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Program proves Low German language still very much alive

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – When the popular Low German program returns to Bethel College’s Fall Festival this year after a one-year hiatus, it will feature a real live Low German radio personality.

Carl Zacharias, Reinland, Manitoba, is the host of “Zacharias Vetalt” (“Zacharias Tells”), a weekly half-hour Low German program syndicated to several radio stations in Canada and Paraguay.

The local organizer of the Low German program, Harold Thieszen of North Newton, met Zacharias in Henderson, Neb., about a year ago. Thieszen was doing a two-week fill-in, assisting two lay ministers at Bethesda Mennonite Church while the lead pastor was on vacation.

Thieszen and his wife were at the home of one of the lay ministers, Cathy Wismer. She and her husband, Mark Epp, were hosting Zacharias, who had been in Bolivia as a Mennonite Central Committee volunteer with the Henderson couple.

“We clicked right away,” Thieszen recalls, “and began talking rapidly in Low German. The words were tumbling over each other. It really intrigued the others.” Thieszen, a Henderson native, spoke only Low German until he went to school at age 6. His wife, Esther (Klassen), is from Goessel and also a native Low German speaker.

While they were visiting, Thieszen told Zacharias about the Low German program at Bethel’s Fall Festival, which except for 2008 has been a regular feature over the last number of years. “He said, ‘I’d like to come,’” Thieszen says. “I said, ‘Would you be willing to be part of the program?’”

Since then, Thieszen has listened regularly to “Zacharias Vetalt” on the Internet through iTunes. At Fall Festival, Zacharias will tell of his experiences producing and hosting a Low German radio program, which he has been doing full time since January 2008.

Zacharias was born in Winkler, Manitoba, and at age 8 moved to the Menno Kolonie in Paraguay where his parents were missionary teachers for three years, followed by four years of mission work in Belize. Zacharias finished high school in Winkler and went back to Belize after graduation. Eventually, he completed his degree in agriculture at the University of Manitoba.

Zacharias and his wife Esther were married during their university years. Esther earned a degree in education and the couple moved to Belize, where Esther taught elementary school and Carl managed a credit union. They spent two terms, 1990-94 and 2000-03, with MCC in Bolivia. Zacharias wrote his real estate license in 2003 and worked as a Realtor until January 2008. “Now I'm living on whatever folks contribute to what I’m doing [in Low German radio],” he says.

In addition to Zacharias’ part in the Low German program at Fall Festival, Thieszen and Willmar Harder, a younger pastor (now at Hoffnungsau Mennonite Church in rural Inman), will talk about using the language. Harder grew up in Mountain Lake, Minn., where his parents taught him and his siblings to speak Low German because they had grandparents who spoke nothing else. Now Harder and his wife, Hannah Neufeld, are teaching their young sons to speak Low German.

“People say it’s a dying language,” Thieszen says, “but there could be up to a couple hundred thousand Low German speakers. It is still active and alive for many people.”

Thieszen himself is called on these days to do medical interpretation, most recently for a Low German-speaking cancer patient at Via Christi in Wichita. Not long ago, a Bethel College board member living in Dallas called Thieszen hoping he knew of a Low German speaker there to aid a Mennonite family from south Texas seeking medical treatment for their child. Thieszen ended up doing the translation over the phone because he knew of no one locally who could help.

“I have to do a lot of descriptive talking,” he says, “because there are no Low German words for things like ‘chromosome’ and ‘ova.’”

Thieszen has also visited with and preached for the Low German-speaking Mennonites who have emigrated to western Kansas, near Sublette, from Mexico in the last five years.

At the Fall Festival program, “Wie Kjenne Noch Plautdietsch” (“We Can Still Speak Low German”), Thieszen will talk about his experiences with medical translation and he and Harder will present some of the Low German resources currently available which, in addition to radio programs, include magazines, books, music and films.

“Wie Kjenne Noch Plautdietsch” will be Saturday, Oct. 3, at 9 a.m. in Krehbiel Auditorium of the Fine Arts Center. Admission for all ages is $3 with a Fall Festival button and $5 without, except for Bethel College students, who get in free, with proceeds going to Bethel College.

For more details and a complete Fall Festival schedule, go to You can view and print a festival program at this site.

Fall Festival buttons, which entitle you to free or reduced admission to several special events, are $3 for adults and $2 for children age 3-12 (under 3 free). Buttons are for sale at Kauffman Museum, Thresher Bookstore or the Kidron Bethel activities office or at five campus entrances on Saturday.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2009 and one of only two Kansas colleges listed in Colleges of Distinction 2008-09. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at

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