Shameful tourists

Visitors to Swiss historic sites can do better

Apr 1, 2019 by

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Switzerland is a land of beauty and Anabaptist history. Many North American Mennonite and Amish people visit to get in touch with their faith’s roots. Most Swiss hosts are too gracious and polite to offer feedback to Mennonite visitors who seem to come with a sense that the nation owes them something for being an Anabaptist today.

The sad fact is, a bad guest is far more memorable than a good one. And guests end up being representatives of entire faiths and cultures. One bad apple can wipe out the rest of the bushel’s positive actions.

Preacher and farmer Hans Haslebacher was imprisoned in Trachselwald Castle on a hill above Sumiswald multiple times. He was the last Anabaptist executed in Bern. Today direct descendants live in his house in Sumiswald and open their home to visitors interested in seeing where he lived, but uninterested in paying to stay the night in a guest apartment.

The Haslebachers who live there now are not Mennonite but understand their ancestor’s significance to Mennonites and Amish people. They open their home to strangers who desire a peek inside. There is a small box for small donations, yet too often visitors walk on by. What we call frugal, those watching us often call cheap.

The Kambly cookie factory and store in Trubschachen, outside Langnau, is a popular destination for Mennonite tourists, who are probably drawn more by the free samples than the company founders’ Anabaptist ties. When the Mennonite World Conference General Council met in Switzerland in 2012, a bus of participants from around the world visited the factory on a tour of Anabaptist sites. By the time the bus departed, every sample bowl was empty, and few purchases boarded the bus.

The surfaces in and around Trachselwald Castle’s two jail cells are covered with the names of visiting Mennonites. — Eliane Kipfer

The surfaces in and around Trachselwald Castle’s two jail cells are covered with the names of visiting Mennonites. — Eliane Kipfer

Worst of all is the Trachselwald travesty. The castle is a pilgrimage site. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, Anabaptists were imprisoned and tortured as heretics in its jail cells.

The centuries-old thick wooden walls might have been used by some of the earliest Mennonites to count the days and weeks with tally marks or to etch their names in a simple memorial moments before becoming martyrs.

It might have happened, but it’s impossible to tell today due to their descendants defacing any surface they can find with their own scrawled names.

If I had a dollar for every Mennonite who has vandalized that space, I would give it to the Swiss Mennonite Historical Society to preserve the fortress and make it a museum. Even better, the people who left behind their graffiti should give even greater amounts directly.

Vandals seem to take pride in identifying themselves. Some individuals and couples record their hometowns and the date. Visit the castle if you want to know just who they are.

It is reasonable to assume these people wouldn’t do the same thing on a pew in their church. They probably wouldn’t even do it in a gas station bathroom.

The thinking goes, I guess, that people want to leave a marker of their ancestral or spiritual connection with people who were literally tortured for their faith in these spaces.

These modern visitors haven’t suffered the hardships to earn the right to such defacement. Weekly worship in peace and security would have been a nearly unthinkable luxury for a Swiss Mennonite 400 years ago. It counts as a sacrifice in today’s society.

Holding the chains in a jail cell during my visit, I tried to summon the will to reflect somberly on profound sacrifices my theological predecessors made. I couldn’t do it. All those “good Mennonite names” made me too angry.


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