Two north-American pilgrims walk across Moravia rediscovering their Hutterite past
Two pilgrims from the United States and Canada have just covered over 700 kilometres across Moravia on foot. They were tracing the footsteps of their distant ancestors from the Hutterite community, who were driven out of Europe in the 18th century.
Jason Stahl from Montana and Paul Hofer from Alberta were both raised in the religious community of Hutterites, a branch of the Anabaptist movement, originally from Austria and South Germany.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, its members found refuge from persecution in Moravia, were they became known as Habáni. They soon gained respect as skilful craftsmen, great builders and above all, excellent winemakers.
Jason and Paul decided to walk along their ancestors’ migration path, starting in Switzerland and heading to Eastern Europe. They set out on their journey last July from Zurich and travelled on foot through Liechtenstein and Austria before arriving in Moravia in May of this year.
Over the following weeks, they walked from village to village, looking to discover sites, people, stories, and artefacts related to the Hutterite’s 500-year history, as Jason told Czech Radio:
“Growing up, we had heard these stories of Hutterites and where they came from. This part of the Czech Republic, Moravia, is where their golden period happened.
“They were tolerated, they were able to practice their religion, as well as their arts and handcrafts and they really flourished here.
“And you know how it is with hearing stories, visiting a place makes it real. And that’s part of my motivation for coming.”
To navigate their way around Moravia, the two pilgrims relied on apps on their mobile phones, but, as Jason Stahl explained, they also drew information from a book written by Czech historian Jiří Pajer called Studies on the New Christians:
“This is a book that I would say is the lifework of Jiří Pajer. He spent time looking for these places and chronicling them. We didn’t go to every single place, but tried stopping at all the important ones. But without this book it would have been next-to-impossible.”
In a map, they marked the places they had already seen and the places they still planned to visit, as Paul explained:
“There are 30 or 40 different locations and I have put a star to the 15 or so places where we found Hutterite traces, like a cellar, a mill or a well.”
Jason and Paul say there were multiple reasons why they decided to embark on the pilgrimage. According to Paul Hofer, one of them was to educate the general public about the history of the Hutterite community:
“A big part of our motivation for this journey was to educate Hutterites of their own history, because most Hutterites don’t really know where they are from.
“They know they are somewhere from Europe, possibly from Germany, because we speak a German dialect, but that’s about it.
“At the same time also to bring awareness back here in Europe as well because here in Moravia, most people don’t really remember our presence here.”
With the help of Jason’s broken Czech and thanks to the friendliness of most of the local people they encountered on their way, the two pilgrims always managed to find their way around:
“Generally, when we come to a town and we pull out this book and show people some maps, they are interested, and we usually end up surrounded by a small crowd, because somebody calls their neighbour and they call a son who speaks English and there are like ten people around trying to figure out what’s going on. So it can be pretty exciting sometimes.”
One of the many villages Paul and Jason visited during their 700 kilometre journey through Moravia was Tvrdonice in the Břeclav region.
They even managed to take a peek inside two wine cellars that were built centuries ago by their distant Hutterite ancestors:
“Just being here in this space and touching the bricks that our ancestors made, this is enough. That is a gift already.”
Both Paul and Jason agree that travelling on foot and getting to meet local people has been a one of a kind experience, completely different from visiting a foreign country as an ordinary tourist:
“Walking around as a pilgrim is very different from being here as a tourist. As a tourist, you are here for a few days or a few weeks but this is a much slower pace.
“You actually get to stop and see the flowers along the way and smell them and talk to people. We have had encounters you could never get as a tourist.”
After crossing Moravia, Jason Stahl and Paul Hofer headed to Slovakia, from where they want to continue to Romania and, if the situation allows, also to Ukraine.