Hannes Richter


Hannes Richter

A story of some who left and some who came.

The time had come for Hans to make a decision. Indeed, the situation was bad enough already 10, 15 years back, but by now it was hard to conceal how much this whole question affected him, his family, and the entire village.

Yet, it had started well enough for Hans. More and more princes of the empire had turned their back on Rome and had adopted the theses brought forward by Martin Luther – and with them, their subordinates were subjected to these new beliefs. Cuius regio, eius religio – whose realm, his religion.

In other words: the ruler dictates the religion of the ruled. It’s as simple as that. No questions asked. You are Catholic today and Protestant tomorrow and vice versa - as your prince sees fit. Some ten years earlier (roughly until 1630), they at least had a priest looking after the Protestant flock. Like most of the region, after 1567 the village of Arbesbach in northern Austria had become predominantly Protestant. In fact, however, for some time the two religions had lived side by side in this tiny village and if you asked the villagers, they might not even have seen any real problem with that arrangement.

And yes, in many cases it might have been hard to distinguish who was Protestant and who was Catholic. But of course, no one asked the villagers. And then the Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648) changed everything. As with many other wars, it had many different faces: it was a war about predominance in the Holy Roman Empire, about hegemony in Europe, about rival dynasties – and it was about religion.

Very much so! Between the years 1185 and 1190 the local prince Hademar von Kuenring had built the first fortress in Arbesbach (which back then was called Arwaizpach) mainly to protect the important trade routes to the Northwest. However, 300 years later the fortress was destroyed and its remnants can still be seen today. From 1567 onwards Protestant priests were active in the small parish of Arbesbach, although from 1580 onwards Catholicism was again gaining ground. By 1600, Protestants started to emigrate by the thousands from what is now Austria.

Arbesbach, though seems to have taken it a bit slower, so that Protestant priests remained in the area until roughly 1630 and Protestants stayed several years longer – such as Hans, who by 1650 had sold his house and left for Germany. Several other decades later, his descendents would move further to theWest: they would cross to the other side of the Atlantic, where they live today. One of Hans’ descendants, Ken Hoffecker, contacted me shortly after I had published my first story in the series and asked whether I could do a piece about Arbesbach.

I was honestly surprised that someone residing in Delaware would even be aware of Arbesbach’s existence, so Ken and I started a dialogue by e-mail and finally my wife and I spent a lovely weekend at Ken’s and Sharon’s house. This is how I learnt about Hans’ story. Hans, in fact, was one of the so-called exulanten, that is someone that went into exile for his beliefs at a time, when such beliefs were less accepted than today.

Arbesbach lies in a part of Austria that is called the Waldviertel, i.e. the forest quarter. In the old days, people used to say that this area in the North of Austria knows roughly eight months of winter, and four other months during which it is just cold.While this seems a wee bit of an exaggeration, for centuries the area has consisted of prime forests, remote places, rock formations steeped in legend, reliance on simple country life, and myths and ancient stories.

For several years now, Arbesbach has provided a home to a number of brown bears that have been granted asylum in the so-called Bärenwald (the bear forest), which is run by an animal welfare organization called Vier-Pfoten (the four paws). It offers 14.000 square meters of living space for bears that have suffered various forms of abuse in the past. Currently Vinzenz, Liese, Brumca, Tom and Jerry, Lara and Eddie are living in the bear forest, where they recover from their mostly unpleasant past.

Vinzenz and Liese, for example, were held for several years in a concrete pit of less than 300 square meters before they were brought to the forest to live in more adequate conditions. The bear forest is definitely worth a visit, particularly in a country where free-roaming bears can no longer be found (to learn more, go to: http://www.baerenwald.at).

To this day Arbesbach and almost the entire Waldviertel region follow a somewhat different clock than the rest of the country. It is worthwhile to go there and experience the land, its inhabitants, past and present, its legends and stories, and its rocks and ruins. There is only one advice: take your time! And some warm clothes.

© Markus Reiterer