Christian Schmucker, my great (x7) grandfather was an Amish refugee. For two hundred years the Swiss Amish had suffered beheadings, drownings, and being burned at the stake for practicing their faith. Christian fled Switzerland in 1740.
That was all I knew about Christian Schmucker. Until late one hot Tucson night, he made an appearance in my kitchen.
I was slouched over my laptop looking at maps of Switzerland. My husband Jim and I were planning a trip. I had family genealogy books, ancestor charts and an unwieldy spreadsheet of Swiss family names and locations. I was starting to feel confused. My back was tired, and my eyes hurt. I’m going to bed, I thought. But then I felt a tingling, a new alertness and I remembered a book on Christian Schmucker. Where was that?
I found it at the back of the highest shelf. A tiny booklet in my hand, I shivered. It felt cold, urging me to open it. The cover was a faded photo of a snowy alpine ridge and a Swiss barn. Turning the page, I was face to face with a familiar looking man. He had a long beard and was wearing a black hat. I took a breath and examined him. His eyes, the shape of his mouth. It was a drawing, but it felt energetic, almost alive. Turning page after page, I read the whole story standing in the middle of the kitchen.
I learned that Christian Schmucker was jailed at Trachselwald Castle and possibly tortured for being an Amish preacher.
Google showed me Trachselwald; a castle on a hill overlooking a village. It was near where we were staying. With Ruth, who hosts pilgrims like me. She gives tours of farms, hiding places, caves where the Amish/Mennonites worshiped in secret. Google said the castle was 24-minutes from Ruth’s house.
Searching images of the castle, I found pictures of the tower—iron chains and wrist clamps hanging from stone walls, thick wooden doors with massive medieval locks—and, just as I was clicking onward to more grisly possibilities, an email arrived.
From Ruth. An itinerary.
I clicked it open and read fast. The castle was one of the stops.
I felt cold again, and my heart was pounding. I flipped back through Christian Schmucker’s story to make sure I had the name right. I did.
“Jim, come look at this,” I said. I heard Jim’s office chair squeaking.
“I never heard of this castle before tonight—this tower where my grandfather was a prisoner—”
Jim was behind me now, looking at the screen over my shoulder.
“I didn’t know he’d been in prison—” I zoomed in and out, pointing to the castle, the tower.
“Wow,” Jim said. “What did he do?”
“Nothing,” I was showing Jim pictures of the wrist clamps and stocks now, “he was just Amish.”
“And look, it’s close to Ruth’s house. She’s taking us there!”
“Cool!” he said.
“I never knew any of this until—like—20 minutes ago.”
A draft moved around and between us, I rubbed my upper arms. Jim checked the thermostat on his way back to his office. Picking up Christian Schmucker’s story, I felt myself tingling again. Hot, then cold. I flipped to the image, the eyes and the mouth. He looked like my grandfather, my Poppop. Poppop was Christian’s great-great-great-great-great grandson.
As the refrigerator kicked on, the room felt crowded. Ancestors in books, charts and spreadsheets, united through Christian Schmucker’s story, became more real. I was energized. Something big was happening. Or maybe something big was going to happen—at Trachselwald.