The next book in the series I’m calling the “Schneebelungenlied” will be about the members of the Schneebeli family who left Europe and came to America. Interestingly, I have some of the actual words of these people from 1739 or so describing the voyage (“sehr hart”) and their life; “I wish from my heart that you could be with us, then you could enjoy the wonderful freedom. Here you never have to take your hat off to someone if you don’t want to. Only the journey is difficult. Anyone who will take the chance and likes to work and can bring money along is much better off here than in Switzerland.”
The man who wrote these words to his cousins back in Affoltern am Albis had lost his wife and daughter on the voyage…
Long ago when I was in Switzerland for the second time or third time, I went to a town, Stein am Rhein, a walled town, a medieval town on the, yeah, Rhine. 😉
My friend and I wandered around and then we went through a pretty arched doorway to a courtyard with a doorway into a stone building. Above the doorway was painted the eagles of the Holy Roman Empire and in a circle the date, 1623. I was jolted. Already people had left Europe to live forever in America. I saw for the first time with my own eyes what they left behind, and I didn’t think I could leave it. I loved it. I loved Switzerland, the beautiful old towns, the architecture and construction that were so far away from the pioneer homes I’d visited all my life in America that I was really shaken. Most of the people who emigrated were not destitute in their homelands (or they could not have afforded the very expensive voyage or even had the possibility of serving out their fare as indentured servants). For the first time I understood what it must have taken for them to leave at all.
To my right was another archway and steps leading to the river where passengers could get on a boat. At that point, I didn’t know that my own ancestors could have walked down those very steps to a boat that would carry them down the Rhine to Strasbourg, or even to Rotterdam from which they would have gone to some English port and set sail for America. That building could easily have been a customs house or a point of embarcation. It was certainly a government building with the painted eagles over the doorway.
When I discovered the history of my family (after I’d already written a plausible version of it in Savior) and began studying their history, I learned that many of them were Anabaptists. THE BROTHERS PATH, the novel I worked on over this past winter and which I’m peddling on the marketplace, tells a mostly imagined version of what the 8 years of Huldrych Zwingli’s years of power might have been like for six brothers. I knew all the while that I would then want to write about the ultimate journey of the family across the Atlantic.
They were Mennonites. By the time they finally left for America, they’d suffered 200 years of intense persecution by every local government and by every major religion of their world — Lutheran, Swiss Evangelical Reformed, and Roman Catholic. Remembering that small landing dock on the Rhine, the beautiful town leading to it, I can understand how it must have felt for them to leave and how desperate they were.
Today I got two fascinating books to help me with this containing diaries, Bibles, birth certificates and all kinds of first-hand documentation of the journey and settlement. I don’t plan to write much about their lives in America; I plan to focus on the time leading up to it. In the case of my direct ancestor, he married, went to the Alsace for safety with his new wife who, it appears, died in childbirth. He remarried the next year and had three children with his second wife. She and their infant daughter died on the voyage. He arrived with his oldest — my ancestor — and two other sons. I imagine ending the story there with an epilogue which will be the letter he sent home several years later. I like it best when I begin a story knowing the end.
Wish me luck!