Monday, October 16, 2006

IWPR: Saxons Fade Away in Transylvania

Saxons Fade Away in Transylvania
Old community dies on its feet - just as its heritage comes back into vogue.
By Marcus Tanner in Sibiu (Balkan Insight, 11 Oct 06)

When the sun sets on the village of Grossau - or Cristian, in Romanian - the Carpathians to the south look smoky blue in the haze. The pitched red roofs of the village houses turn flame red, while storks nesting on telegraph poles stand silhouetted against the evening sky.

In the neighbouring Romanian village of Ortan, sunset brings women in old-fashioned dress out onto the benches in front of their cottages to gossip, observe and catch the departing rays.
Who could dream of abandoning such idyllic-looking scenes? The answer is - almost everyone. Grossau may look like an illustration from a Grimms fairy tale but abundant natural beauty has not been enough to tempt the local Germans, or Saxons, as they are called, into staying.

Since the 1980s, a community that has lived in south-east Transylvania since the 12th century has streamed out, leaving none but the elderly and the intermarried behind.

"Twenty years ago there were 3,000 Saxons in this village," said Sam Hutter, a 60-year-old bell-ringer in Grossau, one of the last of the tribe. "Now there are 40."

Survivors of the exodus include his brother and sister but the sister does not live nearby and the brother is old and sick. "I've only one friend left in the village with whom I can talk German," added Hutter.

The Hutters have lived in Grossau, just west of Sibiu, for centuries, says Sam, though whether they came with the first wave of German settlers in the 12th century, or in the subsequent wave in the 18th century, under Maria Theresa, he cannot tell. But the Hutters clearly flourished in Grossau before the mass migration started to Germany, for a monument to the last century's war dead shows a long list.Life was insecure for Transylvanian Saxons. For centuries, the danger of attacks from the Ottoman Empire forced local people to encase their churches in high protective walls, which survive to this day.Inside these fortresses, Saxons built towers and cellars to store hams for sieges. Grossau's cellar is still there, though when Hutter heaves open the heavy wooden door, it leads only to a cavernous cellar that has long lain empty. Hutter rings the bells to a church that is more or less empty, too. "Sometimes there are no more than 15," he said. "In the winter, it can be even less." There is no one to help him keep the old clock in the tower in order; it takes all his ingenuity to keep it running.At least the church survives, its services performed by visiting Lutheran clergy from Sibiu, which Saxons know as Hermannstadt. The parsonage has been sold. The rest of the Saxon infrastructure in the village is gone, including shops and inns where, so Hutter recalls, Saxons sat on one side and Romanians the other.These days the prevailing influence in the village is not Saxon or Romanian. It is Roma. When the Saxons left Transylvania in the 1980s and 1990s, lured by German laws offering instant citizenship to people of ethnic German descent, Roma moved into the empty homes. Hutter remembers the hullabaloo this caused, when older villagers in Grossau accused the incomers of stealing tools, doors and even whole roofs. Now it has quietened down. "They don't bother me," said Hutter, flapping a hand in the direction of a nearby bar frequented by a young Roma crowd.A walk through the village reveals the extent of its ethnic transformation - a process replicated throughout this part of Transylvania. Grossau may look like a slice of old Germany, with quaint old German sayings inscribed in Gothic letters on the fronts of several houses, but most people seen on the streets are Roma.Not everyone feels grief-stricken about the death of the Saxon world in Transylvania. At Michelsberg, or Cisnadioara, south of Sibiu, the church looks even more idyllic than its counterpart in Grossau.

Dating from the 12th century, it must have been built shortly after Saxons first came to Transylvania, at the invitation of the kings of Hungary who then ruled the province.But a mass of war memorials sited in the church serve as a reminder that Saxon history has another side to it. Not all are as sad as the decomposing wooden cross erected to a 17-year-old boy, a member of the royal Bavarian cavalry who died in the First World War.Many are memorials to men who died in the Second - as fighters for Nazism, in other words.The fact is that Hitler found many fervent recruits in these dreamy villages, so far from the "Heimat". "This is just the kind of thing I don't care for," one German-born resident of Transylvania said, staring quizzically at the biggest of the war memorials in Michelsberg church. "These people are too conservative. They are too nationalistic for me." Her reaction was probably typical of many modern, left-of-centre Germans who find Transylvanian Saxon culture - so quaint and folkloric to outsiders - uncomfortable and evocative of a Germany they would prefer to forget.

Romanians are less troubled by memories of the dark side of Saxon history. At a garage in Sibiu, mechanics recalled departed Saxon workmates only with pride and regret. They were great guys - hard workers - the Romanians said. They "could do anything". They kept in touch with some, years after they had left for Germany.And for Sibiu's go-ahead town council, led by a popular Saxon mayor, Klaus Johannis, the Saxon connection is simply a boon. The town looks like a construction site, as workmen rush to sandblast old buildings, repave streets and repair the town walls ahead of a January deadline, when Sibiu takes up its role as European capital of culture for 2007. As part of the restoration, signs reading "Hermannstadt" have been put back on main roads leading into town. The tourist office overflows with nostalgic accounts of life in the Saxon heyday and maps of Saxon villages. Saxon heritage has never been more in vogue - certainly not since the 1940s, when the communists began their half-century of rule in Romania.

But no amount of official promotion can halt the slow decay of a community that has no heirs, and of the 60,000 remaining German-speakers in 2002 - down from 800,000 a century ago - precious few are children. Most are like Sam Hutter, getting on a bit, and married to Romanians. He has no ambition to migrate to Germany, a country he has never even visited. While he is in good heart, Grossau's church, memorial, ham tower, clocks and bells will all have their protector and historian. But after he goes, who can tell?

Marcus Tanner is Balkan Insight editor. Balkan Insight is BIRN`s online publication.


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