Wendish Culture Being Reinvented in Serbin

Few could have imagined that the small Wendish Culture Club chartered by five women in the early 1970s would blossom into today’s Texas Wendish Heritage Society and one of the most important Wendish gatherings outside of Germany.

It’s a long way from Budyšin to Serbin, and it’s a long time since the Ben Nevis arrived in Galveston in December 1854 with about 500 Wendish people aboard who migrated from Upper Lusatia in Germany to what was then Bastrop County, Texas. However, Wendish culture singularly stood the test of time and distance. As a European guest at the 29th Wendish Fest on September 24, 2017, I could sense the spirit of the Wends being alive and well among the many descendants who travel to Serbin for this unique celebration of Wendish culture.

Though Wendish, a Slavic language still spoken in Germany, is no longer in use in this area since the 1920’s, the Texas Wendish Heritage Museum welcomes visitors with Wendish greetings in large blue gothic letters. Most visitors come in search of their family history and to learn about their genealogy. The main goal of the Texas Wendish Heritage Society is to maintain and revive the culture of the Wendish ancestors. If they failed to preserve their language, the Texas Wends kept their Lutheran religion and faith. St. Paul Lutheran Church still has an active congregation that is essential to the success of Wendish Fest each September.

The Wends of Texas are striving to be engaged with their heritage and culture more than ever before. Not only are they trying to preserve a culture rich in folklore and customs, but they also wish to make visitors and local descendants understand the tradition. It doesn’t matter if nobody any longer knows the old folk tales or customs, like the Bird’s Wedding, Rumpliche or Braška. People just need to be reminded of these old stories in order to restore traditions. Cultural education is taking place at the Wendish Fest, beginning with the unforgettable lunch meal of sausage and noodles.

Proudly served as authentic “Wendish Noodles”, these noodles are the unique product of handmade tradition. In a pavilion at the festival, a woman who is obviously proud of her Wendish heritage demonstrates every year how her ancestors made Wendish noodles by hand, measuring water for the dough by the half-eggshell. A special cookbook devoted to recipes using Wendish noodles has just been released for the festival.

Nobody seems to remember the exact origin of these noodles, but many people of Wendish descent still clearly recall childhood memories of cutting the dough, drying noodles all over the house, and eating noodles for Christmas and on other holidays. Making noodles to demonstrate Wendish heritage already took place in early August of 1975 at the San Antonio Folklife Festival under the direction of the newly founded Wendish Culture Club.

But to the European visitor, Wendish Noodles are definitely an enigma. Lusatia seems to ignore the strong identity affirmation powered by the Wendish noodles. More likely the so-called Wendish noodles embody a family tradition among farmers that goes back to simple every-day life, when it was impossible to sell cracked eggs that then had to be used at home. Slavic roots of this custom are also possible. Mention of a meal of chicken and noodles served in the court of the King of Saxony is to be found in the Krabat story written by the Sorbian artist and writer Měrćin Nowak-Njechorński, Mištr Krabat dušny serbski kuzłar (1954), and homemade noodles also are a common thing in Eastern European societies.

A striking example of an invented tradition introduced in Serbin decades ago, Wendish noodles prove to be the strongest as well as the most astonishing part of the contemporary Texas Wendish heritage. Budyšin beware!

Hélène Yèche

Professor of German Studies at Universitéde Poitiers in France and currently a Visiting Scholar with the Institute of European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.