The scene looks like a cross between a foxhunt and an amateur horse-jumping competition. A posse of 10 young men gallop at breakneck speed toward a tall wooden gallows in a field. Standing bolt upright in their stirrups as they pass under the gallows, the riders lunge at the neck of a freshly slaughtered rooster dangling from the crossbeam. When, after dozens of attempts, one of the horsemen finally manages to tear the animal's head off, a crowd of about 500 spectators erupts into cheers and applause. The new harvest king has been chosen.
This ancient ritual, called lapanje kokota (rooster plucking), is performed every summer in Werben, a village of about 1,900 people located some 120 km southeast of Berlin. The participants are Sorbs, descendants of two Slavonic tribes that settled in the region during the 6th century. Most Sorbs still live in rural areas, and the annual lapanje kokota ceremony is a re-enactment of an old fertility rite that's supposed to ensure a bountiful harvest. Modern Sorbs still turn out for the event less for its alleged agricultural benefits than for the chance to mix and mingle, catch up on the latest village gossip, enjoy the homemade cakes and, perhaps, overhear one of the village elders speak the old language. "We're a very special, small people," says Susann Hockwin, 22, a Werben hairdresser of Sorb descent. "It's important to keep the old customs alive, if only by showing up on days like this."
Like the Veps and the Rusyns, the Sorbs had to contend with centuries of persecution, repression and forced assimilation plus the Nazis, who tried to make them more Aryan by closing Sorb schools and churches and banning the language. Ironically, the Sorbs thrived under East Germany's communist regime, which was keen to demonstrate solidarity with the Slavic countries of the Soviet bloc by recognizing the Sorb language, subsidizing Sorb media and sponsoring cultural festivals. But there was a price to pay. All politically oriented Sorb organizations had to toe the party line, and dozens of Sorb villages were razed for the strip-mining of lignite, a brown coal that's plentiful in the region. The Sorb population dropped from around 100,000 in 1945 to around 60,000 in 1989. "It's a miracle that we still exist," says Dietrich Scholze, head of the Sorb Institute in Bautzen, a research center focusing on Sorb history and language.
The Sorbs' survival owes less to miracles than to the group's tenacity in preserving its traditions. During the worst of the Nazi oppression, Sorbs secretly taught children their native tongue and continued to circulate Sorbian literature privately. "As an ethnic minority, you have to be inventive and stubborn," says Horst Wolk, 51, head of the Werben branch of Domowina (Homeland), an umbrella organization for Sorb cultural groups.
That recalcitrance has been rewarded by the German government's policy of increased legal protection and cultural promotion. Since reunification in 1990, the Sorbian language has been officially recognized, and the state constitutions of Brandenburg and Saxony, the German states where most Sorbs live, stipulate that the two Sorb Councils at the Potsdam and Dresden parliaments be consulted on all matters affecting the ethnic group. Berlin provides some £16 million annually to fund groups like the Sorb National Ensemble, which stages ballets and musicals based on Sorb themes.
The Sorb experience in Germany is an example of how a small but determined ethnic group can thrive when the government is on its side. But there are still plenty of reasons to worry. Unemployment, which exceeds 22% in some Sorb areas, is forcing many young people to look for work in other parts of the country. As a result, says Scholze, the number of Sorbs who still speak the language is dropping. "It's not like I'd be able to really use Sorbian anywhere, so why bother?" shrugs Hockwin.