On a modest stretch of land in Germany's East Saxony and South Brandenburg regions, a tiny Slavonic nation continues to fight its corner for cultural recognition and "Sorb" survival.
Traditional costume is just one feature of the Sorb national identity
The Sorbs have been living around the banks of the rivers Elbe and Spree for about 1,500 years, and although they are divided into two major groups which differ decidedly in both language and customs, they have survived together as Germany’s only ethnic minority.
Throughout the centuries, the Sorbs with their heart-felt love for the country they live in have become rapidly germanised, and yet their resistance to full assimilation has ensured their continued survival as an ethnic minority.
In the city of Bautzen, 4,000 of the 43,000 inhabitants belong to Germany’s only national minority. Jurij Wuschansky from the Association of Sorbs and Sorbian Association Domowina says that people from other European minorities are particularly appreciative of the fact that Germans and Sorbs live together on equal terms.
On special occasions, young girls also wear their traditional dress
"They say, it’s great what you have achieved and how tolerant the Germans are to you. They envy and admire us," Wuschansky said. "We’re an exception in Europe apart from minorities in two areas in France. In our town hall, for example, all signs at public offices are in German and Sorbian."
The Sorb culture is also evident in the traditional costumes which are still a part of daily life for many elderly women in the region.
In the constitutions of the Free State of Saxony and the State of Brandenburg passed in 1992, the Sorbs’ right to the protection, preservation and promotion of their national identity and their language is guaranteed. On the initiative of Saxony’s former prime minister Kurt Biedenkopf, a `Foundation for the Sorbian Nation´ was set up in October 1991.
"The Sorbs were the original inhabitants of this territory. The protection of this minority is very important," Biedenkopf said. "First of all, because we believe in minority rights. Secondly, because they have played a very influential and important role in the development of this area in Germany. And thirdly, because we cherish the culture and traditions of this small minority as an important aspect of Saxon culture," Biedenkopf added.
But despite efforts to keep such things as costume and language alive, Leos Shatava from the Sorbian Institute in Bautzen says a good proportion of young Sorbs find it hard to relate to their own traditions amidst all the German influences.
"Today, in these times of big changes and market economy, many Sorbs have no time. They have trouble with such things as unemployment etc," Leos Shatava said.
The language factor
Although a large part of the cultural identity is rooted in the language, Sorbian teacher Alfons Frenzel from Upper Lusatia believes that pure language skills alone won’t work any miracles.
"We have to make Sorbian lessons more attractive. We have to develop new school programmes and motivate the pupils to view Sorbian as an important subject. Because we are like a bridge between German culture and Slav culture and traditions," Alfons Frenzel said.
A spring procession
In a bid to keep the assimilation process alive, the Sorbian language is also featured on special radio and television stations. "The temptation to assimilate has greatly increased with electronic media, with television and the so-called virtual world. It’s therefore more difficult than it used to be to maintain a minority identity," Biedenkopf said.
Typical Sorb Easter eggs, intricately hand-painted
All the more so against the background of efforts to create a common home in Europe, where, as Leos Shatava from the Sorbic Institute believes, the emphasis is very much on shared values rather than on differences.
"On the one hand you can speak about unification, centralisation and globalisation, but on the other hand, today’s world is still thinking about cultural differences. And people say we are richer if we have more languages, more cultures, more diversity in one world," Leos Shatava said
Shatava knows that the future of the Sorbs’ identity will stand or fall with today’s young generation, and it is for that reason that the region's elders will keep goading them into action.