Who are the Transylvanian Saxons?

“We are in Transylvania; and Transylvania is not England. Our ways are not your ways, and there shall be to you many strange things.”
– Bram Stoker, Dracula

  The Saxons that settled in Transylvania have no relationship with the Anglo-Saxons, nor the Saxons found in the present German state of Saxony. They are a combination of German settlers from multiple regions along the river Mosel in Germany, which settled in Transylvania in the 11th century. The Transylvanian Saxons origin and nature will be discussed further, although a clear answer to their heritage and ‘Saxon’ name is unknown.


Through this website I will discuss the  Transylvanian Saxons in Romania and the effects mass emigration has had on its landscape, architecture and people. Meschendorf, the village my grandfather originated from, is one of many Saxon villages located in Transylvania that has undergone one of Europe’s most dramatic emigration processes within the last 100 years. This resulted in one of the most drastic cultural changes and challenges within Europe. It is fascinating how the German settlers brought with them the German culture from various regions along the Mosel River to create their own preserved community for hundreds of years. Saxon villages were able to sustain their culture, traditions, language, food and dress, in addition to surviving through two world wars and years of communism, yet, today their culture and existence has almost vanished in the time frame of a single generation. How much of a culture is left in a place, and how much of a culture is brought into a place by its inhabitants? Is a place created and transformed depending on the nature of its inhabitants? Or does a place create the people that inhabit it? 
Through this site I wish to discuss the, past cultural customs and changes Transylvania has undergone through mass emigration in the eyes of its past Saxon residents that have now immigrated “back” to Germany, of which my grandfather, Georg Klein, was one.

My Grandfather Georg Klein had lived in Meschendorf
the first 19 years of his life; with documents of his family tracing to the 1600’s.

     The site will explain why the German settlers went to Transylvania. Typical architecture, traditions, festivities, and customs of the Saxons will be discussed in addition to the emotional experiences and changes Saxons have undergone, mainly within the last century.

320px-austriahungarywwi

THE DISSOLUTION OF AUSTRIA-HUNGARY
The heavy line bounds the old Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. The light dotted lines show the several provinces. The heavy solid lines bound the new states formed by the Paris Conference as follows

1. The Republic of Austria
2. The Republic of Hungary
3. The Republic of Czechoslovakia
4. Austrian Territory annexed by Poland
5. Hungarian Territory annexed by Romania
6. The Serbo-Coast-Slovene State (Yugoslavia)
7. Austrian territory annexedy by Italy

   On first observation Transylvania gives a picturesque impression. Its landscape comprises of dramatic mountains, and large never ending forests filled with wild animals such as wolves and bears in addition to remains of ancient buildings. Supposedly its people include shepherds, gypsies, and woodcutters, vampires and of course Dracula, a fairy tale come true living within the forests and villages founded by the Saxons in the middle ages. Even Transylvania’s literal Latin meaning ‘beyond the forest’1, given by the Hungarians during their occupation for almost a thousand years, shows how Transylvania is almost a make believe, fictitious region. Most people today, who know its existence, would even hesitate where to pinpoint it on the map. For centuries Transylvania has been heavily associated with the existence of Dracula, and vampires -the west have often viewed it as its other or the outsider. Nevertheless once this romantic veil is lifted one notices that the villages are also infested with poor health, poverty and the effects of its communist past.
  Transylvania is located in the central part of Romania bounded by the Carpathian Mountains on both the south and east side. The mountains formed a natural border frontier between the East and West, and a boundary between Moldavia and the old principalities of Wallachia, which now with Transylvania makes up modern-Romania.

where-is-transylvania
   Throughout history, various empires and peoples dominated Transylvania, such as the Austrian-Hungarian empire (until 1918). It can be described as a ‘whirlpool of European races’ as various peoples have occupied Transylvania, with some races having great repressions, and others such as the Saxons enjoying unimaginable freedom. In 1918, Transylvania became part of Romania through the ‘Treaty of Trianon’, resulting in Romania being a product of multiple incarnations. Romania can be tied to its Slavic neighbours, Greece, Turkey, the former USSR, Hungary and the Saxon Germans; nevertheless most Romanians link their longer past with the Dacians.

1044-1077_geza_i_medium
King Geza II

   More than 800 years ago Germans colonized Transylvania on the invitation by the King Geza II of Hungary (1141-1162). He invited both Germans and Flemish as guests – known as ‘Hospites Teutonici et Flandrenses’- within the arc of the Carpathians. The Germans mainly settled in Siebenbürgen (Siebenbürger Sachsen) and later in Banat (hence: Banater Schwaben). The original role of the German settlers was to cultivate and defend the South-eastern border of the Hungarian Kingdom in addition to protect against the semi nomadic Tartars and Cumans that regularly raided Transylvania between 1241/1242. There are varying historical theories what exactly brought them to emigrate to Transylvania, but the underlying reason was to escape extreme poverty in their homeland Germany. In return German settlers were given free property, attracted by tax incentives along with the guarantee of cultural freedom.

transylvanian-saxons-siebenbuerger
   In the mid 12th Century the Saxons settled in Altland or Hermannstadt Province setting up various villages along with seven main towns, which are known as the Siebenbürgen (seven boroughs) region. The name Siebenbürgen possibly originates from the seven castles the Saxons built, one in each of the seven towns formed.  Siebenbürgen is also known as „Das Land hinter den Wäldern“ meaning ‚the land behind the woods’ due to its rural and often forest landscape. While the majority of Saxons live in rural communities, they also set up towns: some of which gradually grew into sizeable cities.

Siebenbürger Towns

Bistritz – Bistrita
Kronstadt – Brasov
Klausenburg – Cluj-Napoca
Mediasch – Medias
Muehlbach – Sebes
Hermannstadt – Sibiu
Schaessburg – Sighisoara

  Although the Saxons are known to hold detailed archives, there is no coherent evidence that locates the Saxons back to a specific region within Germany. In the seventh century there was a strong debate about the origins of the Transylvanian Saxons. Books, such as  „Das Alt- und Neu-deutsche Dacia“ (The Old and New German Dacia), published in 1666 by Johannes Troester showed possible links with the Saxons and Dacians, which were strongly linked to German Goths and Thracian Getae. This though, would give the Saxons a predated presence in Transylvania prior to the Hungarians. The idea that Saxons could pre-date the Hungarians, although enjoyed by various Saxons, was slowly dropped by the eighteenth century.

   Another legend suggests that the Transylvanian Saxons originated from the children that were lured out of the Amlasch (Varghis) cave into Transylvania by the Pied Piper (a Romany) of Hamelin.  This story would explain how blue-eyed, fair haired German-speakers that followed ancient customs, lived in Transylvania, although they were far from Germany by thousands of miles.

“In Transylvania there’s a tribe,
Of alien people who ascribe
The outlandish ways and dress,
On which their neighbours lay such stress
To their fathers and mothers having risen,
Out of some subterranean prison
Into which they had been trepanned,
Long time ago, in a mighty band,
Out of Hamelin town in Brunswick land,
But how or why they don’t understand.”
– The Tale of The Pied Piper – Robert Browning

   Today there are still debates about the origins of Saxons. It is important not to confuse the name of the Saxons with the present German state of Saxony. The Transylvanian Saxons language and cultural traits in addition to the rules and rituals of the communities, suggests that they come from elsewhere. Many believe that the Saxons originate from the Mosel/Luxembourg region, but it is still not understood how they became known under the name of Saxons in 1204. Others state that they come from parts of Germany, which were historically known as Saxony, and today can be described as being near Liege, Luxembourg and Treves. This would also explain why the Saxon dialect could be compared to that of past Luxembourg, which is difficult for a modern German to understand. 

When my Grandfather visited Luxemburg,
various residents told him that his Siebenbürger accent reminded them of the way their great-great
grandparents spoke.

  In 1211, King Andrew II granted a special charter to the Teutonic Knights, under an order that was founded during the Third Crusade in 1189. The charter was to defend the land and convert the enemy, Tartars and Cumans, into Catholics, giving them the South-eastern region of Transylvania, which is also known as Burzenland. Their settlements though did not last long, as they were soon expelled from the Kingdom of Hungary after angering Andrew by proposing that the Pope Honorius III should have complete control over Burzenland. 

800px-goldener_freibrief_1224

Goldene Freibrief Andreas II
from 1224 through King Kalr I. (1317)

   After this disappointment, Andrew granted the Saxons complete self-governance, in 1124, under their own leader, the Sachsen Graf (the Saxon Count), as the German settlers seemed to be more trustworthy guests. Compared to other guest helpers, the Saxons were treated with a lot of respect and benefits. The Goldene Freibrief (Golden Charter), secured the Saxons with freedom and self-administration with the Sachsen Graf only being subject to the King.  This allowed them enough freedom to develop and maintain their own culture, and customs in return of having certain military obligations. The Goldene Freibrief allowed the Saxons to elect their own clergymen and judges; their merchants were exempt from tolls and dues within the kingdom, in addition to the Saxons being able to own their own land and property. The freedom became one of the Saxons greatest strengths, and allowed them to keep their own religion and language. The Goldene Freibrief was still valid, in most parts, up until the early 20th century.

   As Harald v. Hochmeister (currently aged 78 and priest in Meschendorf from autumn 1961 to autumn 1968) states, during his time in Meschendorf, there was only the right of ‘Freedom of Parish Election’ remaining from the Goldene Freibrief. He also adds, that there was a down side to the ‘freedom’ given by the agreement towards the Saxons. The special agreement towards the Saxons compared to other ethnicities made the Saxons very proud.   

  The effects of Saxon pride were visible until the early 1900’s. Harald v. Hochmeister states, “Stupidity and pride grow on the same wood”. This had bad consequences for the Saxons. Families began to look at their own wealth, and tried to multiply this. As a result, they often only had one child, and then tried to increase their wealth though marriage by finding an appropriate partner.
   In the mountainous areas of Transylvania, in the middle of the Carpathian Mountains, settlers brought with them various skills such as the ability to develop the region’s economy and knowledge in agriculture, wine making and mining. Transylvania was made up of rich fertile lands and pastures along with valuable natural resources such as salts, precious minerals and red metal. Its ideal geographical location, allowed for trade routes at the west-east, and north-south junctions, resulting in various grid-like Saxon towns and villages flourishing.  The Transylvanian villages were set up along with their German schools and Lutheran fortified Churches; resulting in a cultural autonomy, which was protected through hundreds of years through treaties with the respective ruling administration.
   In addition to the Saxons, there were also other German speaking groups in Eastern Europe. Before 1918 Transylvania was under the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy where the government and bureaucracy was often run in German. After 1918 Transylvania was ruled under the nationalist government of Romania, which brought greater emphasis on the Saxons that their Saxonness related more to Germanness than any other culture, such as Romanian. After 1940 the Saxons were linked to greater Germany and the Third Reich, followed by the Romanian orientated communist regime in 1945 where the Germans were seen as the enemy and made responsible for the war, resulting in severe punishments. Some Saxons, and other Germans left Transylvania, but others were trapped behind the iron curtain. In 1989 the boarders were re-opened, but the National Romanian Government now ran Romania. Today, Romania is highly regulated by the E.U, and its borders are opened. Nevertheless the Saxons, and other Germans in Transylvania were attracted to stay in Germany as it allows for a better quality of life with its major economic power. Therefore one can see Meschendorf, as a micro society, in response to macro events.
   The 1930’s census shows the number of Saxons in Transylvania peaked, with 238,000 Saxons living in Transylvania.   Since then, the numbers have constantly decreased. Two main events triggered a mass exodus of Saxons from Transylvania: WWII and the fall of the communist dictator Ceausescu. During WWII it is believed that 175,000 Germans were either killed or had evacuated the country as a result of the war. A generation of young men were not able to return to Transylvania, which had become a communist country, resulting in many Saxon farms not having an heir. Since WWII many Saxons migrated to Germany or Austria, some moved as far as the USA, living mainly in Idaho, Ohio, Colorado or Canada within the Southern Ontario region. Many moved in hopes of finding a ‘better’ life, but those that wanted to return were unable to do so due to the Iron Curtain of the Communist regime not allowing for freedom of travel.

My grandfather was one of the many Saxons that was unable to return to Meschendorf
after WWII. He was firstly enlisted into the Romanian army, initially allied with Germany,
which later traded its German-speaking soldiers to the Nazi-German army. There, Georg, along with most other soldiers from Romania, was given the most dangerous duties in battle. He was sent to the ‘Russland-Feldzug’, where he was confronted by the Russian army, in Northeast Germany, at the river Elbe.  The Russians won this battle, and George quickly swam over the Elbe to escape the Russian Kriegsgefangenschaft,  which everyone assumed would surely have resulted in death. Georg was then captured by the US-Army who sent him of to a POW camp in Belgium. Upon his release he wished to return to his home in Meschendorf, but Meschendorf had now fallen under communist regime. If he were to return home, he would have been sent to one of the worst prison camps in Siberia known as Gulag. That way, Communist Romania demanded the Germans to compensate for damage done.  For this reason he remained in Belgium, where he worked in mining until 1952 and later moved to his brother’s house in Stuttgart, Germany where he met my Grandmother.

   After WWII Romania became a Communist state, resulting in 70,000, Germans being accused of Nazi collaborations. As a punishment, Saxons were sentenced to 5-year in a hard labour camp. Therefore, straight after the war, many Saxons, being of German origin were transported to the Russian Gulag as they were seen as collaborators by the Communist regime.
   In addition to suffering from various accusations, those who returned from labour camp experienced two phases of nationalization which disowned the Saxons of the land they owned for over 800 years. This had a great impact on the rural Saxons, as farmland was all they owned. The nationalization also took away the Saxons autonomous community life, breaking up the tightly knitted cultural rules, as they went from being a self-regulated community to following the communist Romanian Government.
   The higher prospects found in (then) West Germany, in addition to the Saxons cultural links with Germany, attracted ever more Saxons to emigrate. The decreasing number of Saxons in Transylvania wore away the will of the remaining Saxons to remain in Transylvania, where the ability to farm, and prosper was becoming increasingly difficult. As a result, since the early 1970’s, two major waves of emigration occurred. This was also triggered by the more liberal emigration laws, which West Germany negotiated with the Romanian government. Germany was able to pay $8,000 US dollars for each exit permit and it is thought that by the 1980’s around 70,000 exits for Saxons from Romania were “bought out” by Germany.  With massive disparity in wealth between Germany and Romania, it did not take long after the collapse of the Ceausescu regime (Dec. 1989 to spring 1990), for half a million Saxons to pack up the few things they still owned and leave Romania through the newly opened borders. 
   As a result, currently less than 10% of Saxon residents remain in Transylvania (compared to the early 1900’s), turning history into memory. When I first visited my grandfathers village,  Meschendorf in 2011, only one Saxon remains (aged 101).

10 thoughts on “Who are the Transylvanian Saxons?

  1. My grandparents spoke Saxon and we could never figure out why it was called that. One of my cousins had traced our ancestors to Transylvania, but she didn’t know why we spoke Saxon either. She also said that we were of German descent. I am now 75 years old and don’t remember much, but I remember sitting behind old ladies on the bus and my cousin and I could understand them speaking Saxon, but they never knew we knew everything they were saying!

  2. My brother recommended I might like this web site. He was totally right.

    This post actually made my day. You can not imagine simply how much time I had spent for this info!

    Thanks!

  3. thank you for posting this…. we came to America in 1952… my parents were from Transylvania…what a long road it has been… thank you for posting.

  4. My father, from Schassburg/Sighisoara spoke both German and “Saxish”. He moved to Canada ~1926. The family that remained suffered a lot during the WWI,WWII,and under Russian domination and communism My mother was of British descent. I’m tempted to go to Sighisoara, and see the old house and maybe Saxon graveyards with remains of relatives.

  5. Thanks for highlighting this little know corner of Europe,its Saxon heritage.Beautiful Kronstadt(Brosov in Romanian)with its Pied Piper legend is a must visit.The Pied Piper is said to have fetching up there,rats and all.
    One meets German speaking Romanians in Kronstad,one of whom told me(in 2016)that families in Germany sent their children to Transylvania in the early 30’s,where they experienced healthy outdoor living with plenty of food.

  6. My family arrived Christmas Day in Idaho, we are Transylvanian Saxons from Romania, you never hear much about the Transylvanian Saxons but that’s what we are still in Idaho .

  7. I am a proud Saxon born in Botsch, Romania. Transylvania in German is Siebenburgen. I am a Siebenburgen Saxon, an ethnic German.
    After WWII, all the German names of the cities and towns were erased, as if they had never existed… I am presently writing my biography so that my two sons can learn of their history. Some of the research of Transylvania took 9 months. The Saxon history in Transylvania goes back almost nine centuries.
    My nephew just contacted me after 30 years thru his X-mas gift of a 23 and me DNA kit. He doesn’t remember when I visited him at 5 years of age. He is now 35. He wondered why he could not find out about our family and our history. I tried to explain the many reasons…
    After WWII and we were driven out of our homes and left by covered wagon with about 500 other wagons. We did not own horses but had steers pulling our wagon, while the Russians were shooting at us and Americans bombing us. The records are still sealed. The US Army Signal Corps captured for posterity important documents on our expulsion. Some of these films are stored at the U.S. Army archives in Tobyhanna, Pennsylvania and undoubtedly will be available at some point. It is no wonder Romania did not repatriate us. The Saxons built everything in Transylvania. They were the worker bees – lucky Romania. When Romania switched sides during WWII, it was with the condition that Transylvania would be returned to Romania. You don’t have to be a genius to understand “why..”
    I just found out today, while researching, that the Transylvanian Saxons even built the Bran Castle (of Dracula fame) that the tourists pay to visit, in Romania… It was built as a defense against attack.
    My grandfather and grandmother in 1911 came to this country. They spent 10 years in Youngstown Ohio, saved their money, and then returned to Transylvania and built their “Castle.” Only to have it confiscated during the war. My mother and her two brothers John and George were born in Ohio. John returned to Ohio by himself at 17. During WWII, John went into the American Army.. George, his brother and my father were inducted into the German army. When my grandmother visited her hard earned castle, she almost had a heart attack. The castle she and her husband had slaved for was in total disrepair. The new tenants were too lazy to repair the house, even though they got it for nothing. If it were not for the Saxons, Romania would probably have to declare bankruptcy.
    My Uncle, a physician had to return to Botsch during our exodus in our wagons, because his son became very ill. They were only allowed to leave Romania after the Berlin Wall came down. Germany paid a ransom of $5000 to Romania, for each Saxon who left their country. All Saxons were given German citizenship. I still speak Saxon, German and a bit of English. :). :). My parents spoke Saxon, German, Romanian, Hungarian and English.

    Maria K.

    Formerly from Windsor Ontario Canada, Michigan, Texas, California and Florida. –

    Love and Affection to ALL my past countrymen, living and dead!

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