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Wends Draw Strength From Their Heritage: Harsh German economy, orders to conform, prompted migration to Texas in 1854

Friday 09 October 2015 at 11:11 pm.

This article by David McLemore first appeared in the Dallas Morning News, Sunday, October 16, 1983.

Note: A handful (35) of Wends migrated to Texas in 1853.

-0-

SERBIN. Texas - Laverne Gersch doesn't have to search for her ancestral roots. They're all around her.

As she drives along dusty Lee County back roads near Serbin, she easily points out the landmarks of her heritage.

There, atop an oak-shrouded hill, her great-grandfather lived. It's not far from a lovely frame house where Mrs. Gersch celebrated Christmas as a child. Along this dirt path, her grandmother once walked to school.

For Mrs. Gersch, a fifth generation Wendish Texan, the past and present weave into a whole as familiar and comforting as a homemade quilt.

"My husband is a Wend, too," Mrs. Gersch said. "My granddaughter is the fifth generation to live on Gersch land. That's special to me."

To the outsider, the southern arc of Lee County appears to be only another part of Texas. The land rolls in gentle waves, embroidered by brushy creek bottoms and thick stands of oak and cedar.

But linger awhile in Serbin, Warda or the other communities that dot the farmland, and you find yourself in another country.

To the locals descendants of a nearly forgotten band of Texas pioneers, it's the heartland. Welcome to Wendenland - land of the Wends.

The Wends are a Slavic people who settled in Central Europe after the fall of the Holy Roman Empire, according to Dr. Sylvia Ann Grider's book The Wendish Texans published by the Institute of Texan Cultures.

Today, as they have for centuries, European Wends are concentrated in Saxony in East Germany, south of Berlin, said Dr. Grider, who is assistant dean of graduate studies at Texas A&M University in College Station.

The Wends, or Sorbs as they're known in Europe remain a distinct ethnic minority. Never having a nation of their own, the Wends differed from their German neighbors through a fierce adherence to conservative Lutheranism and a language and culture more closely allied to Czechs and Slovaks.

These differences prompted Prussian officials in the early 19th century to pass edicts forcing the Wends to conform to German ways. This Germanization, particularly of their faith, caused the Wends to rebel.

A handful of Wends emigrated to Texas and to Australia in 1850. In glowing letters home about the freedom of the frontier, coupled with the harsh economic realities of life in Germany prompted the largest and most unusual Wendish immigration.

In 1854, nearly 600 Wends in Saxony formed a Lutheran congregation for the sole purpose of moving to Texas. They asked Minister Johann Kilian to lead them. He agreed.

Reaching Liverpool, England, Kilian's group sailed for the United States on the clipper Ben Nevis. Before they reached Galveston in May 1854, 73 had died. Ship's records repeatedly noted the heartbreaking refrain "died and buried at sea."

The Wends arrived in time for outbreaks of cholera and yellow fever. They hired oxcarts and headed inland, where they bought 4,000 acres above the Colorado River Valley for $1 an acre.

Under Kilian's leadership, the Wends carved out a life from the sandy soil in Lee County. In the town they called Serbin - the Sorbian Place - they first built a church and then a school. The Wends had found homeland at last.

"The first several years were hard. Drought and sickness took a toll," said the Rev. Reinhardt Wuensche, 70, an archivist with the Lutheran - Missouri Synod office in Austin. "Their land was the kind no one else wanted."

"But the Wends are a sober, hardworking, conservative people," Wuensche, a Wend, said. "They made it work."

Wuensche estimates that about 10,000 people in Texas can claim Wendish ancestry. Others are scattered throughout the United States.

In Texas, Wendish life centered around family and church, Dr. Grider said. St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Serbin, formed in Germany 130 years ago, still serves an active Wendish parish.

"We have about 550 members, and the church is filled each Sunday," the Rev. Paul Hartfield said. And the congregation works together. They never forget this is their church."

Built in 1870 as a replacement for earlier buildings, St. Paul's stands tall and austere, its whitewashed sandstone walls shining brightly in the sun.

Inside a balcony runs around the chapel. Until 1950 the men sat above, and the women sat below.

The pulpit juts like a ship's bow, 20 feet from the floor. Delicate marble-like lines drawn by turkey quills more than a century ago decorate the wooden pillars.

"The walls are 30 inches thick. They used wooden pegs to build it. No nails," Hartfield said. The old pump organ in the loft opposite the pulpit is electrified now. But the hand pump remains connected.

"The power went out a few weeks ago, and the ushers started pumping, and we kept singing," he said.

The church is essentially as it was when it was built by the members," Hartfield said. The congregation doesn't want to change it.

The Wendish colonists soon found themselves subject to what they sought to avoid in Germany.

Because they spoke German, the Wends quickly were accepted by the existing German colonists in Central Texas. Eventually they lost more and more of their Wendish language and culture.

Wuensche recalls that his father spoke, no Wendish. We lived in Bishop and my father never visited Serbin until he was nearly 80," he said. He walked through the graveyard and was enthralled. He felt like he was among kin.

But the Wendish customs died hard. Sermons were preached in Wendish and German well into the early 1900s. At St. Paul's today Wendish sermons are preached only on special occasions. Sunday services in German are held twice a month.

Wendish women, until about 1890, wore black wedding dresses, a symbol of the hardships they faced in life. They later adopted a grey dress and white veil before accepting the traditional white gown after 1900.

Other Wendish customs brought to Texas still were practiced in the 1930s. They included decorating Easter-eggs in brightly colored, intricate designs. A favorite with children was the rumpliche - men who came around Christmas weariing striped tunics and fake beards and masks to determine who was naughty or nice.

"As a child, I remember the rumpliche," Mrs.Gersch said. "It was frightening, for they would take bad children away. But the one who came for me caught his beard on fire and ran from the house. It was wonderful."

John Socha, a Lutheran minister in Giddings, became fascinated with the Wendish language. I'm Slovak, not a Wend,'' he said. "But the words are very much alike. Sadly, I could read old Wendish books, and the Wends could not.''

Until 1938, the now-defunct Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt published notices in both German and Wendish.

"Only a handful of people around here can still speak Wendish," Socha said. "A few others can say, 'Wotce Nash?' (How are you?) But that's all."

In the 1960s, a revival of Wendish culture began with the creation of the Wendish Club by five women in Lee and Bastrop counties. Now called the Texas Wendish Historical Society, it has about 400 members.

"We started it because we are proud to be Wends," said Emma Wuensche, 77, of McDade, one of the founders. "One of the ladies had been to Germany and saw the Wends still had their culture there. It seemed a pity that we had lost ours."

Like other Wendish descendants, Mrs. Gersch also became entranced with her heritage. She recalled family tales of how her great-great grandmother, Maria Krause, sailed to Texas before the great exodus of 1854. But her ship was wrecked near Cuba and she learned to roll cigars in order to pay her way to the United States.

"My father spoke fluent Wendish," Mrs. Gersch said. "He didn't learn German until he went to school. Now, I speak only a little, but I wish I had learned more."

The Wends' close family ties and conservative faith made them wary of strangers. "They were never very receptive to outsiders," Socha said. "And, to a degree, you find that today.

"But I tell you, they're thrifty, hardworking people," he said. "And they're the first ones to pay their bills."

Mrs. Gersch admits the Wends are a conservative group. But she denies they are unfriendly.

"People say the Wends are cold to strangers, but that's not true," she said. "We like people, and we welcome anyone who treats us with respect.

"If it's hard for an outsider to get into the community, it's because so much of the land has been in the hands of the same family for 130 years."

Mrs. Gersch said that the Wendish community remains close-knit. "There's a saying that who we're not related to, we marry. Everyone seems to be a cousin around here."

One question nags at the Texas Wends. With their unique ethnic background, are they different from any other immigrant group?

While aware of their heritage, Dr. Grider said, the Texas Wends also think of themselves more as friends and neighbors. Not Wends. That is changing.

"Growing up, I never thought how different it was to be a Wend. I never thought we were different from any other American," Mrs. Gersch said, standing in the old cemetery near St. Paul's church.

"But standing here, I see we have something special. We've kept our faith, and we've kept our family unity. We're surrounded by memories. I guess that's how we're different. We have continuity."

A breeze blows gently from the south, rustling the oaks. The old tombstones, their German inscriptions etched with lichen, lean patiently in the sun.

For the Texas Wends, the circle is unbroken.

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