Hometown festival, West German-style. Tiny Schwabendorf celebrates it's 300th anniversary as a refuge for French Huguenots
Schwabendorf, West Germany
FAMILY. Tradition. Heritage. An ideal ancestral hometown. Schwabendorf is a place so real it seems almost imagined. You won't find it on a standard road map of West Germany. This tiny hamlet is no more than a handful of houses surrounded by lush, rolling farm fields ripening with wheat, hops, hay, and corn.
Nearby on a low hill above the town is a dense, dark forested area cleared of underbrush, firewood neatly stacked between trees. It's a Little Red Riding Hood landscape.
Yet on the first Sunday in July, the 430 people who live in the village were hosts to more than 5,000 visitors - relatives from America, France, other parts of Germany, friends from Italy, Denmark, and the surrounding cities and towns.
The crowd had gathered to help celebrate the 300th anniversary of a community created as a refuge for Huguenots - French Protestants - fleeing from religious persecution in their homeland. Climaxing a week of events, a splendid parade wound its way through the town's narrow streets for two hours under a cloudless summer sky.
A few days earlier on Thursday evening, more than 1,000 spectators watched villagers reenact their history in a five-act play on a makeshift stage in the courtyard of the community hall.
During the 17th century, the Huguenots - followers of John Calvin and the earlier, 12th-century Peter Waldo - had grown in number during years of religious tolerance under the Edict of Nantes.
When this law was revoked in 1685, the Huguenots experienced cruel treatment at the hands of the Roman Catholic majority. Many died or were tortured.
Driven from their homes, threatened with loss of their children unless they recanted, families first hid, then found ways to escape, finding haven in friendly foreign lands.
Landgrave Carl of Kassel invited a group of refugees from small Alpine villages in southern France to settle on part of his land - a Protestant area in what is now Hesse, West Germany.
Here they prospered as farmers, artisans, carpenters, free to follow their faith - a French colony in the tolerant German countryside. French lingered as the primary language for 150 years, but the actors spoke German as the play unfolded its dramatic tale. For the benefit of the visitors from other countries, each act was explained in English - and French!
French names persist among townspeople - although usually with German given names: Anna and Heinrich Aillaud, for example, who shared their home with remote American relatives during the festival week. No longer full-time farmers - only four village families still are - the Aillauds live in a comfortable modern home built on old foundations in the town center. The stone courtyard behind the house leads to an ancient barn where they raise beef cattle, hogs, and chickens.
Three generations live in this house, and a fourth is growing up in a home two streets away.
At 91, the Aillaud Grossmutter is one of the eldest of her generation. A tiny, bright woman, she always dresses in the traditional style. She wears a long dark skirt with narrow pleats from waist to hip, vest and shawl or fichu crossed and pinned at the bosom.
Her hair is pulled high and twisted - sometimes braided - into a topknot that fits neatly into the small, black pillbox hat worn for ceremonial occasions. The topknot distinguishes Protestant women from traditional Catholics in Hesse, who wear their hair in a braided ring.
With a sense of community bridging even national bounds, Gerhard Badouin, who organized the week's events, had invited descendants of village families now living in France, Italy, and the United States to be Schwabendorf's guests. Fifteen Americans came, some from as far as California.
``They brought the California sunshine,'' said Mr. Badouin, explaining that a month of chilly rain had preceded the festival week.
For visitors from afar, the feeling of coming home to family was strong.
Californians Carol and Wesley Maydex were surprised at the intricate web of connections they found. ``We seem to be related to everyone in the village,'' said Mrs. Maydex. David and Tom Moutoux, college students from Kentucky, learned of the celebration from their grandfather just before leaving on a European back-packing trip. They knew little of their family's past before this visit.
But members of three other Moutoux branches in America quickly filled them in on a history going back to 1600 that includes both Waldensian and Huguenot pastors - one of whom ministered to the village for 50 years, the last to preach in French.
``My grandfather is sure going to get some letter about this trip!'' said David, hearing about the bravery of an earlier Moutoux pastor. That was 17th-century Jacob, who led his flock back across the Alps to their village - the ``Glorious Return'' - during a brief period of amnesty.
But an event like this is also a grand party. On the weekend evenings, hundreds gathered in the festival tent - about half a football field in size - to listen to the chorus and the local brass ensemble. They watched folk dancing, talked, drank, and socialized as the reverberating ``oom-pah-pah'' of the traditional German dance band blared a pulsing beat for the couples crowding the dance floor.
Schwabendorf's 300th was no middle-aged nostalgia. Young people were everywhere. The Moutoux brothers, who stayed with a family that had a son their age, said, ``Most of them [the younger generation] seem pretty content. Some of the girls we've met may be restless. You can tell by the makeup and clothes styles that they probably won't stay in the village. But the son, who just finished school, has a good job lined up in Rauschenberg and sounds very pleased to keep living here.''
Deeply rooted in the past, prospering in the present, Schwabendorf's future seems safe in family hands.