Former prison becomes Swiss Mennonite couple’s home

Government could approve Anabaptist history exhibits at Trachselwald Castle

Dec 11, 2017 by and

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Spears to pruning hooks. Swords to plowshares. And since April 1, Anabaptist prison to cozy apartment.

Already a tourist hotspot for Mennonites, portions of Trachselwald Castle could even become an “official” museum.

Martin and Eveline Hunziker live in Trachselwald Castle’s former granary, the portion of the castle with windows and shutters. Swiss Mennonites hope to be able to turn portions of the castle into exhibits about Anabaptist history. — Martin Hunziker

Martin and Eveline Hunziker live in Trachselwald Castle’s former granary, the portion of the castle with windows and shutters. Swiss Mennonites hope to be able to turn portions of the castle into exhibits about Anabaptist history. — Martin Hunziker

A Swiss fortress that imprisoned Mennonites in the Emmental region from the 16th century until the early 18th century, Trachselwald Castle is home today to former Langnau Mennonite Church Pastor Martin Hunziker and his wife, Eveline. The couple lives in the former granary, with a front door that opens onto the castle’s courtyard.

Local preacher Hans Haslebacher is said to have been held in a tower cell before being transferred to Bern for his Oct. 20, 1571, beheading. Peasants’ Revolt leader Niklaus Leuenberger was held in the tower in 1653 before his ultimate transfer to Bern. The castle’s granary was built 30 years later, but wasn’t converted into what became the Hunzikers’ living quarters until the mid-1950s.

Mennonitisches Lexikon recalls Mennonite preacher Hans Bürky of Giebel evaded government capture until being “seized in July 1708 by treachery, and taken from his wife and 12 children to the castle of Trachselwald. Here he fell ill and a few days later was placed in solitary confinement in a dungeon of the tower” for 17 weeks.

“It is our deep conviction that God has brought us here,” Martin Hunziker said by email. “We think it is time for a new era to begin and for this place to become one that promotes life.

“All the prayers of the Anabaptists held here have been heard by God. We pray that a paradigm shift may happen, that from a place of terror, violence and oppression it can become a source of streams of living water.”

Hunziker led the congregation in nearby Langnau for eight years, concluding in 2013. These days, he works part time driving a bus for a travel company.

He said it isn’t unusual or uncomfortable to live in a castle, although visitors tend to ask a lot of questions about ghosts.

“We thank God every day for being able to live here,” Hunziker said. “The surrounding view is very nice, and it means so much to us to be able to live in such a special place.”

Eveline and Martin Hunziker have lived in Trachselwald Castle since April. Martin Hunziker was pastor of nearby Langnau Mennonite Church until 2013. — Martin Hunziker

Eveline and Martin Hunziker have lived in Trachselwald Castle since April. Martin Hunziker was pastor of nearby Langnau Mennonite Church until 2013. — Martin Hunziker

Bureaucratic delays

For many decades Mennonite tourists from around the world have climbed the castle’s tower to get an up-close look at the wooden jail cells that held heretic Anabaptists.

Once offered for sale by the local government, parts of the fortress could become a museum with local Mennonite involvement, but state officials have shown they can still attempt to control simple Mennonite desires — now with bureaucratic delays and government red tape.

Three years ago, an international group came together to raise funds to purchase Trachselwald Castle in order to maintain it as a historic site. That initiative fizzled somewhat after the canton decided to rent out the castle in sections, rather than sell it.

A committee representing Konferenz der Mennoniten der Schweiz (Swiss Mennonite Conference, or KMS) has met regularly with Bern’s Office for Land and Buildings since 2009 to discuss partnership opportunities and convince officials of tourist significance.

Most recently, staff changes among administrators in the canton of Bern slowed the project further. In June, the KMS committee met with new staff members and presented the proposal again. The committee would like to use old prison cells in the basement of the main building, rather than in the tower, for an exhibit on Anabaptist history.

A few months later, Bern administrators reported back with reluctance to approve the project and enter into a lease for the space, due to the prison cells being in poor condition — though the rest of the castle is in fine shape. At this point, the Bern government doesn’t want to invest in renovations.

Committee member and historian Hanspeter Jecker said Swiss Mennonites feel the cells are perfectly suitable for depicting Anabaptist history and need only minimal work.

“Our suggestion is that KMS can prepare the old prison cells at our own expense so that they can host a small exhibit,” Jecker said. “We want to submit these proposals to the canton as soon as possible and discuss it with them.”

Meetings with government officials will continue. Meanwhile, Anabaptists have representatives working from within the thick stone walls.

“This place is waiting for a paradigm shift to happen,” Hunziker said. “This has always been my vision, and that is why we live here and pray for it often.”


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