My fascinating journey to Moravia


Earlier this year, I had the extraordinary privilege of travelling to the Hutterite motherland of (Mähren) Moravia. Moravia is located in the southern part of the Czech Republic. (c-map below)

Hutterites strongly identify with Austria and Germany as those are the birth places of many of our ancestors and is where our mother tongues of Hutterisch and High German originate. In reality because of intense persecution in those countries during the Protestant Reformation our forefathers quickly fled north to the more tolerant Moravia.

Here they were protected by Lords and Nobles because of their value as superb craftsmen and makers of luxury dishware known as Haban Faience. Our forefathers refer to Moravia as the “promised land” because this is where Hutterite life truly began. Here is where the concept of community life was born, where the first Hutterite Colonies were built and where the rules and regulations that still govern colony life were established. At one time Hutterites numbered between 50-70 thousand people on 104 Bruderhofs (Hutterite Colonies) in this region.

Moravia is a striking region with gentle rolling hills, vivid blue skies and rich agricultural lands. Some moments it reminds me of southern Alberta, but the miles and miles of vineyards and the castles in the distance tell another story.

I am travelling in the distinguished company of archeologists, scholars, museum curators, and scientists. All of them have intimate knowledge of our people and their way of life.

I am awestruck by the sheer amount of information I am given as we travel from place to place. I have to use all the skills I learned during my career as a television news-reporter to document and photograph my journey. The language barrier is a challenge. From 1948 -1988 Moravia was under communist regime and no one was allowed to learn or speak English. They speak Czech and I have to employ translators every step of the way. The days are long and exhausting. Our Hutterite ancestors lived in these areas for 100 years. There is just so much to see and I’m only staying a month!

I am deeply moved with the time and effort this knowledgeable team puts in to show me my own history. They have studied the Haban (Haban or Habanske are the words they use for Hutterites) culture for decades and share with child-like delight the artifacts and information they have uncovered. My 18 year old son Levi, who was studying overseas at the time, joined me for part of the journey and is a great help with photography. He is just as fascinated as I am. We are the first people of Haban ancestry that the team has ever met.

Although it has been 500 years since our ancestors fled this area I am taken by how strongly their presence can still be felt here, like a hand on my shoulder everywhere I go. I feel it when walking the original well-worn path to the Hutterite settlements in Nikolsburg, in the magnificent still-in-use Hutterite wine cellar near Auspitz, and in the brilliant artistry of the hundreds of pieces of stolen pottery and cutlery the Catholic Church donated to local museums. The hand painted Haban Faience by Hutterite master potters are in great demand by private collectors. A simple jug sold at auction in Prague last year for $10,000.00.

I am moved to tears when I am able to hold and examine 15 of our confiscated books, some of them small enough to fit into the palm of my hand, so they could be hidden in our ancestors clothing when they fled. A stunning Biblical concordance written in 1530 is in superb condition. It was found hidden in the wall of the children’s school attic at one of the Bruderhofs.

On my visit to Sabatish I discover a thread that connects me and all Hutterites with the Maendel (Schmiedeleut) or Mandel (Lehrerleut) name. During the forced re-catholization of the Hutterites in 1745 they were required to bring their babies to German Mass in Sabatisch to be baptized. I was given a copy of our mutual ancestor Paulus Mandelig’s Catholic baptism certificate. It gave me chills.

Not only were our scholars renown, so were Hutterite doctors. All Nobility insisted on being treated by Hutterite doctors, including Emperor Rudolph 2nd. The Emperor had been treated by many famous doctors from Italy, Spain, and other lands, but no one could help. As a last resort he called on the despised Hutterite doctor, Georg Zobel from Nikolsburg. Zobel treated the Emperor in Prague for six months and was credited with saving his life. The pharmaceutical vessels our ancestors used to hold the medicines and salves in their medical practices sit on shelves at the Haban museum in Velke Levare. They were discovered in the rubble at a Bruderhof excavation site.

Moravia is wine country and to this day the locals credit Hutterites with showing them how to grow excellent vineyards. The 500 year old Habanske (Hutterite) wine cellar near Auspitz still produces award winning wines. I am delighted when they proudly show me one of their best wines and it bears the name Jacob Hutter. Auspitz is where Jacob Hutter became our leader. This is their way of honoring Hutter's memory. The long neck on the flask is the traditional way our ancestors bottled their wines.

Our forefather’s memories are genuinely treasured and cherished here. They call them “the most beautiful people that ever lived.” Early Hutterites are remembered not only for their sense of excellence but for being well-mannered and generous to the locals. When locals are told that my ancestors were Habaner I am treated with curiosity and delight everywhere I go.

Knowing our history is critical because it gives us a sense of place in this world and the price paid for our religious freedom. It is humbling when strangers know so many more details about our early beginnings than we do.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. No truer words have been spoken when it comes to my trip to Moravia, Slovakia and Hungary. I was blessed with hundreds of stories and thousands of photographs from my month long journey. I have had the privilege of giving PowerPoint presentations at dozens of Hutterite Colonies and at conferences. For information about having a presentation in your community or at your next meeting you can contact me at m.kirkby@sasktel.net.

Today is Remembrance Day. Let us pay our respects to all those who died so that we might be free, including thousands of our Haban forefathers. May we live lives worthy of their sacrifice.

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