Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Little Saxony

The Făgăraş Mountains, part of the Southern Carpathians, form an imposing and almost impenetrable barrier running east to west. These mountains have always been the southern border of Transylvania, the first and most important line of defence for the region. In the 12th century, to strengthen and protect the border marches the Hungarians invited Saxon (German) colonists to set up shop in the valleys on the northern foothills leading to the important mountain passes. For this the Saxons were given trading and social privileges and they soon became the urban elite, along with the Hungarians.

It wasn't all fun and games though, and after the Mongols came hordeing through in 1241 they decided to beef up their defences. Instead of building castles (which are usually for nobles anyway, of which there were not many amongst the Saxon settlers) they decided to make their churches into veritable fortresses. It seems like every town and little village between Sighișoara (Schässburg in German) and Sibiu (Hermannstadt) has its own, über-Gothic fortified church, some of them surrounded by up to three rings of defensive walls up to 12m high. Their interiors and graveyards are also almost entirely German affairs, with solid names like Wagner, Schmidt and Kohler peering back at you through the ages, a testament to what once was. It was a joy for me to potter from one village to the next, sometimes hitching a ride or otherwise taking a small path over from one valley to the next, enjoying the bucolic scenery and gorgeous woods in their golden autumn finery. It's not just the churches that indicate this western transposition mind you, the villages and houses here are also set out in a very different form from ordinary Romanian villages: the farmsteads have a central courtyard enclosed by high, contiguous walls, there are no gardens and, most strangely for Romania, there are no grannies sitting by the side of the road commenting on life as it passes by.

The fortified church at Biertan dominates the village and can be seen, looming, from miles around as you approach.

Unfortunately, apart from architecture, there is not much left of the once-sizeable German community that lived in the area. Before WWII there were 750 thousand Germans living in Romania. Half of them left at the end of the war, and then following the fall of Communism some 85% of those that were left also returned to Germany so that now there are only some 60 thousand remaining. Their influence is still felt and many local Romanians speak at least some German as a second language (German tourists are big business) and, if you're lucky, you may come across an actual Saxon. Whilst hitching out of Biertan an old man pulled up. I started to mumble in my halting Romanian before being quickly interrupted and asked if I spoke German. Sure I said. Good he replied, because your Romanian's awful. Johan was a sprightly man in his 70s and started describing what it was like to be a German during the Communist regime, but didn't get far as I was only going 8km. Still, it was an intriguing snapshot of a life that had witnessed a lot.

Whilst hiking around the Saxon villages I found this shepherd's shelter which I borrowed for the night, thereby saving myself the bother of pitching, and then putting away, my tent.

1 comment:

H said...

The dissapearance of German language population was a great cultural loss for Romania, as they have been a good backbone for socio-economic development and a good model of cooperation.

Interesting that the Germans of Romania sided with Romanians not with Hungarians when Transylvania joined Romania after WW1 (they had enough of Hungarian supremacy too).

During WW2 most of them have been forced by the Nazis to join in a way or another German/Nazi political or cultural organizations, which attracted the universal label as "fascists" during the Soviet occupation (by the alien communists, not the locals). Many have been deported, others forced to leave the country and subjected to many discriminations that are not talked about todays (not allowed to enter schools, get good jobs, expropriated, publicly humiliated etc). You may be interested to read some of Herta Mullers writings, the lady who got Nobel prize for literature (from a German family near Timisoara) who touches these matters.

I also find interesting that in Romania still survives an old European pre-WW2 mentality that German language is the real thing for culture. While it lost ground in face of English and French, it should not come as a surprise that when you meet an older serious intellectual it will advocate German language as "the real thing".