Have you heard of the Sorbs or Wends?
Who are they? What is unique about these people? How do they celebrate Easter? What is special about Sorbian (Wendish) Easter eggs?
This story introduces you to the Sorbs (or Wends), their language and culture. It focuses on their Easter customs and traditions, especially colouring and decorating Easter eggs. To conclude, I reveal my connection to this people group.
Who are the Sorbs or Wends?
The Sorbs or Wends are a minority group of Slavic people who, since the 7th century AD, have lived in Lusatia, a region in eastern Germany near the border with Poland and the Czech Republic.
Sorbs and Wends are equivalent names. Today, German-speaking people use “Sorb” (from the Sorbian Serbja and Serby) to describe this people group, but the older name “Wend” is generally used in English-speaking countries where the Wends have settled, including Australia, Canada, South Africa and the USA.
My forefathers on the Proposch side of my family were Sorbs (Wends). They lived in and around Cottbus. Cottbus is the second-largest city in the German State of Brandenburg. It’s 130 kilometres or about 1½ hours by car or train south of Berlin.
In January last year my husband and I visited Cottbus, as I wanted to see where my Proposch predecessors came from and find out more about them. (I wrote about this in a previous story Snow Angels in Cottbus.) My family tree can be traced back to Martin Proposch, who was born in the village of Sielow, near Cottbus, in 1714. He died at Sielow in 1781. The first mention of the name “Proposch” is found in records from this region dating from 1631.
The German cities of Bautzen and Cottbus are the main centres for the Upper Sorbs (Bautzen) and the Lower Sorbs (Cottbus) living in Germany today. There are no Sorbs in other parts of Europe. The Sorbs are not the same as the Serbs (of Serbia).
A large number of Sorbs (Wends) left Germany in the mid-1800s. Why? There are several likely reasons. First, in the 1840s there were crop failures, and famine, especially in 1845 and 1846. This was a major setback, given that agriculture and stock breeding were the economic basis of Sorbian (Wendish) society. Their major crops were rye, barley, millet, oats and flax. In fact, flax was the foundation of their textile production which continued until the middle of the 20th century. Second, many Sorbs (Wends) were seeking a better life, after years of political oppression and suppression of their language and culture in schools, churches and the public sector. They wanted freedom to maintain their language and culture and practice their religion. Third, many sought a peaceful existence, far from the warfare that plagued much of Europe at the time.
The greatest number of Sorbs (Wends) emigrated to Texas (USA). In Australia, the Wends settled alongside German immigrants, mostly in South Australia. Because the Wends spoke German, eventually they stopped using the Sorbian/Wendish language, because their German neighbours couldn’t speak Sorbian/Wendish. Not surprisingly, most Australians thought they were Germans.
What is unique about the Sorbs (Wends)?
In Germany today, many Sorbs still speak their native language (Serby). There are two main Sorbian languages: Upper Sorbian based on the dialect around Bautzen in Upper Lusatia and Lower Sorbian based on the dialect around Cottbus in Lower Lusatia. The bilingual signs (in German and Lower Sorbian) were one of the first things my husband and I noticed on our arrival at Cottbus (Chóśebuz). Lower Sorbian is still the first language spoken by many of the Sorbs who live in the villages in and around Cottbus. It is estimated that as many as 30,000 people still speak Lower Sorbian. In Cottbus, we were told, there is a school that teaches the Lower Sorbian language by immersion.
The Lower Sorbian language is closely related to Polish and Czech. In fact, my husband Tony, who was born in Croatia and speaks Serbo-Croatian, could read and speak some of the language and communicate with the local Sorbs, much to my surprise. I was a bit miffed. “It isn’t fair,” I thought. “After all, these are my people, not his!” Actually, all of the Sorbs who live in Germany have to speak German as well. The German language is used for all official business.
In 1991, the Federal Government of Germany and the governments of the Free State of Saxony and the State of Brandenburg formed the Foundation for the Sorbian People. The foundation aims to conserve and develop Sorbian languages and culture, and promote important Sorbian institutions and projects.
Our stopover in Cottbus included visits to two local museums and a Protestant church in the village of Dissen. At each museum we spent a couple of hours viewing and photographing the many exhibits. At the Wendish Museum (Serbski muzej) in Cottbus, we even had a private meeting with the curator, who answered questions about the Proposch family.
At Dissen (about 10 kilometres from Cottbus) we explored the local history museum, located in a former school building built in 1899. The museum features the life and work of the Sorbs of Lower Lusatia over the centuries.
The highlight of our visit to Dissen was a conducted tour of the village church, next door to the museum. Here, we were told, church services are conducted in two languages – Lower Sorbian and German – the only church of its kind in Germany today. This is the church where my great-great-great-grandparents worshipped! Like most of the villagers at the time, they were devoted Protestant Christians. The first evangelical preacher is recorded coming to Dissen (Dešno) in 1570.
One distinguishing feature of the Sorbs of Lower Lusatia is their traditional dress. It is an important symbol of their national identity. We saw examples of their many different costumes at the museums in Cottbus and Dissen. The most noticeable (and surprising) aspect of the Lower Lusatian traditional dress is the large, horned headdress worn by the women. Apparently, the way the women’s headscarf is tied (and there are eight different ways) enables their parish to be identified.
Even today, women and girls in Lower Lusatia still have the colourful festive costumes and wear them in public on special occasions. Unfortunately, the everyday dress of the Sorbs has nearly disappeared. Originally there were about 60 different dress codes, each one for a specific occasion.
Girls wore bright red skirts, although red was not allowed in church or the cemetery. Here, green (the colour worn by married women) had to be worn. Women also wore ruby, blue or violet. Elderly women wore brown. Black was the colour of festivities, such as weddings or Christmas, while white was the symbol of mourning. When the women worked in the field they wore wooden shoes and knee-length dresses.
The Sorbs (Wends) are known for their folk art, craftsmanship, fine art, literature and music. The Sorbian folk culture has always been a very significant link between the German and Sorbian people. One example is the Sorbian (Wendish) tradition of colouring and decorating Easter eggs, which is popular amongst German people as well. In the two museums we visited, we saw examples of Sorbian (Wendish) needlework, painting, books, musical instruments, ceramics, woodwork and textiles.
The Sorbs (Wends) used to make their own linen cloth. They grew flax and spun it to make linen thread. The spinning room in each village functioned as the place where Sorbian (Wendish) customs and traditions were passed from one generation to another.
It was in the spinning room that young people learnt the old Sorbian (Wendish) folksongs and proverbs. Here is an example of an old Sorbian proverb (in Lower Sorbian, German and English).
“Gaž muzika zagrajo, towzynt ból nam zažyjo.”
“Wenn die Musik aufspielt, vergehen tausend Schmerzen.”
“When the music plays, pain disappears.”
How do the Sorbs (or Wends) celebrate Easter?
In Germany today the Sorbs continue to practise their distinctive customs and traditions. Many Sorbian (Wendish) customs and traditions are pre-Christian in origin, but take place in conjunction with Christian festivals and holidays, such as Easter and Christmas.
The Lower Sorbs have a number of customs associated with Easter (Jatšy). At midnight on Easter Saturday the inhabitants of more than 100 villages of Lower Lusatia light huge bonfires, which are visible to everybody far and wide. The bigger the fire, the better. On Easter Eve or the early hours of Easter Day, some women and girls still go and collect Easterwater (Jatšowna wóda). The belief is that whoever washes in it gains everlasting beauty. Yet another custom is the children’s game, Waleien (Walkowanje), in which decorated eggs are rolled down a slope. It’s a competition, and lots of fun.
The most popular Easter customs of the Lower Sorbs are associated with Easter eggs. The giving of decorated eggs at the beginning of Spring (which often coincides with Easter) is a very old and widespread custom in the northern hemisphere, not only in Lower Lusatia. For pagans, the egg symbolizes the rebirth of nature at the end of Winter. For Christians, however, the egg symbolizes new life, demonstrated in the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day after his crucifixion (“Easter Day”). Last year, in my story Easter in Germany: Bavaria (March 18, 2016), I included a description of how Christians in Bavaria colour and decorate their Easter eggs.
What is special about Sorbian (Wendish) Easter eggs?
From about 1700 the Sorbs (Wends) have been colouring and decorating Easter eggs. They prepare these beautiful works of art throughout the year, to give to family members at Easter or to sell to the general public at Easter markets in the weeks leading up to Easter.
This is the Sorbian (Wendish) tradition of egg-giving at Easter: On Easter Sunday, children visit their godparents, who give them two or three traditionally decorated Easter eggs, a bread roll, gingerbread, lollies and some money. Once a child turns 12, the child thanks his or her godparents for the years of Easter gift-giving by giving them a present instead. It is said this custom knits together family and friends more closely than any other.
Sorbian (Wendish) Easter eggs may be prepared using any one of four different techniques.
1. Wax technique (Woskowane jajka / Wachstechnik)
This is the oldest and most popular method. Hot wax is applied in patterns on a clean cooked egg or egg shell with specially shaped quills or pin heads. The cold wax protects the shell from the coloured dye-bath. When the egg shell is dry, the process can be repeated. Finally, the wax is removed (by heating) and the pattern on the egg is revealed.
2. Scratch technique (Škrabane jajka / Kratztechnik)
The egg is dyed first, then a sharp object is used to scratch the pattern on the egg shell. This method requires a very steady hand. The example shown is in the style of Blaudruck (“Blue print”), a fabric printing technique unique to this part of Germany.
3. Etching (Wužrawane jajka / Ätztechnik)
Acid (e.g. diluted hydrochloric acid) is applied by a nib on the dyed egg shell, to make the patterns. The egg must be wiped very carefully to remove the colour.
4. Wax bossier technique (Wachsbossieren)
This is similar to the wax technique, but coloured hot wax is applied to a white or lightly-dyed egg and left to dry. This method is not used often today.
So, what is my connection with the Sorbs (Wends)?
I am a member of the sixth generation of Proposch Wends who came to Australia from Lower Lusatia in the 1850s.
George Proposch (1799-1877), a grandson of Martin Proposch, was my great-great-great-grandfather. George was born at Dissen, near Cottbus. At 54 he migrated to Australia, along with his second wife Anna (nee Koal) and two of his children from his first marriage. They were among 50 or so Wendish migrants from Babow near Cottbus who came to Australia in 1854. They boarded the Malwina Vidal at Hamburg on 10 June 1854 and arrived in Melbourne on 5 October 1854 (nearly 4 months later). They proceeded to Adelaide, South Australia, and settled there. They were all sincerely pious Christians – Lutherans. George was a farmer, and I am told that he had to be reasonably well-off to be able to afford the trip to Australia. George died in 1877, at Robertson, South Australia.
During our visit to Germany in 2016, my husband and I visited The Emigration Museum, Ballinstadt (Hamburg) and obtained records of George Proposch and his family’s departure from Germany in 1854.
Christian Proposch was my great-great-grandfather. Christian, George’s eldest son from his first marriage, was one of the migrants. He was born at Babow in 1833 and was 21 years old when he left Germany. Soon after arriving in Australia, in 1854, Christian married Elizabeth Borrack, whose family also travelled to Australia on the Malwina Vidal. They had 11 children. Christian and Elizabeth were sincere and devoted Christians. In fact, Christian was one of the founders of the Lutheran congregation which met at Peters Hill (South Australia) from mid-1856. The Wendish (Lower Sorbian) language, as well as German, was used in their church services.
Christian and Elizabeth and family lived in South Australia until 1880. After that they moved to Dimboola in northwest Victoria where they resided for several years. Later, Christian and Elizabeth and some of their family moved to Melbourne, where they lived until their deaths in 1894 and 1903 respectively. They are buried in Melbourne’s Coburg cemetery.
Wilhelm (“William”) Proposch, my great-grandfather, was Christian’s and Elizabeth’s 4th child. Wilhelm was born in 1861 at Peter’s Hill, South Australia. He married Emily Geach in 1883, and they had 8 children. The first three were born in Dimboola, the other five in Melbourne. Wilhelm died in 1940 at Preston, Victoria.
My grandfather, William Charles (“Charles”) Proposch, their 3rd child, was born in Dimboola in 1888. Charles married Elsie Antonia Lowe in 1914 at Melbourne, Victoria. The couple settled in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs and had three sons. Charles died in 1975, aged 86 years; Elsie died in 1963, aged 71. Elsie, my grandmother, and her little black diary, inspired the title of my blog (“Love in a little black diary”). Read about Elsie and her love for her sons in my blog’s feature story: A mother’s love.
I got to know my grandfather in his later years. He was in his mid-70s when he stayed with my family in Rockhampton for 2-3 months on two occasions in the 1960s. In appearance Granddad was small in stature, fair and totally bald. My father told me that Granddad shaved his head from an early age. Granddad always wore a hat outside. He often wore a suit, shirt and tie. His dress was always immaculate.
Granddad Proposch was a serious person, upright and proper in all he said and did. I don’t remember him ever making a joke. But he liked to play games – cards and chess. He taught me how to play chess. By profession, he was a commercial artist, and I remember him helping me with my Year 8 and 9 artwork (especially painting and drawing). He was very patient and had a keen eye for detail. Sadly though, as far as I am aware, Granddad did not share his predecessors’ strong Christian faith.
My father, William Edwin (“Bill”) Proposch (1918-1999), was Charles’ and Elsie’s second son. He married Evelyn Maud Beaumont in March 1945 and after World War II and Bill’s discharge from the army, they settled at Rockhampton in Queensland. Evelyn, my mother, outlived my father by 12 years. She died at Brisbane in 2011, aged 95 years. I have written previously about my father in A Mother’s Love and my mother in My mother, a young woman and A precious death.
When my mother came to live with me and my husband in 2003, Granddad’s paintings came with her. They had been passed down from Granddad to my father and, following my mother’s death, they were passed on to me. I have six of Granddad’s oil paintings, all of which he painted in the 1940s. The autumn scene pictured below, dated 1946, is my favourite. I am so grateful to possess these works of art, as they are constant reminders of Granddad Proposch, his God-given gift and our Wendish heritage.
Proposch, Alfred (Alf), of Oakey, Queensland, Australia. Undated. The Family Name Proposch. The Wends. Unpublished notes.
Stock, Milena & Sieg, Sabine. (Editors). Dolnoserbske nałogi. Customs and Traditions of the Sorbs in Lower Lusatia. Brochure. Załožba za serbski lud. Serbska kulturna informacija LODKA, 2008. (Foundation for the Sorbian people. Cultural Information Centre LODKA, 2008.)
Stock, Milena. (Editor). Serby – Serbja. Sorbs / Wends. Brochure. Załožba za serbski lud. Serbska kulturna informacija LODKA, 2011. (Foundation for the Sorbian people. Cultural Information Centre LODKA, 2011.)
Ostern bei den Sorben. Jutry w Serbach. Brochure. Stiftung für das sorbische Volk – Załožba za serbski lud. (Foundation for the Sorbian people). 2012.
FOR FURTHER READING
Texas Wendish Heritage (Witajcže K’nam). http://texaswendish.org/
Wendish Heritage Society Australia. http://www.wendishheritage.org.au/research/who-are-the-wends/