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When travelers head out from Berlin to the southeast, driving towards the Czech border, there comes the moment when they are often surprised to discover place names that are unequivocally Slavic in character.
And they may be even more surprised, if they take time to explore small villages of the region, to hear that the locals are not speaking German at all, but rather a Slavic language.
A stateless nation
The Sorbian population of eastern Saxony, in and around the town that German speakers call Bautzen and Sorbs call Budysin, is one of Europe’s most distinctive cultural and linguistic minorities—a nation in search of wider recognition. It is one of many such minorities featured in the Atlas of Stateless Nations in Europe. The European Union is more than merely the sum of its 28 member states, and the atlas (published by the boldly innovative Welsh publisher Y Lolfa) is a brilliant panorama of cultures and groups that are hardly visible in the normal political configuration of Europe. The book sweeps from Sorbs to Sami, from Frisians to Friulians.
Upper and Lower Sorbian
The Sorbian language and culture is nowadays restricted to a much smaller territory than was historically the case. You’ll find a legacy of Sorbian place names close to Berlin in communities where not a word of the Sorbian language has been uttered for generations. In some areas just an hour’s drive out of Berlin, such as the Spreewald in what was traditionally the preserve of Lower Sorbian language, this distinctly Slavic culture has been reduced to a sort of boutique theatre, a caricature staged for the benefit of tourists and day trippers from Berlin.
To really get a feel for Sorbian life and values, you need to head further south into eastern Saxony where, in the upper portion of the Spree Valley and surrounding villages, the local hornjoserbsce (Upper Sorbian) dialect is still commonly spoken. There you’ll see the red, white and blue Sorbian flag, its colors recalling the cultural links with other Slavic nations that fly similar colors (e.g. Russia, the Czech Republic and Slovenia).
Sorbian language and culture
There is an excellent National Museum of the Sorbian People in Budysin, the town which is also home to the Domowina—the league which has campaigned very effectively to protect Sorbian rights, language and culture. Then take a bus out to Pancicy-Kukow (shown as Panschwitz-Kuckau on German-language maps) where the St Marienstern Roman Catholic Convent has done a fine job in promoting Sorbian interests. Many Upper Sorbians are devoutly Catholic, so if you want to see this community out en masse, make time for Holy Mass in hornjoserbsce at St Marienstern on a major Catholic feast day. The Sorb village of Chroscicy (Crostwitz in German) is a pleasant one-hour walk from St Marienstern.
Bilingualism is a way of life to the surviving Sorbian community in eastern Saxony. Of course, everyday commerce often requires contact with German speakers. But Upper Sorbian is still very much a working language used in schools and on the street. There are Sorbian presses and other media, a bilingual theatre in Budysin and a pervasive sense in the region that this is Germany with a twist. The Sorbs may be one of the stateless nations of Europe, but they are most certainly very much at home in rural Saxony. This is a deliciously beautiful region of eastern Germany, and the Sorbian angle makes it all the more deserving of a visit.