The Story of an Old Order Mennonite Girl

Circle Letters: The Story of an Old Order Mennonite Girl - A Memoir by Aleta M. Schrock

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Castle Dungeon

Andrew Martin lay in a pile of straw in the musty darkness of the castle dungeon. The cold rocks that formed the tower wall felt damp against his back. Rats squeaked as they ran over his chained foot in their scramble for the bread crumbs that fell from his shaking hands. Bread and water. That was all he had eaten since his imprisonment several months earlier. The lukewarm water from the dented tin cup felt almost cool against his cracked lips.
The man I saw sprawled on the floor of this castle dungeon in Thun, Switzerland, was merely a model, but peering in at this scraggly representation of a man stirred emotions from deep within. Was this how my great-grandfather of ten generations ago, Andrew Martin, was imprisoned for his faith. It was during his imprisonment that he advised his family to sail to America without him. Only sparse details of the story have been handed down verbally through the generations. I know the beginning and the ending, but none of the in between. As I stood in the electrically lit castle of today, I thought of all the stories of persecution  I had grown up hearing from the book Martyr’s Mirror and I began to imagine how my ten-greats grossdaudy’s, grandfather’s, life might have played out almost three hundred years earlier.
Was my grossdaudy tormented by thoughts of fear, of how his family was surviving? Thankfully his children were grown and could take care of their mother in his absence, but what if they were captured?
Or did the time allotted with God there in that prison cell bring about the peace that passes all understanding? Was he able to praise God without the dark thoughts of fear interrupting or did he use the songs and the Word to drown out torment?
As my imagination continued a flaming torch moved down the dank hallway accompanied by heavy footsteps. “Recant, and you can go home to be with your family,” a rough voice swore through the barred windows in the tower door.
Grossdaudy ignored the comment as he prayed, “God, forgive him, he does not know what he is saying.”
Of this one thing I am confident. The persecutors were forgiven. I grew up reading the book entitled Martyr’s Mirror. It is a voluminous book filled with stories of Anabaptists following Jesus’ example in forgiving those who persecuted them. That was and is one of the foundations of the faith that persists even into today.
When I was in my twenties a teenage cousin was killed by a drunk driver who drove away from the scene and left him lying in the ditch. I never heard an angry word spoken against the driver. Only concern about the guilt he would have to live with. More recently my second cousin’s husband, a beloved Bishop of the Old Order Mennonite Church, was riding to work on his bicycle and was killed by a careless driver trying to find his cell phone. All around me I heard concern about the driver expressed, prayers that he would be able to forgive himself. Their unshakable faith in God as a supreme, loving being who is ultimately in control of every aspect of their lives gives them the peace and strength to forgive. I thank God for this heritage and pray that love and forgiveness would continue to rule in my life also.
Since my visit to Thun, Switzerland, I have discovered that Andrew Martin was not imprisoned in Switzerland, but rather somewhere in Germany, but at the time I was touring the castle in Thun I was not yet aware of that. He and his family had all been born in Switzerland but moved to Rhenish Palatinate, Germany, to escape religious persecution. Freedom did not last and Andrew was imprisoned in Germany. A castle would have been a likely place of imprisonment during those days and my thoughts continued.
Andrew dozed off fitfully on the hard wooden floor of the dungeon until he was awakened by a quiet voice, “Father, is that you?”
Yes, Father, how are you?”
“I am fine, son. God is with me. It is dangerous for you to come see me here.”
“I know, Father. I just had to make sure you were still alive. The church is praying for you.”
“Switzerland and Germany are no longer safe for us. Take your mother and your brothers and your families to America. I hear there is freedom there. If I am ever released I will join you.”
“Father, we cannot leave you here alone!” David’s voice broke.
“Save yourselves. Take care of your mother and God be with you.”
“God be with you too, Father.” David said as he slipped away.
All I know for sure is that Andrew advised his family, including his married son, David, to go to America. He told them if he ever got free he would join them. The family traveled to Rotterdam, Netherlands, and sailed to freedom on a ship called Molly, not knowing if they would ever see their grandfather, father or husband again, not knowing what tortures he might have to endure. On September 30, 1727, they docked at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
What if that would have been my husband left behind? I shivered at the thought and glanced over to where he was examining a piece of equipment across the castle room and then returned to the possibilities of what Andrew might have experienced.
“Aaaaahhh! Gott! Gott! Aaaaahhh, Gott, hilf mich! Help me, God!” Andrew heard the screams echoing off the castle’s stone walls. Another body was being stretched out on the racks.
“Recant from your heresy!” the words reverberated throughout the dungeon. All they had to do was recant their Anabaptist faith and they would have been released. But that would have meant going against what they believed the Bible taught and returning to baptizing their babies, rather than allowing them to grow up and make the choice of faith for themselves. Recanting would have meant taking up arms and fighting in war.
When we were children, my brothers and I played “cowboys and Indians.” We slung around homemade guns and bows and arrows and aimed them towards animals both real and imaginary, but never at each other. We captured the opposing party and pretended to tie them up, but never would we lift as much as a finger in pretense of shooting our play-enemies. Human life was sacred. Even the lifted finger would have wrought punishment.
Andrew sighed as he remembered with sadness the words he had heard a man shout the previous day. “I recant. Lasz mich lose. Let me loose.”
I chose to allow the torture to happen to someone other than my ten generations ago Grossdaudy. My mind entertained the possibilities, but my pen refused to write them. The Martyr’s Mirror contains stories about how the Anabaptists were tortured for their faith, but my direct ancestors’, outside of the brief information of this one incident, never recorded their own personal stories of capture, not even orally.
I think of all the stories of my own life that I have not recorded. They may not contain anything as dramatic as my Grossdauddy Andrew’s story, but generations to come might be encouraged and strengthened by my life. I am newly inspired to journal my life experiences more consistently, not only the experiences, but also the emotional process that life took me through. How might Grossdauddy Andrew have felt hearing his cell mates’ torture?
“Lord, give me strength,” Andrew murmured. He felt discouragement creeping over his mind and body and in a hoarse whisper began to sing, “Gott ist der Liebe, ließ mich ihn loben… God is love. Let me praise Him…” The musty dampness surrounded him and in the darkness he heard the rats squeak as their paws scratched and skittered across the wooden floor. Their stench filled his mouth as he took a deep breath to continue, “Gott ist der Liebe…” The words calmed his fear and a deep peace filled the little tower dungeon room as he relaxed back against the cold damp wall.
I too leaned against the cold stone of the castle dungeon wall humming softly “Gott ist der Liebe…” What if these were the very same rough wooden planks that my ancestor’s feet had stumbled along? I had grown up hearing stories about my ancestors in Switzerland and Germany. How they had been tortured for their faith and now, here I was, standing in the dungeon of a Swiss castle, conflicting emotions surging through my being.
I feel blessed to have come from such a rich heritage. A heritage of strength and integrity. People who were willing to endure horrendous tortures for the principals they believed in. That same blood runs in my veins, but I have not had need to draw on that level of strength. But I am aware of the direction our country has been going. Many of our rights and freedoms as Christians are being taken away. 
As the return of Christ draws nearer, I feel a need for a new level of faith in God and his provision. The faith that merely hopes that God will come through would falter during the situations my forefathers experienced. Two synonyms for faith are confidence and trust. I believe the end times will call for a faith, a confidence, an unshakable knowing that Christ will provide every need. Trust like a little child falling into her daddy’s arms.

 6But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. 7For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord. James 1:6-7

That kind of trust and confidence only comes through relationship. Relationship takes time. And so I turn to the Word more and more. The Word was God… the Word is God. And soon I begin to realize that this deep level of confidence type of living is not only required during hard times. It is the only way to live daily. Always.
…to be continued…


  1. You have me thinking now Aleta of the books recorded in the heavenlies of which I'm thinking there are multitudes besides the book of Life. I'm going to hunt in my Bible now, but I'm thinking surely your Grandpa's story is recorded in detail where it matters the most! Thanks for sharing his precious story. Love & prayers, in Jesus, Cynthia

  2. Thank you, Cynthia, That's a wonderful thought and I think you are right that there is more than just the book of life. Let me know what you find.