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Touring the land of the Wends

by Chris Elmore

Chris Elmore, the writer of this report, is a great-great-grandson of Johann Samuel Rohr (1810-1890) and Anna Dorothea Petras (1822-1911). In this report he describes the experience of visiting the homeland of his Wendish ancestors:

As part of an extended trip to Europe between August and October 2010, my wife and I visited some of the areas from which my Wendish ancestors originated. The Land of the Wends covers parts of modern-day eastern Germany (Brandenburg) and western Poland. As most members would know, the Wends (or Sorbs, as they prefer to call themselves) are a Slavic people who settled in their present location as early as the sixth century and have been there ever since.

For our trip to the land of the Wends, we left Berlin and drove down to Cottbus, which, in former times, was situated in the centre of the Wendish cultural area. To get there we drove through the area now known as the Spreewald. The major physical feature here is a series of lakes and drained swamps, an area largely settled and made habitable by the Wends from the earliest times. After stopping at various places to view the very beautiful scenery, we soon moved on towards Lubbenau, another famous Wendish town which is renowned as a picturesque village of thatched huts and venerable civic buildings.

When we arrived at Cottbus there was a pottery festival in progress. Pottery is one of the traditional crafts of the Wends and it was good to see such ancient skills continuing into the present day. The Wends were also famous for their spinning and weaving and this too was clearly in evidence as part of the festival. We wandered around looking at the pottery displays and then took a stroll around the town.

I spent the afternoon looking through the Wendish Museum. It is situated in the historic part of Cottbus in a beautifully restored two-storey former residence. It was opened on 3 June 1994 after Cottbus local history museum (which included Wendish material) was destroyed during 1945. The permanent exhibition extends over the whole two stories of the residence and demonstrates that Wendish culture is much richer than peasant traditions and folklore alone. It has displays of Wendish national costumes, embroidery, literature, music and art. It also has displays showing aspects of village life, housing construction, pottery, fabric crafts and the archaeological record of the Wends dating from the earliest times.

The displays have been thoughtfully prepared and were of a high standard. They included mannequins in traditional Sorb dress, old tools and implements, examples of pottery and weaving, old photographs, display text (little of which I could read), and some artefacts from archaeological digs going back to the period of first settlement. It was all very informative and calculated to give an interested visitor such as me a real insight into the lives of my ancient ancestors.

By spending a good half day in the museum, I learned a tremendous amount about the Wends, mainly through the photographs, models and various objects on display. The information panels explaining the displays are written in German and Sorbian only, so some knowledge of one of these languages is a great help to visitors. On the day of my visit, the two staff members spoke only German, but I got by all right with my very rudimentary German. I thoroughly recommend a visit to the museum for anyone with Wendish ancestors. Brochures and booklets to buy are available in English. If you want to take photographs inside the museum there is an extra fee.

From Cottbus we travelled across the border into Poland. We stayed at Zielona Gora, using it as a base from which we took several day trips around the area. We visited the largish town of Sulechow, which is the birthplace of my great-great- grand mother, but not much remains of the mid-nineteenth century period when she lived. We also visited the much smaller village of Klepsk, just a short distance from Sulechow, which is the birthplace of my great-great-grandfather. The old village precinct was still there along with some high rise housing estates from the Soviet period.

In Klepsk we saw the very famous and magnificent wooden church which, in the time of my ancestor, was used by the local Lutherans. The exterior was mainly covered in wood and the roof was made of wooden shingles. The interior was panelled in wood, both walls and ceiling, and each panel had been painted with a biblically-themed picture, including various angels, Adam and Eve, the apostles, and so on. The wooden benches were draped in fine lace, there was a small but impressive organ on the back wall and the altar and pulpit were decorated with rococo-like carvings and engravings. We found a commemorative plaque that had been placed there by some Australian descendants of the Henschke family in 2001.

Views of this magnificent decorated church have been posted on the internet and can be found with a Google search for Klepsk. But these photographs do not do justice to the overwhelming spiritual effect that this church can have on visitors who see it first hand, and I thoroughly recommend that members go and see it if they are in the area. The church is usually locked during the day but the caretaker lives very close and can be summoned by using an intercom near the back door. Be warned, however, that some ability to speak and understand Polish is highly recommended!

After leaving the land of the Wends we travelled south to Hungary and Czechia, before completing the loop and returning to Berlin. On the way back to Berlin we passed through some of the famous “Bach towns” including Weimar, Leipzig and Kothen (known in Bach’s time as Anhalt). We also spent some time driving through Saxony where we visited a number of old Lutheran and Catholic churches with some beautiful old baroque organs in them, manufactured by Gottfried Silbermann, a contemporary of Bach. Two of the best and most interesting may be found in the town of Frieburg, where we attended recitals on these magnificent instruments. Details of these organs can also be found on the internet.

I have assembled a photographic record of my visit to the land of the Wends and published it in book form. I will be donating a copy of this book to the Wendish Society Library so that others may share some of my insights into the life of the Wends.