The Sorbs

Four officially recognized national minorities live in today’s Germany: the Danes, the Frisians, the German Sinti and Roma, and the Sorbs. They receive special protection and specific funding from the federal and state governments. According to information provided by the German Federal Ministry of the Interior, the federal government regards as national minorities those population groups who meet the following five criteria: they are German nationals; they differ from the majority population in having their own language, culture, and history and thus their own distinct identity; they wish to maintain this identity; they have traditionally resided in Germany (usually for centuries); they live in Germany within traditional settlement areas. While the Danes, Frisians and Sorbs are typically settled in certain geographically defined regions, German Sinti and Roma have customarily lived in almost all parts of Germany, generally in small groups. The fact that they have traditionally resided in Germany distinguishes the national minorities from immigrants, who have not customarily resided in Germany. Unlike Jewish groups in some other countries, Germany’s Jewish community does not consider itself a national minority, but a religious community.

Germany’s indigenous Slavic community, the Sorbs, have lived for centuries in Lusatia (the Lausitz), a region that is located between the German federal states of Saxony and Brandenburg. The region is the home of the ethnic population of Lusatian Sorbs, which was an officially recognized and protected minority group in the GDR. This community of some 60,000 people is comprised of descendants of the Slavic tribes who settled the Central German Uplands more than 1,400 years ago. However, fewer than half of these people are bilingual speakers of German and Sorbian. Their unique language can be observed on the bilingual road signs and signs of their unique culture can be observed throughout the Spreewald forest area, a UNESCO protected biosphere. In the stunning Spreewald thousands of manmade waterways cross picturesque meadows with houses that have stood untouched since before Germany became one nation in the nineteenth century. Just an hour southeast from Berlin, accessible by car or train, the Spreewald offers an ideal escape from city life. The two major Sorbian writers of the twentieth century, prose writer Jurij Brězan (b. 1916) and poet Kito Lorenc (b. 1938) are among the 45 authors presented in my book, GDR Literature During the Thaw (DDR-Literatur im Tauwetter). They both wrote and published their works in Sorbian and in German. In the remainder of this snapshot I will discuss some of the things I experienced and learned while visiting and interviewing them at their homes in Lusatia.

Jurij Brězan (b. 1916)

Jurij Brězan’s career as a freelance writer began in 1949, spanned the entire existence of the GDR (1949 to 1990), and continued beyond German reunification until his death in 2006. As I was beginning work on the above-mentioned book in the fall of 1975, functionaries at the GDR Writers’ Union in Berlin proposed that I add Brězan’s name to the list of authors I was planning to include in my study of East German literature in the 1970s. They asserted, and they were right, that Brězan would add an important dimension to my work since he published his works bilingually, usually writing the Sorbian version first and soon thereafter a German version. But they were primarily interested in promoting the Sorbian author because he was a staunch communist and SED Party loyalist as well as a vice president of the Writers’ Union, a position he held from 1969 to 1989.

The Germanist, Dr. Peter Barker, in his article on Brězan’s autobiographical writings, observes that he “was known above all for his novels, a genre which before 1945 hardly existed in Sorbian literature. Despite his view that his most important task was the protection of the Sorbian language and identity, he was a significant literary figure at national level in the GDR. His two major autobiographical works, Mein Stück Zeit [My Piece of Time] (1989) and Ohne Pass und Zoll [Without Passport and Customs] (1999), illustrate the dilemmas of a socialist writer caught between politics and writing in the GDR who in the end gave up his belief in the power of literature to have a direct influence on politics.” (“Rewriting My Life and Work: Jurij Brězan’s Autobiographical Writings.” In “The Self in Transition.” German Monitor 1, 2012: 199.) Note that both of his autobiographical works have only appeared in German.

In post-WW II Germany Brězan lived in Bautzen, a hill-top town in eastern Saxony with a rich history. Bautzen is the most important cultural center of the Sorbian minority, which constitutes about ten percent of that city’s population. It has a very compact, well-preserved medieval town center with numerous churches and towers and a city wall on the steep embankment to the river Spree. Bautzen was infamous throughout East Germany for its two penitentiaries. “Bautzen I” was used as an official prison; it was nicknamed “Gelbes Elend” (Yellow Misery) due to the color of its exterior, whereas the more secretive “Bautzen II” was used as a facility to hold political prisoners, dissidents, and prisoners of conscience. Bautzen II, which like Bautzen I was operated by the GDR’s Ministry for State Security, has served as an open memorial since 1993 and is accessible to the public. A permanent exhibition depicts the misery suffered by its occupants; visitors may tour detention cells, the isolation area and the yards where prisoners were allowed to exercise.

On March 28, 1976, I drove from Berlin to Bautzen and from there proceeded on to Brězan’s house in Dreihäuser, a tiny hamlet in the municipality of Räckelwitz, which is located about 15 kilometers northwest of Bautzen. The Sorbian-German author was waiting for me, appearing eager to hear more about my project and contribute to it. After we exchanged greetings, he guided me into his comfortable study, which was decorated with Sorbian folk art and cultural artifacts of various sorts that had been produced by Sorbs. There we spent the next few hours chatting and taking care of business. With most of the East German writers I interviewed, I was able to establish good rapport as we discussed the nature and purpose of my undertaking. However, this was decidedly not the case with Brězan. His bearing was guarded, distant and somewhat aloof, so I was unable to “connect” with him in the way I had with most of his colleagues. Through his involvement with the Writers’ Union, he probably had learned much more about my activities than most GDR authors, and he may have disapproved of some things I was doing. The questions he asked me reflected his wariness and revealed that he had certain reservations about my project, first and foremost regarding the writers I had selected and invited to participate. That being said, I should also report that he was not unfriendly in any way; our conversation was cordial and our meeting was enjoyable. The taped interview went smoothly from beginning to end. The transcribed version of it is in volume 3 of my book, DDR-Literatur im Tauwetter.

An unofficial collaborator’s report in my Stasi-file provides additional insight into my admittedly negative perception of Brězan. The collaborator, whose alias is IMV “Julia,” had been assigned to gather my views on certain GDR writers. In her tape-recorded report dated June 6, 1978, which focuses on our dinner meeting the previous day in the restaurant of Hotel Berolina, she states: “We talked about the quality of the GDR writers’ works, also about how he had been received by these persons here in the GDR. Zipser asserted upfront that all writers are very egotistical and to some extent egocentric, but said he had grown accustomed to that. He made very derogatory remarks about Jurij Brězan. His writings are, in Zipser’s opinion, mundane. He says that Brězan regularly makes use of our national minority issues in a distasteful way to promote himself. From a telephone conversation I had with Zipser on 6/5/1978, it was apparent that he must have spent this day with Brězan, since he mentioned that he had just returned from Lusatia.” I had indeed visited with Brězan for a few hours that afternoon, in order to finalize the interview we had done in 1976 and get his authorization to publish it and various other materials.

Jurij Brězan is without question the most prolific, most prominent, and most praised Sorbian writer of the twentieth century. Dedicated throughout his literary career to the survival of the Sorbian language and culture, he is recognized as the most influential and outspoken advocate for the Sorbian people, their culture and literature. Not all of his works deal with Sorbian matters, but the most prominent theme in his writings is Sorbian identity, how the identity of a small ethnic group of people indigenous to Germany has been preserved, cultivated, and threatened throughout their history. Perhaps because of this narrow focus, he was unable during his lifetime to develop a significant readership outside the borders of the GDR, where his books were published in large editions and marketed aggressively. Brězan is a Sorbian storyteller first and foremost, even though he also wrote and published in German, and that is his singular legacy.

Kito Lorenc (b. 1938)

Kito Lorenc belongs to the “middle generation” of East German writers, those born between the mid-1920s and late 1930s, who started writing after WW II. It is with this group of writers that one generally dates the beginning of East German literature per se, for this literary generation was the first to be shaped, wholly or at least decisively, by the conditions of a socialist society within a divided Germany. Lorenc, the son of a Sorbian lumber merchant, was born in Schleife, Lusatia. In his youth and as a young man he was engaged in learning about various aspects of his Sorbian heritage, including their culture, history, customs, and language. From 1952-1956 he attended a Sorbian boarding school in Cottbus, and after graduation he majored in Slavistics at the university in Leipzig. From 1961-1972 he worked at the Institute for Sorbian Ethnic Studies in Bautzen, then as a dramaturge with the State Ensemble for Sorbian Folk Culture. In the early 1970s, Kito moved with his family to the tiny Lusatian village of Wuischke am Czorneboh, located in eastern Saxony, and became a freelance writer.

Lorenc, his wife Elke and their children lived on what once had been a farm located in an idyllic rural setting in the Lusatian countryside. The main farmhouse and other buildings had been purchased by a group of poets who were friends—Adolf Endler and Elke Erb from Berlin, who were married at the time; they occupied a historic mill which they used for summer vacations and weekend retreats. Lorenc and his family lived in their farmhouse throughout the year. Heinz Czechowski, the Halle poet, had acquired an adjacent dwelling, a traditional Lusatian country house (Umgebindehaus) that he and his then partner were in the process of restoring. In this close-knit community located in the middle of nowhere, these writers were able to take refuge and shield themselves from the stifling socialist cultural industry that thrived in larger East German cities.

Peter Barker, in a short piece he wrote about Kito Lorenc after the writer’s death in 2017, recalls first meeting Kito in Leipzig in 1990, also getting together with him in Wales during the 1990s when the Lorenc family came to the Welsh coast in the summertime. Kito would rent a cottage in a bilingual area and also visit with the Barkers in their Welsh cottage. As Barker recalls, “He was fascinated to experience directly an area, where the minority language had been able to grow significantly, over the whole of Wales to over half a million mother-tongue speakers in the census of 2001, about 20% of the population, with only the border area with England, the Welsh Marches, and parts of South Wales remaining for the large part monolingual.” (“Memories of Kito Lorenc,” The Wendish Research Exchange 3, 2018: 1.)  

From that time on, Barker “visited Kito and his family in his rural paradise of Wuischke and watched with great interest his advocacy on minority cultures and writers exploiting the productive possibilities of bilingualism in its relationship with the majority language. His play Die wendische Schiffahrt [The Wendish Cruise], which was premiered in Bautzen in 1994, is suffused with water images, which emphasize the possibilities of fluidity, whereby both cultures can reach the ‘Neuwasser’ [hybrid water] of mutual cross-enrichment. Implicit here is a critique of forms of nationalism, which seek to create barriers between cultures, a view, which was not uncontroversial in the Sorbian context. But he argued that linguistic exclusiveness was no longer possible, and the bilingual writer has here a great advantage, able to exploit the frontiers between the two languages.” (Ibid., 1)

In the conclusion to this splendid tribute to his friend, Barker tells us he will “miss Kito’s somewhat wicked humour and his intense interest in language and the relationship between different cultures and languages.” He mentions that Lorenc received an Honorary PhD degree at the University of Dresden in 2008, “which represented well-deserved recognition of his great achievements as a bilingual poet and his immense contribution to the study of language, in particular in relation to Sorbian.” (Ibid., 2)

While on a research visit to the Humboldt University Berlin, I arranged to meet with Kito Lorenc on June 3, 1978, at his home in Wuischke am Czorneboh. I drove to Wuischke from Berlin and without difficulty found the remote farmhouse that was the Lorenc family’s permanent residence. The purpose of my visit was to gather materials from him for my book on GDR writing and writers in the 1970s, DDR-Literatur im Tauwetter, as well as texts for another book project, an anthology of contemporary East German poetry. Lorenc greeted me warmly when I arrived and immediately invited me to stay overnight in his house, which I was delighted to do. This gave me an opportunity to have lengthy discussions with him and the poet Adolf Endler, his neighbor, about problems associated with the 8th GDR Writers Congress that had just concluded in Berlin and the recent developments in the GDR literary scene. Before continuing, let me say for the record that Kito was a marvelous host, who did everything possible to make my visit a memorable one.

In my Stasi-file there is a one-page report on my visit with Kito Lorenc, his wife Elke, and Adolf Endler on June 3 and 4, 1978. The report was prepared in the nearby city of Bautzen and then sent to secret police headquarters in Dresden, and forwarded from there to the Ministry for State Security (MfSS) in Berlin. It is based on information provided by an anonymous unofficial source—i.e., an unidentified informant. The date, June 27, 1978 is stamped onto the report, along with the following information: MfSS/DR 32, 3422, Main Department XX. It is particularly interesting to see that there is no reference to Lorenc’s wife Elke in the report, which appears in its entirety below.

Regional Headquarters for Bautzen, 06/26/19781
State Security Dresden Reh/Thr
County Authority Bautzen Binder-No.: 2332/78
Ministry for State Security
Main Department XX
Comrade Generalmajor Kienberg

B e r l i n

via Regional Headquarters Dresden – Division XX

Visitation of the American Germanist Z i p s e r with the Sorbian lyric
poet L o r e n c, Kito und the translator E n d l e r, Adolf

Unofficially, it became known that the American Germanist Zipser
spent time visiting the Sorbian lyric poet Lorenc, Kito in 8601
Wuischke, Bautzen County. Zipser was seeking contributions from
Lorenc for a GDR poetry anthology as well as for another book on the
topic of GDR literature, which is supposed to be about 1,000 pages in
length. For this purpose he plans to interview 40 prose writers and
poets from the GDR; he will present these interviews together with a
short biography and a picture of each writer as well as some poems.
or short prose works by each

Zipser stayed overnight at Lorenc’s place and engaged in a longer
conversation with the translator Endler, Adolf in his dwelling, also
located in Wuischke. It was not possible to gather any information
regarding the content of their conversation.

The discussions between Lorenc and Zipser focused on, among other
things, problems associated with the Writers Congress as well as with
the development of GDR literature. Zipser was very cautious during
this process and noncommittal in his comments. His conduct was
characterized by constant self-control and impartiality. Zipser
confirmed that he would get back in touch with Lorenc and also with
Endler in due course. A fixed date was not set. Nothing was learned
about Zipser’s further travel destinations.

Director of the County Authority


On behalf ofKubel

I made two more trips to Wuischke in the month of June, and each time the poet Elke Erb and her young son Konrad accompanied me. The purpose of these trips was to gather materials for the two book projects I mentioned earlier from Heinz Czechowski, Kito Lorenc, Adolf Endler and Elke Erb. I enjoyed being in the company of such a talented group of writers and learned a great deal from them about East German poetry and how poets managed to survive financially in the GDR, where their works were usually published in small editions. We had fascinating conversations on these and other topics, including politics and aspects of life in America.

I would like to conclude my piece on the Sorbs by focusing briefly on the relative importance of Jurij Brězan and Kito Lorenc as bilingual Sorbian/German writers, and again I am relying on Peter Barker to provide us with his knowledgeable perspective on this matter. In a letter to me dated March 15, 2021, Barker writes: “As far as his [Brězan’s] literary standing is concerned, I found a lot of his writing fairly uninteresting, especially the early ‘socialist realism’ novels, but he was an important figure in the development of bilingual writing. But, Kito Lorenc is a much more interesting and substantial literary figure, who had a more nuanced idea of the relationship between majority and minority cultures.”

photo: Manfred Uhlenhut
photo: Christian Borchert
%d bloggers like this: