On the bus ride into the Emmental region of Switzerland, everything seemed familiar. The hillsides of forest separated by fields and meadows, the cows and neat front yards. The Emmental looks like where I grew up in Pennsylvania. Even my Kentucky-raised husband thought so.
“It’s weird.” Jim said.
The Swiss end-of-summer air smelled of mowed grass and manure.
“Just like home,” I said to Jim.
When we got off the bus, Ruth was there to meet us.
“Have you eaten?” she asked, after hugging us both.
“So, I’ll make you spaghetti.”
A friend who had done a similar Amish/Mennonite pilgrimage, connected us to Ruth. We had the entire top floor of her home. It looked Mennonite: do-it-yourself wood paneling, practical shower surround, simple, functional furniture. Cedar closets with padded wooden hangers. Even the view from the window–I felt like I was home.
After the spaghetti, Ruth laughed as she told us about a past guest’s mishap with her whipped-cream maker. “You must be gentle,” she said, handing the canister to Jim.
Jim aimed at his fruit bowl, but cream shot all over him, the table, Ruth and me. We laughed. Ruth laughed the hardest.
Then Ruth told us about Anabaptist history in Switzerland.
We learned that the Anabaptists here are known as taufers. There were men called tauferjagers, Anabaptist hunters, who tracked them down. They hid in the Emmental’s rural hills in caves, tunnels and secret rooms—the taufernests.
“I’m not Mennonite,” She said. “But growing up around here, you know about the taufer. For two hundred years they hid here.”
She told us that Anabaptism split families—some converted but not all. Parents or siblings would alert their Anabaptist family members so they could hide as the tauferjager approached. Many of those families still live in the area, in the same farmhouses with the tunnels and secret rooms.
In the New World, everyone with names like mine has Anabaptist heritage; Schmuckers all come from one Amish immigrant, Christian. I never had a reason to think about the Schmuckers in Switzerland who had stayed with the Reformed church. How had they treated their radical Anabaptist family members? What had they felt watching their Anabaptist siblings or children be tortured and killed? I felt schooled by Ruth, a non-Anabaptist who knew my people’s history from a different angle.
“We didn’t learn about it in school,” Ruth said.
In 2007 the government made an official apology. Now there are interpretive signs along hiking trails, plaques on churches, even a taufer history treasure hunt designed for children to explore Bern.
“Now we sleep,” she said, with a little clap of her hands. “Tomorrow, breakfast at 8:30 and at 9:30 we leave for Trachselwald.”
In our room I stood by the open window I smelled freshly mowed hay. I thought of my Poppop and Christian Schmucker. I wondered, what do you do before a visit to a place like Trachselwald? What do you think about or pray about or meditate on? I thought of castles, towers and dragons. The sound of cow bells outside was peaceful, comforting. I thought of Thict Nhat Hanh and the Five Touchings of the Earth meditation. This was an unfamiliar place, but I felt so at home.
Thank you, I whispered into the night.
Thank you, Christian Schmucker. Thank you, Poppop. May we experience the transformation of these wounds.
Ruth took us to Trachselwald Castle on a beautiful, sunny day. We were greeted by cows and the gentle clanging of their bells. Ruth vanished into the shadows. Walking fast to catch her, we started up a dark, covered stairway, vines closing in around us.
I was nervous. And excited.
I snapped photos of Ruth as she wiggled a skeleton key into the lock. Then she pushed the massive wooden door, and we were in, standing in the same arched portal, on the same stones, looking up at the same tower that Christian Schmucker had seen while in chains. The Martyrs Mirror had already been published. Had he been he afraid? Proud? Resigned?
“The modern jail was in that section,” Ruth said, waving her arm toward a red half-timbered section of the structure. “This was the seat of the regional government until 2009.”
“Did you say two thousand nine?” I asked.
Ruth nodded as she marched toward a different area of building.
By 2009, the castle was at least a thousand years old.
We reached the foot of the tower and looked up.
“When this was the prison, there was no ground-level entrance to the tower,” Ruth said. “A ladder was used.”
Her words stopped time. I was transported to a dream.
She pointed up to a high window. “That was the only way in and out.”
I was frozen in place. A dragon spreading its wings through my chest and looking out at the tower through my eyes. We all looked up together.
I felt buoyant. I felt joyful.
Ruth unlocked a small portal that we ducked through and started up the stairs.
I know my mouth is shaped like my mother’s—like my Poppop’s. Was it passed all the way down from Christian Schmucker? What is time to our DNA? I wondered as we climbed.
What had been ancient—things like castles and towers and martyrs—felt present.
We climbed and on each floor of the tower there were different kinds of cells. On the highest there were chains embedded in the rock walls, and a small wooden platform with chains and stocks for holding legs. I touched the chains, I sat on the edge of the platform.
It felt right to be there.
My grandfather, Christian Schmucker, had lived in hiding as an Amish preacher all over Switzerland. He worshipped in caves in the forests. He had been a prisoner and a penniless refugee. He had opened forests on William Penn’s land to create a new home. He died a rich man in an Amish community free to live and practice their faith. All of this in one lifetime.
Any feeling of distance was melting away.
Christian Schmucker lived the truth of his times with courage.
In my times, I needed to live my own truth. I faced a terrifying dragon with the same courage.
At Trachselwald castle, I wondered about our dragons and our journeys toward healing. How different was my truth from my Poppop’s and Christian Schmucker’s truths? Were we connecting across time? Looking at the chains, I recited what I could remember of the Buddhist meditation. Wisdom. Suffering. Strength. Gratitude.
Then, Christian Schmucker whispered to my heart his own respect and gratitude.
For the healing I had done. I felt as though my ancestors were touching the earth in my honor. Thanking me for my courage.
I was humbled. Grateful. Stunned.
My ancestor’s message at Trachselwald Castle was simply: Welcome. You are the continuation, the transformation of our suffering. We are glad you came.
Photo album posts next!