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« Where's the Beef? | Home | Town Finds Its Herita… »

Wendish Heritage Museum Receives Manuscript Copy of Rare Book

Saturday 10 October 2015 at 05:43 am.

This news article was apparently printed in the Giddings Times and News sometime in 1982.

Note: Both Proske and his apprentice, Albert Miertschin, were of Wendish descent.

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The Texas Wendish Heritage Museum has been given the manuscript copy of the book, "Wendish Language Printing in Texas" by the author Jack D. Rittenhouse. Mr. Rittenhouse first visited the office of the former Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt in 1952, and acquired one of each of the eight special Wendish characters which were used in combination with German type to print it in the Wendish language. In a junk yard in Bastrop he found the Volksblatt sign and an advertising blotter and in 1962 wrote and printed in his own press a small book about the Wendish aspect of the tri-lingual Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt. Only 128 copies were printed, but each one contained an example of a Wendish hymn on cards printed up by Mr. Albert Miertschin from a form set up by the late J. A. Proske. One copy of the book is located in the Rice University Rare Book Collection.

At the Society meeting on Sunday, May 16, 1982, Daphne Garrett, member from Warda and Houston, reported on her meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico with Mr. Rittenhouse, and presented plans for an exhibit at the Museum about the Volksblatt. This newspaper, Texas' only trilingual paper, was founded in 1899 by J.A. Proske, sold to Albert Miertschin and Theodore Preusser in 1938, and merged with the Giddings Star in 1949. The eight characters acquired by Mr. Jack Rittenhouse are the only known surviving examples of the Wendish type. They are presently in the Institute of Texan Cultures, but are promised to the Wendish Museum for their exhibit.

Mrs. Garrett also announced her plans to co­author a reprint and expanded version of the book, which would include biographies of the Proskes, Preusser, and Miertschin and a more detailed history of the newspaper and their job printing. Mrs. Garrett is an active worker at the Heritage Museum, and also a contributing Editor for the newspaper, Deutsch Welt-U.S.A., writing primarily on Texas history.

Anyone wishing to assist the Wendish Museum by donating or loaning copies of the Volksblatt or examples of the job printing (announcements, programs, invitations) or provide any other information or pictures, is invited to contact Daphne Garrett, Box 35, Warda. Phone 242-3822. Or Evelyn Kasper, Museum co-ordinator.

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[Current Exective Director of the Wendish Museum is Joyce Bise, 979-366-2441, wendish@bluebon.net. Copies of the Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt or any Lee County newspaper are still wanted and accepted.]

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Wendish Language Printing in Texas

by

Jack D. Rittenhouse

In the small, neat town of Giddings in Central Texas is the only printer's shop in North America that once printed (and still could print) in the obscure Wendish language of Central Europe. Only a scant handful in this country can still read the original dialect. In 1954, when the descendants of the first Wendish settlers in Texas celebrated the colony's centennial, nothing was printed in Wendish.

Ten years ago the Texas State Historical Association distributed an advance circular about its then forthcoming Handbook of Texas. The circular contained a few specimen entries from the handbook, and one of these examples was a paragraph about the town of Giddings. This contained one sentence that was enough to start any typophile off on a hunt. It said, "Giddings publishes the only Wendish type newspaper in the United States."

An immediate question was: who or what were the Wendish? Encyclopedias gave only brief facts, but enough to indicate that the Wends were once a great ethnic group dominating Central Europe, in approximately the area where Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia now meet. Ten or twelve centuries ago the Wends were a powerful group although they never had a political entity. Today their remnants have been absorbed almost completely by Germany, but Wendish groups s ill retain some identity in Saxony and Brandenburg.

The Wendish language, spoken in two dialects, is related to Czech and Polish, but differs so much from these other tongues that Wendish cannot be understood by Czechs, Poles or Germans not trained in the ancient tongue.

Without hunting for more background details, I went to Giddings in search of the Wendish printer. The town had two newspapers, both still active: the News and the Star. Fortunately I went first to the old Star plant and found it to be the successor to the original Wendish shop, with a few changes. Item one: the original Wendish printer had died in 1943. Item two: the old newspaper, Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt, that once had been printed in German and occasional Wendish, had been superseded by the all English Star. Item three: nothing had been printed in Wendish since the death of the original printer.

I asked about the Wendish type. Yes, it was still in the shop. Could I see it? I expected to see racks and cases of strange characters. Instead, the printer of the Star produced a small box, scarcely larger than a box of kitchen matches. Within were a few compartments, each for a handful of characters.

"You see," he said, "We use German characters in printing Wendish, but the Wendish language has these special characters used only in that language. We have them in ten point and twelve point sizes only." The use of special characters was easily understood, because many languages use a common alphabet supplemented by special characters. For example, we use the "English" alphabet to set Spanish text by adding a few accented characters such as ñ. Standard roman type can be used to print in Finnish by adding three characters; eight characters must be added for Basque and thirteen for French, as other examples.

The printer gave me one of each of several of the special Wendish characters, reprinted here from his original type:

The fact that Wendish literature is printed in the old German gothic or black-letter type causes the uninitiated to assume that they are the same language. They differ from each other as much as Spanish differs from English; perhaps even more so.

Succeeding visits to Giddings over the years that followed, correspondence with an authority on the Wends and study of the few books on their American history filled in more of the story of the Texas colony.

During the latter years of the Texas Republic, a few Wends from Europe were among the early German settlers in Texas. They wrote enthusiastic reports back to their homeland, where the Wends (devout Lutherans) were chafing under interference with their religion. In 1854 a party of nearly six hundred Wends left Germany to establish a colony in Texas. As far as is known, only one other Wendish colony was ever established in the world: a settlement in Australia.

Under the leadership of pastor John Kilian, the colonists final1y located on a league of land in what is now Lee county, Texas. They named their community Serbin, since the Wends refer to themselves as Serbs, Lusatian Serbs or Sorbs.

Industrious folk, the Wends started building a magnificent church at Serbin in 1868. In 1871 it was completed, and this Saint Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church remains today as the only appreciable structure left at Serbin. Wendish and German were the languages of the colony, and services for many years were held in both tongues.

When the Texas and New Orleans Railroad was built through their region it bypassed Serbin. In 1872 the town of Giddings was established on the railroad, six miles from Serbin. Young Wends moved to Giddings to seek opportunity, and the old colony declined except for religious services at the famous old church, still a religious center today.

For decades the Wendish colony had no printer or equipment capable of producing works in the original language, until John Andrew Proske set up his shop. Proske had been born in Prussia, December 29, 1857, and in 1870 he came to Texas with his parents. In 1899 he started printing a German newspaper in Giddings, the Deutsches Volksblatt, with occasional columns in Wendish and English, making it one of the few trilingual newspapers in the world.

Proske's first shop was in a small building behind his home in Giddings, but eventually he occupied a one story brick building on the main street of the town. In addition to the Volksblatt he printed a steady flow of small jobs using Wendish type: handbills, church bulletins, communion responses, small pamphlets, and the funeral circulars that are still printed today (now in English and German ) for distribution in the community to announce the passing of a neighbor.

Few examples remain of the Wendish printing. The Volksblatt probably reached its zenith with a special edition on August 29, 1929, when the Colony celebrated the seventy-fifth anniversary of the founding of Serbin. The front page bore a long article in Wendish on the history of the settlement.

That same anniversary in 1929 was observed by the last official use of Wendish in a sermon at the famous old Serbin church, according to one authority.

In recent years, scholars have been taking notice of the vanishing Wendish culture in Texas. The late Dr. George C. M. Engerrand, of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas, wrote a dissertation entitled The So-Called Wends of Germany and Their Colonies in Texas and Australia (179 pp., 1934, Bulletin No. 3417 of the University) .This publication has been long out of print. In a letter to me dated May 1, 1953, Dr. Engerrand wrote in part, "The gothic alphabet is not at all suited for the printing of Wendish, but the Wends had to use it because they lived in Germany. They are the only Slavs I know who are not using the Cyrillic or Roman alphabets."

In another of his letters, Dr. Engerrand mentioned, "When I knew Mr. Proske he was training a young man, and I remember his saying that this young man, not a Wend himself, had become quite proficient in printing documents in Wendish.'' This young apprentice was Albert Miertschin, now a mature man who still superintends the daily operations in the same print shop. It was Mr. Miertschin who was my host on my first trip to the old shop, and he continued to furnish information on later trips.

With the publication of the seventy-fifth anniversary edition of the old Volksblatt and simultaneous publication of a church program with one side printed in Wendish and the reverse printed in German, the use of Wendish printing declined rapidly. In 1936 the state of Texas erected an historical monument in front of the old church at Serbin. For this occasion Mr. Proske printed some verses from the old Wendish type.

On one of my early visits to the old shop, Mr. Miertschin discovered an old type form tied with string and remaining undisturbed over the years since it had been handset originally by drucker Proske. It was only a verse from an old Wendish hymn, set in type for use on a funeral announcement. At my request, Miertschin locked up the old type and printed 150 copies on small cards, the last job ever printed from Wendish type handset by the old master printer himself. At the same time, Miertschin gave me a general translation of the verse. In 1953, we printed a french-fold keepsake at the Stagecoach Press, limited to ten copies for a group of Houston booklovers, with a single paragraph of text explaining the use of Wendish type. A copy of the card was mounted on each keepsake. A few other copies of the card slipped away to various persons, but 130 cards still remain to comprise this present limited edition with one card mounted in each copy.

In 1938, Albert Miertschin and Theodore Preusser formed a partnership and bought the Volksblatt from the ageing Proske. Preusser became editor and Miertschin the printer of the newspaper, then known as The Giddings Star. Only a small collection of Wendish samples remained in Proske's possession, and when he died in March 23, 1943, little was left.

In 1955 I visited Mrs. Proske. She could speak no English, and my German is scanty, but Mrs. Proske's daughter served as the interpreter. I was able to muster up one halting German phrase, "Ja, ich bin eine drucker," (Yes, I am a printer), and this was a key to hospitality. Mrs. Proske presented me with an old Wendish hymnal and several pamphlets and leaflets from her husband's press. She said they comprised a complete assortment of all surviving samples.

There were other bits of Wendish printing antiques to come my way: the old two-handed brayer or roller once used to ink the hand press at Proske's first shop. This brayer is now in the possession of William Hudson, who does superb work on his private hand press in Houston.

Another and more unusual relic I found by accident in a town twenty-six miles away. In a junk shop at Bastrop, Texas, I found the original signboard once used by Proske: a board about five feet long and six inches wide, painted black and bearing large metal letters GIDDINGS VOLKSBLATT. The V in Volksblatt had one wing broken, but I cast a replacement wing by using an inverted A as a pattern and molten type metal as material, much as old Proske himself might have repaired his sign had he wished to do so. In the same junk shop I discovered, among some litter, an old blotter with German text proclaiming the fine quality of printing available from Volksblatt Druckerei in Giddings, bearing the oval half tone portrait of young Proske used in this present book.

In 1953 The Giddings Star was sold, becoming part of a small chain of newspapers in the area. Theodore Preusser died a few years later; Albert Miertschin still keeps the press going.

Verse from a funeral announcement in Wendish, printed from an original type form handset by J. A. Proske and left standing after his death.

General translation of the above: I have been calling day and night to my Lord, who has all in His power that he may help me in my trouble; like Him who is above would yearn for His home, I would yearn the same to be there soon with you.

Anyone interested in further information on the Wends will find good material in The Wends of Texas, by Anne Blasig (The Naylor Company, San Antonio, 1954) ; in P. E. Kretzman's "The Early History of the Wendic Lutheran Colony in the State of Texas," Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly, III; or in The Handbook of Texas, in addition to Dr. Engerrand's work cited earlier. As this is being written, another book on the Wends of Texas is being prepared for publication by Herbert Fletcher, a rare book dealer at Salado, Texas.

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