A narrow path led upward over hill and valley. On the left were many vineyards, on the right the slope of a mountain. You had to walk carefully.
As we entered a forest, the path went down a little bit and made a bend in a dry creek bed. This was the spot we had been looking for.
We stopped, spread out a cloth and laid on it everything we had brought with us. We said a prayer and sang an old Anabaptist hymn.
What I’m describing happened in September in Southern Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic.
This is also roughly how it might have happened when a group of Anabaptists stopped at about the same place in 1528.
The “we” were some Hutterites from Canada and me. The Anabaptists of 1528 were a group of more than 200 people who had been driven out of nearby Nikolsburg.
Destitute, they decided to pool their belongings and share them equally. This was the beginning of the principle of community of goods that the Hutterites in Canada and the United States still live by.
If you drive through the region between Brno/Brünn and the Austrian border today, you will hardly find a town where there was not once a Hutterite house. The Hutterites were not a small, invisible group in South Moravia in the 16th century. They were growing at a pace that sometimes frightened the locals.
They built successful businesses, making high-quality products. As their wealth grew, so did their contacts in Moravian society. The nobles protected these Anabaptists because they profited from their subjects’ economic production. Tolerance was rarely altruistic.
Then, at the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War, all non-Catholics were ordered to leave Moravia. This was in 1622, exactly 400 years ago.
On this anniversary occasion, the town of Hustopece, where Hutterites had settled, organized a commemoration in September. A 16th-century well the Hutterites had made was renovated. A festive ceremony showed how important the Hutterite past has become to these people in the Czech Republic.
Hutterite history is visible in various places, and the tourism industry is hoping to gain a lot from this. Wine from the Habanské sklepy, old cellars built by the Hutterites, sells well. -Replicas of ceramics made by the Hutterites find a ready market. In Nikolsburg, signs on a walking trail explain Anabaptist history.
Beyond the tourist industry, what makes the Hutterite episode of South Moravian history so fascinating? One reason is the regional genealogy. When the Hutterites were expelled in 1622, only a third joined the migration eastward. Two-thirds remained and became Catholic, though some perhaps only outwardly.
South Moravia had become so much a home to them that they were not willing to take on the hardships of emigration.
The descendants of this part of the Hutterite community must live somewhere, perhaps still in the region between Brno and the Austrian border.
After the event at the Hustopece Museum, some locals told me they had started doing family research because they suspected their family might once have been Hutterite. One, named Huter, thought he might be the last descendant of Jakob Hutter, the founding Hutterite leader.
The existence of Hutterites today (entirely in Canada and the United States) adds relevance to the European remembrance. The foreign and old-fashioned seem exotic and exciting. Common ownership of goods seems to some like a desirable way of life in a time when many are weary of individualism and materialism.
The Hutterites have managed to maintain their way of life for nearly 500 years, though not without crises. Each time their communal way of life declined, they got up again, analyzed their mistakes, learned from it and reorganized on the basis of their Christian values. Their persistence is one lesson we can learn from Hutterite history.