An interview with Jurij Koch, an eminent writer among the Slavic-speaking community in eastern Germany.

Jurij Koch is a contemporary writer working in both the Sorbian and German languages. Born in 1936, he lives in the city of Cottbus, in the far southeastern corner of Germany; this region, historically known as Lusatia, consists of parts of the states of Saxony and Brandenburg. Lusatia is home to many traditionally Sorbian villages and a few cities with large Sorbian populations, such as Bautzen, Cottbus, and Hoyerswerda, which are known in Sorbian as Budysin, Chosebuz, and Wojerecy, respectively. The Sorbian language, sometimes called Wendish, is a West Slavic language, little known compared to its larger cousins Czech and Polish (and quite distant, among the Slavic languages, from its near namesake, Serbian). But Sorbian is still spoken by at least 60,000 people. The language, and Sorbian cultural institutions such as radio, television, schools, and a highly regarded publishing house, underwent a period of cultivation in the former East Germany, following the exploitation and attempted forced assimilation of the Sorbs in the Third Reich.

Jurij Koch is Sorbia’s leading writer today. His first works appeared over 50 years ago, and in addition to his four novels, he has written short stories, children’s books, a collection of essays about nature and the environment in late East Germany, plays and film scripts, and three volumes of autobiography. His works have been translated into many languages; the first English translation of his fiction is slated to appear later this year as The Cherry Tree: A Novella. This book, written in a style one might call “socialist magic realism,” because of its treatment of pre-Christian paganism and the mysteries of the natural world, is both a love story and an environmental novel. It subtly explores gendered approaches to the exploitation of coal and hydroelectric resources that endangered many Sorbian villages during the period of communism in East Germany.

This interview was conducted via email in spring 2020.

Jurij Koch in 1995. Photo by Claude Lebus / Wikimedia Commons.

What should people in the Anglosphere know about Sorbs?

The Sorbs (who are also known as Wends) are a small people, a Slavic nation that lives as part of the German Staatsvolk [titular or constitutive nation] in the middle of Europe, close to Poland and the Czech Republic. Today’s Sorbs are a fragment of a once larger European settlement community with its own language, traditions, and worlds of emotional experience. They are the world’s smallest Slavic ethnos. It is truly remarkable – and not just from our own perspective – that they have maintained the various aspects of their identity for over 1,400 years; they settled here during the period in European history known as the Voelkerwanderung, or Great Migration of the Peoples. In addition, we must note that the changing German polities – their regimes and administrations – have not always shown themselves benevolent. There were times when power structures, and the laws and decrees that resulted from them, considered the Sorbian (or the Wendish) presence to be something less than beneficial in the midst of German cultural sensitivities. In other words, there were times when it was considered alien, and those in power actively practiced assimilation. If you’re on the lookout for miracles, then the preservation of Sorbianness over such a long span of time qualifies as one. This is true even today, when Sorbian elements are viewed as remnants of a highly endangered community.

Do you consider Upper and Lower Sorbian to be separate languages?

The two language variants that Sorbs use to communicate among themselves (Upper Sorbian and Lower Sorbian) differ, in my opinion, so little from one another that we can actually speak of two dialects of the same language. But this is controversial, even among philologists. Since I am not a linguist, I let them fight it out while I use the two variants as I wish. By birth I’m an Upper Sorbian, and I learned Lower Sorbian in Cottbus when I was in high school there, and during the time I did an internship in the editorial office of a local newspaper there. I mastered it in very short order. Comparisons disappoint, but here’s another try at one: it’s as if someone from Hamburg, in the north of Germany, were to adopt (for whatever reason) the lexicon, accent, and so forth of the dialect in Munich … Admittedly, the controversies here get tricky when various kinds of “content” are read into the issue … content that is patterned after political goals and other imbroglios. Here are some examples: “The Upper Sorbs are Catholic, while those of us in Lower Sorbia are Protestant. The Sorbs in the state of Saxony, because they outnumber us, want to force their way of life onto us, including the language. The Christian Democrats are in power there, but we Brandenburg Sorbs traditionally vote for the Social Democrats … Therefore, we here prefer to call ourselves Wends; we’re flat-out different … And it’s none of your business, anyway!” This deposition of inappropriate meaning in the language dispute is harmful to the Sorbs as a minority, because both of the variants are classified by experts as among the most endangered languages in the world.

What has Germany’s membership in the European Union meant to the Sorbs? Put another way, how has the EU affected the lives of the Sorbs of Germany?

Germany’s membership in the EU is of benefit to the Sorbs. Now we are also in a European community of minorities. We can compare ourselves better to other ethnic groups, for instance the Slovenes of Austria, the Romansh of Switzerland, the Kashubians of Poland, and the German-speaking minority in Denmark. And when there are conflicts, we can say to the bureaucrats: “Look here! This works for this or that group over there. Why not for us, too?”

How is the rise of right-wing political groups in Germany, such as Pegida and the AfD, over the past two decades perceived in the Sorbian community? Have these groups had any effect on how Sorbs live or the rights they enjoy?

Right-wing nationalist mindsets manifest themselves – thank God! – only in isolated cases. Bilingual road signs are an example; the Sorbian names are sometimes painted over at night. Brawls and fistfights are known to happen, as are provocations at events and gatherings having a Sorbian character (such as might occur at a dance hall or in a ballroom in predominantly Sorbian-Catholic areas, such as Kamenz, Bautzen, or Hoyerswerda). Sometimes disparaging remarks are also made about women who still (or once again) wear traditional Sorbian outfits, or about Sorbian conversations heard in public. Whether these might be the outgrowth of something cultivated by political organizations and parties (my reference here is to fascistic ways of thinking), I couldn’t say.

What was the official approach of the Nazi government towards the Sorbs?

Incidents of the kind I referred to in the previous question call to mind memories of the hostile policies of the Nazi era toward Sorbs – that much is completely natural. And not just memories: also fears of the most drastic sort. An example here would be the document composed by Heinrich Himmler in 1940, when he was the Reichsfuehrer of the SS. Its title was “Some Thoughts on the Treatment of Alien Races in the East”; in Himmler’s view, “the inferior population in the eastern provinces must be deported.” (That means resettlement.) To this “racial type” he reckoned “portions for instance of the Sorbs and Wends.” Another quote: “This demographic group will be at our disposal as a leaderless laboring population and will provide Germany every year with migrant toilers and members of pools of labor for special projects (roads, quarries, buildings) and, in the absence of their own culture … they will be called on, under the strict management of the German people, to work on Germany’s eternal achievements of culture and architecture.” For these national groups, Himmler considered no education to be necessary beyond “the writing of one’s own name” and “counting to five hundred.”

Sorbian publications were banned, and teachers and clerics were arrested or fired. In 1937, the Domovina (a Sorbian cultural and political organization) had been banned and its publishing house and print shop seized. The Sorbian language was barred from use in schools and public places.

The exploitation of natural resources in Lusatia plays an enormous role in your fiction and in your essays. Are there still strip mines operating in Lusatia, since the fall of the German Democratic Republic? A great deal of land has been “reclaimed” in your area. How successful from the biological and economic point of view has this proven?

There are still three strip mines from which brown coal is being extracted for power plants. The company that owns them is called LEAG, and it’s now owned by Czechs. […] This is the background as to why further villages might yet be bulldozed. Since 1923, something like 130 communities or residential areas (including secluded houses and remote farmsteads) have disappeared from the Lusatian landscape. The residents were resettled in nearby cities, or they went off to find a new home elsewhere. The water that is impounded in the abandoned pits produces no energy, because it’s located in low-lying lakes, and at most is of interest only to swimmers.

Efforts to recultivate the broken landscape are a part of the reclamation projects. This happens with ancient, original soils. On these selected surfaces, the great outdoors grows again. But the new bio-diversity is incomparably less than what had evolved earlier over millions of years. Perhaps humankind, when it again visits its home in a thousand years, will say: “Now this is again like it once was!”

An 18th-century map of Upper and Lower Lusatia. Image by Wikipedia.

You began your career in journalism. How did you make the shift to literature?

I studied journalism, at the university in Leipzig, from 1956 to 1960. The chancellor at the time was Professor Hermann Budzislawski, who was the editor and publisher of the famous newspaper (it had a small format but a high IQ) Weltbühne after Carl von Ossietzky, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1935, died after gross physical mistreatment at the hands of the Nazis [in 1938]. My diploma carries the signature of the man we called “Budzi,” and I am proud of this fact.

Next, I worked in the East German broadcasting service as a reporter and editor in the Cottbus Studio. Here there was (and there still is, to this day) an editorial department with independent Sorbian-language programming. It was at this point that I began writing children’s books. When I saw that people were buying and reading them, my desire to switch careers from reporting to writing hit full stride.

The stories for young people were joined by novels in epic mode, plays, and finally screenplays. Sometimes film directors liked a story of mine, and they made a movie of it. You know, writing for kids doesn’t necessarily require all that much skill, because ultimately everybody who writes was a child at one time and we all know how and what young people think and wish for and say in their early years … and what their hopes are.

Your first major work was a novella about the Holocaust entitled Zidowka Hana (1963). You have recently rewritten this work in German. Can you tell us about the book and why you wrote it?

When I was in high school, I remembered that in my home village of Horka (Horki), close to Kamenz, where the great [writer and philosopher Gotthold Ephraim] Lessing was born, there had been a young Jewish girl who was deported by the fascists. Her name was Hana, and her trail led to a German concentration camp and then disappeared. One day I sat down and sketched out a story about her. There were still eyewitnesses living in our village who could tell me a lot of true vignettes about the girl. But nobody could tell me anything about her ultimate fate. That was the genesis of a literary narrative, in which I allowed my imagination to play. In 1963, Zidowka Hana was published in Sorbian. This, my first literary effort, miscarried in many ways, and I was always opposed to having it translated into German.

Recent attempts to have a German-language version published were the impetus behind my writing a second, German literary treatment of the dramatic story of “Hana the Jewish Girl.” It’s been over 50 years since the initial publication. The new story is being brought out this year by the publishers Hentrich and Hentrich of Leipzig and Berlin as Hana: eine jüdisch-sorbische Erzählung [Hana: A Jewish-Sorbian Story].

Is it fair to say that East Germany had an enforced policy of “socialist realism” in literature? Perhaps at one time, if not consistently? Did you write anything in this mode?

What the concept of “socialist realism” meant during the German Democratic Republic is not something that even the people who thought it up could explain. We wrote the way men and women of letters saw and interpreted their reality. Books came into existence that will be valuable for a long, if not a very long, time (Strittmatter, Kant, Wolf, Braun, Brezan), in part because of their truthfulness and critical takes on a reality that is gone forever.

In the late 1980s, via a speech at a writers’ congress and long essay in the famous journal Sinn und Form, you took a strong stand on environmental issues in the DDR, especially the open-pit mining of coal. Did you receive criticism, or suffer sanctions, for taking strong, conscientious stands on environmental protection?

You have said yourself that my critical appearance at the 1987 writers’ congress in Berlin was clear and energetic in its approach to a real state of affairs. The highest government team witnessed it with their own ears and eyes, and, of course, afterward I was attacked.

In what language(s) do you write?

I write in two languages. Both of them are my mother (and father) tongues.

John K. Cox is a professor of East European history at North Dakota State University in Fargo. He specializes in modern Balkan and Central European intellectual history. He has published translations of fiction by Danilo Kis and other writers. His current projects include novels by Biljana Jovanovic (Serbia) and Dragana Krsenkovic Brkovic (Montenegro). His translation of Jurij Koch’s novella The Cherry Tree will be published soon by the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

This article was kindly supported by the Fund for Central & East European Book Projects, Amsterdam.