Romania’s Saxons: A Tale of Survival in Transylvania

Saxon fortified church in Prejmer, Romania

Transylvania. The associations are clear but often misguided. This mountainous, thickly-forested and culturally-rich area in the heart of today’s Romania is inextricably linked to a novel written by a man who never set foot in the area and also a mediaeval ruler regarded more as a fairy-tale villain than historical figure. The 1897 novel Dracula by the Irish author Bram Stoker, the much-filmed and retold tale of a vampire count living in Transylvania who sinks his teeth into flesh to drink the blood of the innocent, is what occurs to most when Transylvania is mentioned. But while he cleverly conjured up the atmosphere of mystery that prevails in the mountains of Transylvania, Stoker had no first hand experience of the place. He based the name of Count Dracula on the fifteenth century ruler of Wallachia, Vlad Dracula, son of Vlad Dracul. Vlad Dracula earned the name of Vlad Țepeș (Vlad the Impaler) for one of his preferred method of executing and posthumously exhibiting vanquished opponents. But drinking the blood of rivals was not among his repertoire of punishments.

Cityscape in Sighișoara, a city of the Transylvanian Saxons and birthplace of Vlad Dracul.

Vlad Țepeș’ fearsome reputation made for sensational reading in pamphlets published in the nineteenth century and inspired Stoker to use the name for the protagonist of his novel. For many in Romania today, his resistance and strength make him a national hero and, for some, his methods were not out of step with a brutal age that produced tyrants like Ivan the Terrible and Henry VIII. But the mixing of his name into Stoker’s novel has meant that the number one image of Transylvania outside of Romania is of a blood-drinking crazed count living alone in a creaky, remote, clifftop castle, surrounded by bats and living off the blood of strangers.

The Dracula myth is seductive and no-one is above succumbing to its mysterious power. Romanians, who rightly complain their country is reduced to stereotypes in Western Europe, ruthlessly market a suitably dramatic castle perched on rocks in the village of Bran outside the city of Brașov in Transylvania as “Dracula’s Castle”, even though it is possible that Vlad Dracula never stepped inside it and Stoker also had no knowledge of the place.

The Black Church of the Transylvanian Saxons dominates the city of Brașov.

But while for me the Dracula story undeniably created an initial fascination for Transylvania, I have for years been enthralled by a story equally alluring that is based entirely on fact. That of the Transylvanian Saxons, a community of Germans descended from a community who left their homelands on the invitation of a Hungarian king in the Middle Ages to move far out to the east. Their skills as traders and draughtsmen were handed down from generation to generation, backed up by a solid system of guilds (Zunften) and bound together by brotherhood associations and neighbourhood clubs (Bruderschaften and Nachbarschaften). They resisted mixed marriage and kept away from outsiders, ensuring that Romanians and Roma communities stayed out from their parts of villages and towns. The community of Transylvanian Saxons flourished for centuries, preserving traditions of dress, customs and language until late in the 20th century, long after they had been lost in Germany. The Transylvanian Saxons (Sașii Transilvăneni in Romanian and Siebenbürger Sachsen in German) survived as Transylvania repeatedly changed hands and finally became a central part of the modern state of Romania. A community hundreds thousands strong thrived until the outbreak of World War II.

The Transylvanian Saxons were badly stung by choices made in World War II, when Romania for most of the conflict fought on the side of the Nazis but then changed sides to join the Western Allies and Soviets from 1944. Saxons who had fought on behalf of the Third Reich were often left marooned in Germany and unwanted by the new authorities in their homeland. Moreover in 1945, all Saxon men aged between 17–55 and all Saxon women between 18–30 were ordered by Moscow to be deported to labour camps in the Soviet Union, some as far away as the Urals, as punishment for perceived collaboration with the Nazis. Many did not make it back.

Even this did not deal a terminal blow to the community. But a deal struck in the late 1970s between Ceaușescu’s cash-strapped communist-nationalist regime and West Germany — where the Bonn government paid Bucharest for every Transylvanian Saxon it allowed to go back to Germany — encouraged many to emigrate to Germany. The Romanian conductator, obsessed with the idea of building a great Romania based on a booming ethnic Romanian population, was more than happy to see the Germans go, especially in return for money. Yet there were still over 100,000 Saxons living in Romania in the late 1980s. But the exodus turned into a torrent as Romania was engulfed in chaos following the 1989 revolution that ousted Ceaușescu and borders opened wide. This reduced the community to a shadow of its former self, literally decimating its numbers, although a small minority of around a dozen thousand remains to this day, concentrated in cities with only a handful of people in villages. The community’s most prominent member, remarkably, is the liberal President of Romania, Klaus Iohannis, head of state since 2014 after successfully serving one-and-a-half decades of mayor of the great Transylvanian city of Sibiu, known as Hermannstadt to the Saxons.

Memorials to Saxons killed fighting for Germany in World War I, Cisnădioara church.

But the Transylvanian Saxons have left an architectural and cultural legacy that endures even as the population shrinks. They fortified their churches to keep the places of worship (and civic assets) safe during the period of near constant potential conflict with the Ottomans, Mongols and Tatars. Redoubtable structures, often dramatically situated, they dominate many Transylvanian villages to this day, even when most of the German community have left. They are known in German as Kirchenburgen (church-fortresses), a single word which acknowledges their dual defensive and religious purpose. The spires of the beautiful churches, where services are still held sporadically, reach for the sky in a defiant expression of “I am still here”. In major urban centres like Brașov, Sibiu and Sighișoara, the Saxons left behind great churches, cathedrals, town halls and beautifully-designed civic squares that remain focal points of everyday life to this day.

Central Sibiu, 2019

I had found out about the Transylvanian Saxons at university while leafing through an ancient edition of the Rough Guide to Romania. Even the small amount of information there enthralled me and I read more, pouring over maps of the area. In a blissful, seemingly eternal hot summer of 1999, when I was between university and starting office work in the new year, I took a travel scholarship and spent two months in Romania to find out more. This was quite a different (though not completely) country to now, well before Romania was even close to joining the EU and a time when for many Romanians travel further west was a distant dream. I had to obtain a visa to enter the country, which then needed to be renewed after a month. I travelled all around the cities and villages of Transylvania, seduced by a landscape and culture that had famously left such an impression on the young Patrick Leigh Fermor when he walked across Europe and helped inspire his book Between the Woods and the Water. I stayed in the homes of Romanians, Saxons and Hungarians and walked from village to village, often getting hopelessly lost but eventually able to orientate myself from the spires of the Saxon churches.

Viscri, Saxon church and graveyard, photo from my 1999 journey.

I trekked across the rolling hills to the great Saxon village of Viscri (Deutsch-Weisskirch in German) stopping along the way for a lunch of freshly made white brânză cheese and canary yellow mămăligă corn mush. The greatest dangers proved not to be wolves and bears, whose numbers remain healthy in Transylvania, let alone blood-drinking counts or bats, but incredibly fierce dogs kept by shepherds to protect their flock, some of which became strays. “Este foarte periculos! Caine rau!,” (“It is very dangerous! There is a bad dog!”) I’d be warned as I set out on the path.

View from fortified church of Cisnădioara, 2019.

The fortified churches left an overwhelming impression on me. I would climb rickety wooden ladders to the top of the bell towers and watch the village below, the cattle grazing grass patches before being taken in during the evenings, the dogs barking in a lazy echo around the village. I’d speak to locals and then take notes lounging amid the wild flowers in the fields around the village in a bucolic paradise I scarcely believed could still exist in Europe. People were warm and engaging, with the soft, lyrical German spoken by the Saxons quite different to what I had heard before. The great churches in the cities were magnificent, many still boasting centuries-old Turkish carpets that wealthy Saxon merchants had brought hope from voyages and displayed in the local church. It remains the most fantastic collision to see Muslim rugs exhibited so prominently in a Lutheran Church.

Saxon cemetery, Sighișoara

But there was also a sense of deep melancholy: people remembered so well times just a few years earlier when churches had been thronged every Sunday which worshippers in their Saxon tracht (traditional dress), and now they stood empty. “You have come too late", one leader of a Saxon church choir, whose members were now mainly Romanians and Hungarians, told me sadly. "lf only you had come ten years ago.” Looking back now, I realise that my journey came only a decade after the collapse of Communism and the great exodus of the Transylvanian Saxon community. The wounds were still raw.

The community was ageing and dying out before their own eyes. An annual summer influx of former residents who left for new lives in Germany could do little to change this. Yet there were also younger people, in the church and civil society, who planned to stay in Transylvania and build lives there as proud ethnic German citizens of a modern Romania.

Saxon church in Cisnădioara, from my first trip. For a near identical picture 20 years later, see below.

It is always hard to return to places that left such a strong impression in youth when the years have passed. They have changed, you have changed. One may be disappointed. But in recent years, I have started to return for trips to Transylvania, finding the Saxon heritage is well and truly intact even if the same problems remain within the community. Sibiu (Hermannstadt in German) is now one of Romania’s most thriving cities, not least because of the efforts of Iohannis, with its German heritage helping its status as a key trading hub with points to the west. Its city centre, which looked somewhat faded when I visited in 1999, now shines lustily and the great Piața Mare central square bursts with vigour. The Black Church in Brașov is now a major tourist attraction, with its collection of eastern carpets collected by those mediaeval merchants hanging proudly around the church. Sighișoara’s emblematic cityscape has now been better protected as hordes of tourists traipse up its cobbled streets.

Backstreets of Saxon-built old city of Sighișoara

But above all the fortified churches still stand strong and must continue to do so, whatever the fortunes of the Saxon population itself. In Prejmer, outside Brașov, the Saxon church looks magnificent, surrounded by tall white walls and dominating its village. Like several other Saxon churches — but by no means all — it is now under UNESCO protection. In Cisnădioara outside Sibiu, visitors climb a beautiful stepped walkway through the woods to the hilltop church, walking through a hole in the thick walls to find the most perfect ecclesiastical building lurking within. And in Viscri, where I spent many days two decades ago, a wildly successful ecotourism project backed by Britain’s Prince Charles has taken root with so many visitors coming in the organisers are now trying to divert them to other villages.

Cisnădioara Church in 2019, almost identical to the picture I took two decades before.

No-one can dispute that the heyday of the Transylvanian Saxons has long passed. The population is 95 percent of what it was before the later Communist epoch and now numbers no more than 13,000. Most of those left are from the older generation and, while some younger people remain, the tiny size of the community has made marriage outside of Saxon community increasingly probable in the last years. A small number of younger Saxons have come back from German-speaking countries but not yet in numbers sufficient to make a noticeable difference. Yet it is too easy to write obituaries about Romania’s dying Saxon minority. This underplays efforts of people from younger generations — within the Lutheran Church and outside — to keep its culture breathing despite the challenges. Increasingly, despite the small size of the population, the Transylvanian Saxons have learned to play a role within the modern state of Romania and ensure their culture is something that all Romanians can be proud of. For a people whose culture up until one century ago was preserved through excluding outsiders this is hugely important.

And whatever the future of the Transylvanian Saxon population, their heritage leaves an indelible mark on the region. So if you got to Transylvania, perhaps don’t go looking for a Gothic castle owned by a fanged count in a cloak surrounded by bats. Even in Sighișoara, which was actually the birthplace of Vlad Țepeș, there are other things to find. Instead of going vampire hunting in the depths of Transylvania, look for a doughty church with an impressive clock tower spire surrounded by a mighty wall that is a testimony to a remarkable community that still lives on despite the most trying of circumstances.

Saxon fortified church, looking resplendent in Prejmer.

Foreign correspondent and voyager. Worked and lived in Iran, Russia and Turkey. At home in Istanbul but always moving.