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Ancestral roots

July 10, 2010

A group of Texan visitors, descendants of the Slavic minority, the Sorbs, recently traveled through eastern Germany in an attempt to see for themselves where their ancestors come from.

Weigersdorf church
The Weigersdorf church offered the visitors an insight into the history of the Lutheran SorbsImage: DW/Streicher

Bob Boyce, a retired pastor from Texas, recently organized a bus tour through eastern Germany for his fellow Americans from the southern US state.

It was no ordinary journey. The trip took the group across the Lausitz region - Lusatia in English - about 150 kilometers southeast of Berlin. It's home to the Sorbs, a 60,000-strong Slavic minority.

For the Americans, many of them Sorbs themselves, the tour was a way of getting in touch with their roots.

"If this is your first trip, you're taking a look at the ancestor homeland," Bob Boyce, seated in front of the bus, announced to his fellow travelers.

For many who took the tour, it was an emotional experience.

"My maternal grandparents came from here," 88-year-old Arnold Mathias said as he had himself photographed in front of a sign saying "Dauben," a small village in the area.

A woman looking out of a bus window
A glimpse of the famous blue Lusatia mountainsImage: DW/Streicher

Lusatia, where the city of Bautzen is located, has been the home of the Sorbs - or Wends as they're also known - for about 1, 000 years.

The minority has kept its culture alive, celebrating festivals with colorful processions in ethnic costumes. The street signs in the region are both in German and in Sorbian - a language related to Polish and Czech - so Bautzen is Budysin in Sorbian.

Immigration all over the world

The Texans' search for their Sorb origins in eastern Germany is no mere coincidence.

In the 19th century, Sorbs migrated to other parts of the world setting up the largest Sorb colony in Texas. In 1854, about 600 people emigrated from Bautzen to America not just in search of a better life, but in order to keep their conservative Lutheran faith since two churches in the then Prussia were to be unionized by the king at that time.

The immigrants followed a pastor named Jan Killian who was the founder of the village church of Weigersdorf near Bautzen. They tried to cross the ocean on a ship from Liverpool, but weren't too lucky. An outbreak of cholera forced the ship to stop over in Ireland and an estimated 81 Sorbs died during the journey.

The survivors however built a town in Texas called Serbin and now it's their great-great-great-grandchildren who have made their way back to the home of their ancestors.

Nostalgia and pride

Bob Boyce and his
Bob Boyce and his "Wendish girl" Georgie BoyceImage: DW/Streicher

"I love it partly because it feeds a nostalgic kind of spirit within me," Walter Dube said. A passionate photographer, Dube said he was very impressed by the pastoral landscape of Lusatia.

He dug deep into his family history and found out that his great-great-great grandfather must have died somewhere on the journey to Texas, but that his great-great-great grandmother made her way to the new world together with eight children. Now Dube has returned to pay tribute to them.

The group said it was overwhelmed by the warm welcome they received in the area, with the present day pastor of Weigersdorf church giving them a brief insight into the history of the Lutheran Sorbs.

"I like it because it makes my wife very happy to be here in the land of her ancestors," Bob Boyce said. The former pastor has visited the area several times and established strong friendships with the locals.

Boyce himself has no Sorbian link, but says his wife Georgie is "pure Wendish." Like many of the American visitors, Georgie Boyce is very proud of her ancestral heritage and is well-versed with the details of her family history.

Preserving Sorbian culture

However, the American visitors' interest in their roots doesn't only bring them in touch with their ancestors' history, but also puts a spotlight on the situation of the Sorbs in Lusatia.

There is even a Wendish museum showcasing Sorb culture and customs in Texas. And in fall this year, visitors of the 22nd Wendish Fest in Serbin, Texas, will be able to find out more about Sorb traditions such as quilting or Sauerkraut-making,

That way, the descendants of the immigrants today also help to preserve Sorb culture.

"There is a Wendish poem that expresses their homesickness for the blue mountains of their homeland", Vivian Taylor, another Texan visitor, said in the bus as the Lusatia mountains passed by outside the window. Like her, other descendants of the Sorbs are likely to trace their roots in this south eastern corner of Germany.

Author: Annette Streicher
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar

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