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  • Writer's pictureKaren L Kurtz

Eyes Wide

Updated: May 21

I was wide-eyed and in love with Switzerland―the beauty of the Swiss Alps, the centuries-old buildings still in use, and the way their farmland, forests, and walking trails were woven into the fabric of their urban planning. They were a bit obsessive about rules and order, but at least the trains were punctual. You really could set your watch by them.

In my second year of school in Zurich I learned from a relative that my Kurtz family had originally been Swiss. I was elated! I ditched my studies for the weekend and boarded a 2-hr train to Thun ("toon"), which was only a half hour's walk from where my ancestors had lived.

The castle of Thun, circa 1190’s, rose prominently above the town with buildings my ancestors' eyes had seen. I followed a steep road down to Steffisburg, where the Kŭrtz family had lived for hundreds of years. The snow-capped Alps rose beyond the rich farming valley, and I wondered how could anyone leave this idyllic place?

In 1744, two Kŭrtz brothers sailed to America.The younger, Stefan, brought with him a heavy, leather-bound bible, published that year. The bible was passed down in our family for almost three centuries to the living room of my parent’s home. How often I’d turned its pages of German text and hand-written inscriptions, wondering about its original owner. Had he left his home to seek adventure?

When I posted a blog about Stefan's bible ("Leather-bound Promise") I was surprised to receive news about a second bible, which his elder brother, Hans, had brought to Pennsylvania on the same ship. (It now resides in a Lancaster PA archive.) Its inscriptions opened my eyes to new information about the Kŭrtz family and to a dark side of Switzerland's past.

Stefan was only 19, and his brother Hans was 21 when they left home and sailed north on the Rhine. There were 26 custom houses, delaying and fleecing travellers along this route. Many passengers were destitute by the time they reached Rotterdam, where additional anxious weeks were spent negotiating passage to the British colonies in America. The brothers booked onto a small vessel, the Galley Muscliffe, even though it was late in the year to cross the Atlantic.

Many emigrants had no choice but to sign themselves and their children into indentured servitude in exchange for their fare. In Philadelphia colonists from a hundred-mile radius would come to the auctions to bid on German-Swiss indentured servants and farm hands. Some of my ancestors were indentured. It seems that the Kŭrtz brothers escaped that fate and were able to leave the Galley Muscliffe as free men when they reached Philadelphia.

Their 13-week Atlantic crossing was noted in an article from Ben Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette. Captain Durell of the Muscliffe reported that "French privateers” (a.k.a. pirates) had chased their ship near the Scilly Islands off the southern coast of England. Pirate raids were common dangers, along with diseases--smallpox, diphtheria, cholera, dysentery—which sometimes claimed as many as half the passengers en route.

Stefan and Hans Kŭrtz landed in Philadelphia on Dec. 22, 1744. Their new life in the frontier community of Northkill is another story for a later time.

It was their life before they came to America that collided with my "wide-eyed" infatuation of Switzerland. Ironically, being "wide-eyed" implies a naiveté or idealization, in which we don't see what is really there. Having one's eyes opened wide is entirely different. Consciousness requires one to sacrifice idealizations and bear the possibility of a more difficult truth. When our eyes are opened wide to what we don't want to see, we can't remain in that Garden of Eden we experienced before.

I was heart-broken to learn that at least three generations of my family were amongst thousands of "Swiss Brethren", a pacifist group who suffered persecution by their own government and by the Swiss Reformed Church. Their homes and farms were seized, and their children were often taken from them. They were banished from Switzerland or sentenced to horrific tortures in prison and executions by fire, beheading or drowning.

Their crime? In 1525, when the Swiss Reformed church was just forming, some believed membership in the church should result from a "believer's baptism" rather than infant baptism. (That is, one should be old enough to make a statement of faith before being baptized into the church.)

The minister, Huldrych Zwingli, agreed there was no biblical basis for infant baptism, but it seems he was negotiating a merger of his church with the secular Zürich government, which depended on infant baptismal records for taxation purposes. Compromises had to be made.

Disillusioned, the group led by Conrad Grebel, left the Swiss Reformed Church, calling themselves, "Swiss Brethren." (A century later they would be known as Swiss Mennonites and Amish.) They baptised adults and followed the New Testament teachings of non-resistance and of loving others--even their persecutors. The movement caught on and hundreds of Swiss joined by way of adult baptism. The Reformed Church labeled them as "anabaptists" (meaning re-baptisers.)

Zwingli and the Zürich Council declared anabaptism illegal, and the persecution began. The first execution took place in the Limmat River below the twin towers of the Grossmünster Reformed church in Zürich. The drowning was mockingly called the "third baptism." Executions and torture became ever more violent as other cantons in Switzerland followed Zürich's lead.

Meeting secretly in caves and forests, the anabaptists grew to thousands over the next two centuries, and their ideas reached like-minded groups throughout Europe. Perhaps the most similar in ideology were the Dutch Mennonites (led by Menno Simons.) Other Europeans started referring to both the Dutch and the Swiss anabaptists as "mennonites." The name stuck, though today many with Swiss heritage distinguish themselves as Swiss Mennonites. In 1693, a Swiss group of anabaptists (led by Jakob Ammann) split off to form the Amish sect.

Stefan and Hans Kŭrtz’s parents, (Stephan and Magdalena Bärokji Kŭrtz,) and their grandparents, (Adam and Margreth Schenk Kŭrtz), were among those Amish.

In 1713, the prince-bishop of the Palatinate (in Germany today) offered leases to the Swiss anabaptists, particularly because they were known for their skill in restoring decimated farmlands through crop rotation and in raising cattle. The Kŭrtzes were among the first leaseholders at refugee communes in Mülhofen, Katharinentaler, and Steinweilerhof, where the brothers, Stefan and Hans, were born.

When the young Kŭrtz brothers left the Palatinate, Hans, being the eldest, was given the family bible that had belonged to his parents.

The bible Stefan brought to America was brand new, printed in 1744. It was a reprint of a 1536 edition that had been a favorite in the populace because its translation was in the Swiss vernacular. The anabaptists preferred this translation, and so it became known as the "anabaptist bible" and had been banned, confiscated, and burned. Owning one had been dangerous for any family, as it incriminated them of anabaptist leanings.

In 1744, for the first time in over two hundred years, that bible was reprinted in Strasbourg (today in France.) I don’t know how the Kŭrtz family was able to purchase a large pulpit bible for their 19-year-old son, but I can only imagine how happy it would have made them to know that such a treasure of their Swiss anabaptist heritage went with him to a new land where religious freedom was permitted.

I read that both Hans and Stefan served as deacons in their Pennsylvania Amish communities. There is evidence that Stefan, sometime during his life of 49 years, left the Amish and joined another anabaptist church—the German Baptist Brethren, later known as the Church of the Brethren, (sometimes called “Dunkards.”) His descendants down to my family were rooted in that denomination.

I have experienced a range of emotions as I’ve done this genealogical research. I was gutted reading about injustices done to the Swiss Brethren, feeling anger at the Swiss government and Reformed Church. At the same time, I felt guilty about the dark culpability of my family immigrating to Pennsylvania and taking over land of the Delaware tribes. How can we not feel guilt for the cultural genocide we’ve also committed? I wept for the indentured families, split apart on the decks of ships, and felt guilt for the white privilege I have in a culture that auctioned enslaved peoples who were given no hope of freedom.

My fingers were paralyzed every time I sat down to write this piece.

Then I happened upon an extraordinary video of a reconciliation conference organized by a Swiss Reformed pastor, Geri Keller, in 2002-03. He brought together Swiss Reform clergy and delegates from Amish congregations and other anabaptist groups in Europe, United States and Canada. They gathered in the Grossmünster cathedral of Zürich, where the original split with Zwingli had happened.

Above: Ben Girod, Amish Bishop and Geri Keller, Swiss Reformed Clergy

Below: Swiss Reformed Clergy in their vestments offer foot-washing, a traditional ritual of the Amish.

The healing process seemed to happen in several stages. Receiving heartfelt, humbling confessions of guilt takes time. It isn’t enough for a one-time statement of apology to be read, as is often thought adequate in reconciliations. It seemed to be a much slower process of becoming conscious of hurtful truths and of taking onto one’s own shoulders the heavy guilt of our ancestors as well as our own culpability. The shift in consciousness is palpable when both sides finally see the other's pain.

When wrongs have been committed, reconciliation isn’t assured. It can only happen with eyes wide open. And forgiveness is a gift of grace when it is both given and received.

~K L Kurtz


Thanks to Alison Mallin at the Evangelical and Reformed Historical Society in Lancaster PA for sharing information re: the Kurtz family bible in their archives.

Also, thanks to the DeJongs for sharing a valuable lead for my research.

Gratitude to my cousin, Jane Burkholder Stine, for her tireless genealogical work and to many in my family who value our roots.

Anabaptist history*

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