Internet Intervention

On Poland's Border, Social Media Saves an Ethnic Minority

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    An ethnic minority in Germany is enjoying a cultural renaissance thanks to social media.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Germany’s 60,000 Sorbs descended from Slavs who arrived 1,500 years ago.
    • In Nazi Germany, the Sorbian language was banned. Former East Germany bulldozed many Sorb communities to mine coal.
    • The Sorbs are one of four recognized ethnic minorities in Germany that include the Danes, Romani and Friesians.
  • Audio

    Audio

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Marco Neck sings about “love, finding it, keeping it, everyday things” in his band, which plays a lively mix of ska and rock.

“We also sing about the water man, the lunchtime lady and elves that help in people’s homes,” he said.

His band is called ”Wusmuž,” which means mixture in Sorbian, the language of a Slavic tribe that settled in eastern Germany and Poland 1,500 years ago. More than a millenium later, 60,000 Sorbs still live in the Lusatia region of Germany along the border with Poland and the Czech Republic.

The lunchtime lady who reminds farmers to take a break at midday and the water man who pulls people into rivers are familiar figures to people who grew up hearing Sorbian tales.

“I grew up speaking German and Sorbian,” said Mr. Neck, a child care worker. “We all did.”

His band performs in the region southeast of Berlin and also in clubs in bigger cities. “When German people hear us play, they don’t get the lyrics but they’re interested,” Mr. Neck said.

Jankahanka, another Sorbian band, also plays in Dresden and Berlin. “At first, people ask why we’re here, they think we’re foreigners,” said Josef Bresan, guitarist and singer.

”I say we have been here the whole time,” Mr. Bresan said. Between songs, he spells out life as an ethnic minority. “After that, people are curious. They want to know more.”

Mr. Neck and Mr. Bresan decided their bands would sing in Sorbian. They learned the language and spoke it at school and although there are Sorbian media, TV and radio programs, they fear for its future.

The Sorb language was banned in Nazi Germany. The minority was recognized by former East Germany, but the former Communist country razed Sorb communities to mine coal.

Some Sorbs have reached prominence, such as Stanislaw Tillich, the Christian Democrat who was reelected on Sunday as Saxony’s state premier. But Sorbs are still concerned about the funding of their culture and the future of the language.

Unemployment has led some young people to seek work elsewhere. “I have friends who left for Stuttgart and Chicago,” said Stefan Hanusch, a fashion designer who moved to Berlin.

“In most places, people are surrounded by German in their everyday lives and after a while, it’s easier to speak that than Sorbian,” Mr. Neck said.

Also, much of the Sorbs’ culture, from handicrafts to myths, is historic and some young Sorbs question its relevance.

Mr. Hanusch and his wife Steffi make products that play with traditional Sorbian imagery to appeal to younger people. Historically, Sorbian women wore their wealth on their bodies, in clothing with pearls and coins as ornaments.

The best-known element of the dress is a lace hat with bow-like wings. “Not many women wear that kind of outfit anymore,” said Steffi Hanusch, a fashion designer whose modern clothing includes elements of Sorbian traditional dress.

 

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The Sorbs have long been famous for their Easter egg designs but there is more to Sorb culture, young people say. Source: DPA

 

Mr. Hanusch and his wife sell their goods online. “I was amazed at how much feedback I got on Facebook. I hadn’t realized there were so many Sorbs out there,” he said.

Not everybody likes the revival of Sorbian culture. Some people complained about his use of historic images, Mr. Hanusch said.

“Everyone likes to think of us as friendly folk who paint eggs at Easter. But design is always created and re-created,” Mr. Hanusch said. “If you insist on everything staying frozen in time, that’s when you become a museum. Why should we suddenly stop?”

Mr. Neck was also surprised at how many people commented on his band’s music in Sorbian, using social media. “It showed us how much interest there is,” he said. “And you can see how music really helps people connect.”

Compared to a few years ago, more bands are playing Sorbian music. “It’s much easier to meet up and record music these days,” he said. “There’s definitely a renaissance in the culture.”

Until recently, the Sorbs were dispersed among the German population, with some congregating in singing groups of older Sorbs to clubs of young students in pubs.

“We only found out by chance about that other group meeting to speak Sorb,” said Mr. Neck. “Thanks to the web we’re now getting requests to play at festivals by people from an older generation.”

Jankahanka, another Sorbian band, also plays in Dresden and Berlin. “At first, people ask why we’re here, they think we’re foreigners,” said Josef Bresan, guitarist and singer.

“Social media has enabled Sorbs to become more self-aware and helped strengthen their identity,” said Katja Liznarjec, regional spokesperson of the Domowina, an independent association of organizations run by Sorbs. “It helps them realize that being Sorb is normal and brings them in touch with other Sorb people and networks.”

 

“After the wall fell, people could travel and they went far away. Now, they’re thinking about their roots and wondering what really counts,” Mr. Hanusch said. “People are asking themselves, what matters to me, where’s my home?”

Some of Mr. Hanusch’s friends who settled abroad are now moving back to the region, although there are fewer possibilities there for well-paid jobs. But many are looking homewards. “They want their kids to grow up hearing the language and the stories,” he said. “For us, home and a sense of belonging matter to us.”

The writer is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin. To contact her: williams@handelsblatt.com

 

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