a bilingual area. The children should learn German.” This comment is from my physical therapist, who was surprised to learn that one of her patients, a preschool child from a Catholic Sorbian family, speaks no German. -–He will learn German when he starts school, of course. All Sorbs learn German as a second language, and I have yet to meet an adult Sorb who was not fully competent in some variety of German. (Some older people have trouble with High German but they’re fine with the local dialect. This applies to older Germans, too.) But Germans who can speak Sorbian are rare as hen’s teeth. I have only met two, and both learned the language in order to work at bilingual schools. Funny how this “bilingual area” thing only seems to work one way…

-From a teacher at my school, who also works two days a week at the Sorbian secondary school in a nearby Catholic village: “They’re always speaking Sorbian in the teacher’s lounge, even when I’m there. I think that’s rude.” Another teacher pointed out to her, “Well, it is a Sorbian school.” (His father is a Sorb, so he has pro-Sorbian sympathies.) He then asked her why she doesn’t try to learn the language if she doesn’t like feeling excluded. She said that she can say “Good morning” and “good afternoon” and that’s enough for her!

-“It’s a dying language. Learning it is a waste of time.” From a teacher who has two Sorbian kids in her homeroom. They’re cousins, and while neither of them speaks Sorbian as a first language, they do use it with their grandparents. Both have dropped out of Sorbian lessons. Gee, I wonder why.

-And, finally, “They’re overbearing.” (Anyone who has had extensive contact with Germans will immediately see why this one is hilarious!)

The fact that I am learning Sorbian has caused some friction in our staff room. I take lessons from the Sorbian teacher twice a week during my free time. I don’t make a big production of this, although I do try to greet the Sorbian teacher with “Dobre ranje” instead of “Guten Morgen,” (both mean “good morning”) because he appreciates being addressed in his native language. But everyone knows I’m learning Sorbian, and some teachers resent it because it makes them look bad. Here I am, a foreigner who has been here for three and a half months, and I have taken the trouble to learn the minority language—-something that they, who have lived in this area for years, have never bothered to do. Essentially, my desire to learn Sorbian exposes their own laziness. And my interest in Sorbian means that in the Lusatian culture war, I have sided with the Sorbs.

Behind my back, the Germans probably say that this makes me “underhanded.”


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am goran Sorb or Serb from bosnia.surfing internet for luzicki srbi.There is very similar words donji,gornji, nmbr is 66454531.not shore for country totalk

5:22 PM  
Anonymous Muhammad said...

I'm black and I am proud of it. Sorbs were originally black and muslim, but got genetically assimilated with the irish-celtic and iberian-germanic groups. High levels of rape were recorded in the Mosque Rape Records before Jesus was even born. Every perputrator was of these origins or russian-slavo-ukrainioid-ruthenian-belarusian origin... We have been genetically and historically raped in our DNA... And so has our culture and religion... It's time to take it back my sorbian friend. I am a depigmented dna-molested muslim black sorbian, and I am proud to be it: Still alive and fighting for our historical origin rights to our beliefs and culture.

9:16 AM  

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