The Lusatian Sorbs are a small Slavic minority who can mostly be found in the East of Germany. But they have their history, and their friends, in the Czech Republic too. Petr Kaleta is in charge of the Friends of Lusatia Society – in Czech, the ‘Společnost přátel Lužice’ – I’ll let him introduce himself to you in Sorbian:
“Ja sym Petr Kaleta. Ja sym předsyda towarstwa přećelow Serbow”
So who are the Lusatian Sorbs? And where can you find them? Again here’s Petr Kaleta, who this time, mercifully for my translation skills, answered in Czech:
“It is all, of course, very complicated, because Sorbs always lived, let’s say these past few centuries, in what is now Germany, in Saxony, around about the town Bautzen. Bautzen is their cultural centre. However, there are links with the Czech Republic which go way back, because as of the year 1329, Upper Lusatia formed a part of the Czech state, so the common history of the Czechs and the Sorbs dates back.”
In 1635, Upper Lusatia ceased to be a part of the Czech state, but there are other reasons why Czechs and Sorbs have a past and a culture in common – language being one of them:
“Sorbian can be divided into Upper-Lusatian Sorbian, and Lower-Lusatian Sorbian. Sorbian is a Western Slavonic language, just like Czech, or Polish, or Slovak. So the languages are very similar, and then in the 19th century especially, Upper-Lusatian Sorbian was in particular very much influenced by Czech, so I would say that every Czech can understand Upper-Lusatian Sorbian very well.”
According to Petr Kaleta, Sorbian has borrowed a great deal from the sort of Czech spoken in Prague in particular, but more on the reasons for that later. First to the question of whether many Sorbs continue to live on Czech territory today, after all of the shifting of boundaries to have taken place over the past couple of centuries in Central Europe:
“The Sorbs that are living in the Czech Republic today are normally really only here for work, or let’s say a couple still live maybe right on the border - on the Czech border with Germany - those are people who came here after the Second World War. But I would guess that that is several tens of people at the most. Otherwise, Sorbs live in Germany, in what was formerly East Germany.”
But Sorbs traditionally came to Prague to get a religious education at the city’s Theological Faculty. In the 18th century, a Lusatian Seminary was built for Sorbian students in Prague’s Malá Strana. Throughout the 19th century, important figures in the Czech national revival such as Karel Jaromír Erben came to lecture at the seminary. The seminary even provided one of the backdrops for Sorbians’ own national revival.
Today, the building no longer functions as a home for budding priests, but as the headquarters of the Friends of Lusatia Society, of which Petr Kaleta is in charge:
“This is where Catholic Sorbs from Upper Lusatia were able to come and study. And this is important, because there are more Protestant Sorbs than there are Catholics, so it was very important for these Catholic Sorbs that they had their own institution. And within this institution a library was founded, it was later called the Hórnik Library, and it is a collection which was, at first, made up of predominantly religious writings, but then came to include writing about the Sorbs, their culture and traditions, and other Slavonic literature. And then in 1846 a Sorbian organization called Serbowka was set up here which took charge of the library, and they were the ones who built up this collection which today is used by Czechs as it is by Lusatian Sorbs themselves.”
Petr Kaleta reads an extract from a Sorbian-language book in the seminary library. He’s chosen a 19th century study of Sorbian mythology, and more specifically, the story of ‘Boze Sedlesko’. According to Petr Kaleta, ‘Boze Sedlesko’ is a mythical figure specific to the Lusatian Sorbs – she appears on farms and in villages in the form of a crying girl, and if you see her, then look out. She’s normally a precursor of some ill event.
On the subject of ill events, the Lusatian Seminary has only just now reopened after the devastating Prague floods of 2002:
“Of course, this place has had many problems in the past, and there have been many occasions on which the seminary has had to fight for its right to exist, but right now we are standing in front of a picture of how things were in 2002. This is when Prague was inundated by disasterous floods, and as we are right beside the Vltava River, and the Charles Bridge, the seminary was unfortunately affected by the flooding. A lot of books were destroyed, the majority we were able to save or in some way repair, but you can see how it looked.”
The library is only just now being unpacked from boxes and restored to its former glory, and it is only two weeks ago that the Společnost přátel Lužice moved its headquarters back into the building. But the association is already planning its biggest event of the year, to which you are cordially invited:
“Once or twice a year we organize a bigger event and this year in November we are doing something to celebrate 100 years since the birth of one of the best Sorbian poets who stayed here and studied in Prague – his name is Jakub Bart-Ćišinski.”
The Friends of Lusatia meet around once a month in Prague’s Malá Strana
to watch films, attend lectures and discuss matters Sorbian. For more
information on them, in both Czech and Sorbian, visit their webpage –
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