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The Amish come home

The Amish take a break from the tour to sing the Haslibacher hymn

(swissinfo.ch)

When a group of Amish visit Switzerland, they are as much an attraction as the sites they come to see.

swissinfo spent a day on the road with an Amish tour group as they visited their ancestral home and Amish sites in the Emmental.

One of the stops on the Amish tour is an old farmhouse which belonged to a 16th century martyr, Hans Haslibacher. A group of long-bearded Amish men stand in a semi-circle in front of the farm, singing the Haslibacher hymn in his honour.

After speaking to the direct descendant who currently runs the farm, the 32 members of the tour group then read a plaque dedicated to his famous forefather and inspect the barn before boarding the bus and travelling on to the next “ancestral site”.

The image most people have of the Amish is of a reclusive, conservative religious community that rejects all modern conveniences, as they were portrayed in the 1980s Hollywood film, “Witness”, starring Harrison Ford.

But the portrait is only half true. To understand the Amish, one has to understand their past.

Forefathers

The Swiss authorities persecuted their forefathers, the Anabaptists, because they rejected infant baptism, military service and refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the state.

The large majority of those who escaped eventually made their way to the new world, restarting their lives as farmers in the United States, where they were free to practice their beliefs.

The Anabaptists eventually split into two main sub-groups, the Amish and Mennonites, which again subdivided into various orders – from ultra-conservative to modern.

However, they share the same core beliefs and members of the various orders took part in the Swiss tour.

Old and new orders

“Sixteen of them are Old Order, and five are New Order,” explains tour guide, Leroy Beachy.

“The New Order is just a bit more progressive. Both the New and the Old Order still don’t use the automobile, but some of the New Order do use telephones,” he explains.

“But the distinction is not even the same in each community.”

Worldly Mennonites

“We also have one Mennonite couple, who we call ‘worldly Mennonites’. They can have anything they want.”

Beachy describes himself as a “Beachy Amish”, who are allowed to drive cars and use electricity in their homes. Unlike the Old Order, church services of the Beachy Amish are conducted in English instead of German.

Numerous hurdles have to be overcome when planning a trip for a group which holds specific religious beliefs, says Beachy. The Old Order members refuse to fly, so the group agreed a compromise and booked passage on the Queen Elisabeth cruise ship.

Each member of the tour group forked out $6,000 just to cross the Atlantic - a unique and costly way of remaining true to the faith in these days of cheap air travel.

Dark chapter

After the Haslibacher farm, the next stop is Trachselwald castle.

Dating back to the 12th century, the castle was a prison for Anabaptists who refused to renounce their faith.

They were held in irons in cramped wooden cells. The tower and its cells have been preserved as a reminder of the time, and the local authorities have recently mounted a plaque explaining the dark chapter of history.

Beachy gives a brief introduction to the site, saying the castle still serves as a prison “not for hardened criminals, but for drug users”.

He then leads the group up a narrow winding staircase to the cells, where many members are quick to deface the walls by adding their names to the hundreds of others scratched into the wooden surface by previous Amish tourists.

Before boarding the bus again, the group crowds around a small stand set up by a Swiss watchmaker, who has travelled to Trachselwald from the other end of canton Bern to do business with the group.

Mennonite watches

The watchmaker claims to be the only Mennonite in the trade in Switzerland, and says there is a great demand from the North American religious community.

Some of the tourists buy several of his watches, handing over hundreds of dollars in cash.

Henry Schrock, a member of the New Order and one of the customers, admits the normally modest Amish tend to be wealthy, and says it is because “we are not afraid of hard work”.

This is Schrock’s first time in Switzerland, and since he is not allowed to watch television or go to the cinema, he had only seen pictures of the country in magazines.

“It is exactly as I imagined from the pictures I have seen in National Geographic and in encyclopaedias,” he says.

“I’m pleased that Switzerland corresponds with the pictures I’ve seen and the literature I’ve read.”

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in the Emmental

Key facts

The Anabaptist movement grew out of the Reformation.
Anabaptists rejected infant baptism, rejected military service and refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the state.
They were persecuted for their beliefs and many fled to the United States.
The Anabaptists eventually split into Mennonite and Amish sub-groups, and later into various orders.

end of infobox

In brief

The Amish tours usually begin in The Netherlands where the group visits the home and sites of Menno Simons, one of the founders of the Anabaptist movement.

On their way to Switzerland, the group makes a stop along the German Rhine where the Anabaptists first migrated after fleeing Switzerland, before making their way across the Atlantic.

In Switzerland, the group tours Zurich to see where an Anabaptist martyr was drowned, before heading to the Bernese Oberland and the Emmental.

The tour guide, Leroy Beachy, says most of the Amish can trace their roots to a small area around the western shores of Lake Thun, the Aare Valley and the Emmental.

end of infobox


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