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New Europe

Day One Hundred and Twenty: Bitterfeld to Berlin

Michael Palin - New EuropeHerr Marx, it turns out, is not actually German. He belongs to a minority nationality called the Sorbs, a Slav people from the east, of whom he estimates there are some 40-50,000 in the country. They have their own language, which for most of the twentieth century was banned in churches and schools. Teachers, he says, were given money for every Sorb child they taught to speak only German.

In 1941 the Nazis decided that the Sorbs were not true Aryans and plans were drawn up to remove them all to Auschwitz. Thanks to Hitler's invasion of Russia these were never carried out, and the Sorbs survived until their fellow Slavs in the Red Army liberated them in 1945. 'Today no problem. No problem.'

We glide into one of the small, attractive Spreewald villages with wood-built thatched cottages and green lawns coming down to the water. Their owners, probably weekenders from Berlin, keep these little communities spick and span. The barns and fences give off a satisfying smell of freshly applied creosote, and the banks are secured by stout wooden pilings.

Herr Marx points out things for me: the two entwined snakes with crowns that mark each end of the rooftop and are supposed to bring good luck; a 300-year-old house, half-hidden behind an orchard of cherry blossom; the way they use plaited wheat stalks for the topmost row of an otherwise straw-thatched roof; a restaurant called the 'Funny Halibut'; a museum entirely dedicated to gherkins.

'The speciality round here is cucumber, asparagus and gherkin.'

By now the mosquitoes are biting hard and the Wind in the Willows world is becoming more like Leichhardt's last journey, but when we eventually disembark the hospitable locals have prepared a wild boar barbecue for us. Hunting is an important part of the Sorb way of life, which explains all those wooden platforms with steps up to them, in the fields by the river.

'The hunters shoot 20,000 animals in one year,' says the ever-helpful Herr Marx, with a bit of pig in one hand and a Krombacher beer in the other. A man of serious enthusiasms. Just like Ludwig Leichhardt.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day One Hundred and Twenty: Bitterfeld to Berlin
  • Country/sea: Germany
  • Place: Bitterfeld
  • Book page no: 278

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