According to legend, in the German town of Hamelin appeared a mysterious man who, with the help of his magic silver flute, offered to release the village of its plague of rats. After successfully finishing the job but not receiving his promised payment, the colourfully dressed piper returned while all the adult villagers were in church. This time he used his flute to exact revenge, bewitching the local children and luring them to follow him away. Legend says the mountain opened up and the children traveled a long while underground until emerging from a cave in Transylvania, where they settled into seven cities.
Over 500 years later, Goethe wrote a poem based on the story and also referenced it in his version of Faust, but the tale written by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm is the best known around the world. Convincing theories exist to believe the literature about the Pied Piper of Hamelin was based in fact, inspired by the colonization of Central European territories by King Géza II of Hungary in the 12th century. To defend against Turkish and Tartar invasions, ‘locators’ were hired to recruit young people from populated areas in the Moselle river region then lead them to settle in Transylvania and fortify border towns. They cleared forest land and founded villages in exchange for legislative privileges and exemption from paying taxes.
These medieval German settlers built fortified churches while creating strong and organized communities around them. For more than 800 years they lived peacefully in towns and cities alongside Hungarians, Romanians and Roma, while nurturing a specific self-awareness and identity as Transylvanian Saxons.
In the 20th century wars and communism uprooted the people. During World War II they served in three armies (for Romania, Germany and Hungary) and became both victim and executioner. In 1945 more than 70,000 Transylvanian Saxons were apprehended by Soviet occupiers and deported to labor camps in Siberia. The new pro-Soviet government of Romania suppressed their historical rights and confiscated properties.
After the fall of communism in 1989, around 90% of the Saxons who remained fled Transylvania within a few months. Half a million people migrated to Germany and Austria, or to North America in search of a new life, and the deserted medieval villages their ancestors founded began to deteriorate. Now that very few Saxons remain in Transylvania, their history and legacy are in danger of disappearing entirely.
Today some who left Romania have returned in search of their roots and are working to preserve their heritage. This work highlights some of the last Saxons’ own stories surrounding their identity, memory, traditions and life experience.