My conservative, stubborn, persecuted farmer-ancestors in the Emmental

From Lake Thun we traveled to the Emmental Valley. Still part of the canton of Bern, it features even more of my ancestors—and a lot of shared characteristics.

First, our Bernese ancestors—both the Thun and Emmental varieties—were conservative. They were slow moving, reluctant to change their ways, especially in comparison with their regional rivals—the big-city Zurichers. The story is told of a Zuricher and a Bernese who decided to collect snails. Meeting after their hunt, the Bernese asked his friend, “How many?” “A basketful,” replied the Zuricher. “And you?” Five, but two got away!”

Here’s another: A Zuricher had to be called in to finish painting a tower clock after a Bernese had given up the job since the hour hand had kept knocking the brush from his hand.

And another: A Zuricher offered a Bernese reward if he could knock his head through what appeared to be a wheel of cheese. Bernese tried but on the first try go only halfway through; given a second try, he succeeded and when he asked for the reward, the mightily impressed Zuricher said, “I’ll triple the money. That was a grindstone!”

What that looked like religiously for my family is that they joined a new Anabaptist sect that started in 1693. As my friend Gerald Mast put it on my Facebook page, “They were a bunch of stubborn Amish.”  Followers of Jacob Ammann, the Bernese Amish followed his lead in being firm disciplinarians, expecting every member of the community to “conform to the teachings of Christ and His apostles.” Ammann opposed long hair on men, shaved beards, and clothing that “manifested pride.” He excommunicated liars. Until recently, Ammann, seen as angry and harsh, was blamed for the division between the Amish and Mennonites. But that may be due to one-sided documentary accounts. Ammann could not write, and Mennonites left all the letters for historians.

Second, our Bernese ancestors were medieval yokels. They did not live in the chalets on the shore of Lake Thun. They lived in the countryside, the hinter Thun, of Trachelwald, Landau, Trub. Lisa’s family, the Ewys (spelled Aebi then) worked as dairy farmers in the Emmental Valley. They distinguished themselves as pioneers in progressive agriculture—crop rotation, selective breeding, and the use of minerals as fertilizers. They were also active in milling, linen weaving, and baking. But they were kept back from other occupations, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.

After visiting Landau, we drove to Trub, home of the Schwarzentruber clan. Some sources say that Schwarzentruber meant “seller of black grapes,” but most scholars now say that this is certainly incorrect. More likely, it orginated from a man who lived on a farm called “Schwarze Trub” in the village of Trub. The name of this farm traces back to a creek called “Trub.” It is said that the creek was somewhat dark or cloudy, much different than the clear mountainous water of other nearby creeks. A nearby charcoal burning may have been the cause. Whatever the case, the Schwarzentrubers, like all the rest of my ancestors, were Swiss farmers living out in the sticks.

Exploring Trub
Aebi equipment at the former Schwarzentruber farm. It’s like another marriage between Lisa and me.

Third, our Bernese ancestors were persecuted Anabaptists. I’ll explain more about Anabaptism once we get to Zurich, where the Anabaptist movement began in 1525. For now, I’ll focus more on persecution. The Anabaptist faithful, despised by Catholic and Reformed authorities, gathered secretly in homes and barns to worship. Their services were frequently interrupted by Taufer-Jager (Anabaptist hunters)—or they were waylaid on their way home and then taken to the city of Bern for prosecution and punishment.

My mother, who led us on a walking tour of the city of Bern, explained what happened next. First, we stopped at the Rathaus, the town hall where Anabaptists and Reformed adherents debated fine theological points—and then where death sentences were announced from the balcony when the Anabaptists “lost” the debate. We stopped at a street corner where Anabaptists on their last day on earth were chained to a public “shame post.” Citizens mocked them, shouted at them, and pelted them with rocks and filth. Then they were led to be burned at the stake or beheaded in the middle of the street (named the Gerechtigkeitsgasse). We stood on a platform where down below rafts on the river took exiled Anabaptists toward the Rhine River and places beyond. Sometimes they were publicly executed by drowning as thousands watched from where we stood.

Walking tour of Bern
The platform where Bernese citizens watched Anabaptists get sent down the river and drowned by execution

In the Emmental Valley we stopped at the Trachselwald Castle. We happened to stop by on a festival day. We bought sausages and a Swiss cow bell and watched children get their faces painted and jump in bouncy houses and watched adults eat cheese and drink beer. We also climbed the castle’s tower, which told a darker story. Anabaptists were held there from 1527 to 1743. In 1670, officials looking for the Anabaptist Durs Aebi, found him, seized him, found him again after he escaped, and took him to Bern. There he was branded with an iron and expelled from the territory. Later he was seized again and let go with a warning not to preach. His name appears the last time in 1682-83 in a report by a rural magistrate that three pounds had been paid “to seek the old Anabaptist Durs Aebi again” and bring him back to Bern. He ended up moving to eastern France and southern Germany on the invitation of princes trying to restore the land that had been devastated by the Thirty Years War.

Trachselwald Castle
Sitting in a cell
Torture chamber
Chains that bound Anabaptists

The Trachselwald stories were awful—and to locals’ credit, they told them with unsparing detail. We saw cold cells of captivity, even a torture chamber with a ball and chain to swing the prisoners in circles. In the middle was a hole meant for bowels that loosened during the exercises of torture.

Bouncy houses with the tower in the background

Part of why this was such a profound visit was that the stories have been redeemed. The Swiss Mennonite Conference, the Bernese Government Council, and the Reformed Church worked together to created a permanent exhibit called “Paths to Freedom” that includes nine stations that describe the persecutions and encourages visitors to consider the nature of reconciliation and forgiveness.

We encountered another happier story at Trub, the home of the Schwartzentrubers. There we learned about the “Hiding Place.” When friendly neighbors saw the Anabaptist-hunters skulking around, they sent out a secret alarm, and the Schwartzentrubers would hide under a trap-door in the barn. In part because of these persecutions, there are no more Schwarzentrubers in Trub. “Hans from Trub” was expelled in 1711, and in 1719 a Vinzenz Schwarzentruber moved to Waldeck to manage a dairy farm. But these are stories for when we get to Hessen, Germany, in a few days . . .

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One Reply to “My conservative, stubborn, persecuted farmer-ancestors in the Emmental”

  1. You don’t have to respond to my quick emails (you may be getting a lot!) But this is WILD. Also the jokes at the start are HILARIOUS. 5 but 2 got away! LOL

    Thanks for sharing these!

    Aaron Woods Hebrew Teaching Adjunct PhD Candidate in Biblical Studies—Old Testament Asbury Theological Seminary (Wilmore, KY USA)

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