Past is present in Swiss journey

WAG Wonderful Dining columnist Aleesia Forni sets out with her family to find her ancestral roots in the land of the Alps, luxe timepieces and skincare and Roger Federer.

“It’s Trubshachen.”

Those are the words my dad can’t stop saying. He’s sitting on a train speeding through the rolling hills and farmland of Switzerland from the country’s de facto capital of Bern to a tiny train station in the municipality of Trubshachen. From Trubschachen, our group, made up of myself, my parents and two aunts, will take a bus to an even smaller village called Fankhaus, the land where my great-great-great grandfather, Niklaus Fankhauser, departed two centuries ago with his sights set on America.

My dad is by no means a somber man, but he’s also not one to show overt excitement. But right now, he’s antsy. He can’t sit down and he can’t stop smiling. For some reason, it reminds me of my own feelings when I first visited “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter’ in Orlando. For him, Trubshachen is also something of a mythical place, one he and his two sisters, Nancy and Jane, have heard stories about since childhood. It’s also a land that after nearly 70 years, they’re finally getting the chance to see for themselves.

This trip has been years in the making, a chance for my father and his siblings to visit the land of their ancestors. Both my paternal grandfather and paternal grandmother trace their roots to Switzerland, though each family is from opposites ends of the landlocked country. 

On this train ride, the one where my dad looks happier than a kid on Christmas morning, we’re headed to the land of my grandmother’s family, the Fankhausers. My aunts are sitting together on the train, each equally as amused as I am by my dad’s outburst of excitement.

We depart the train at Trubshachen and immediately take in the gorgeous scenery — Swiss chalet-style homes, a smattering of quaint inns and eateries, flowers so lush and stunning they look artificial. We then hop on a bus that will take us on a 15-minute trip and drop us off at Fankhaus. 

If my dad is antsy, my mom is ecstatic. This trip has been, for her, as much of a fact-finding mission as for my father and aunts. She spent months on Google and, tracking the Fankhausers’ roots and attempting to connect with any present Fankhaus residents.

One discovery was a museum in Fankhaus, though what exactly the museum showcased we were unaware. Emails she’d sent to the owners had gone unanswered. Still, we decide to try our luck and head for the museum.

We have no idea what to expect, but we are armed with Google Maps, which takes us on a few wrong turns and down a path that literally runs through a cow pasture. After a handful of knocks on a handful of wrong doors, we find the Fankhausers we are searching for. The matriarch of these Fankhausers seems flustered, understandable given our surprise visit. She points around her home to a barn, where she says we will find the Fankhauser museum. 

The museum, we find, is a tribute to both the Fankhausers and an offshoot of Christianity called the Anabaptists. This sect believes that baptism can only be valid if he or she is able to make the decision to be baptized, as opposed to infant baptism. Beginning in the 16th century, Anabaptists were persecuted by both Protestants and Roman Catholics for their beliefs. Fankhausers were, according to the museum, both Anabaptist themselves and those who helped protect them during that time.

We walked through the museum, which served as the home of a man named Christian Fankhauser in the 1600s. We are led to a hidden room that Christian, an Anabaptist himself, used to hide inside during times of persecution. It’s dark and cold, and the five of us huddle together on a wooden bench, thankful for both our past and present family.

A few days after our Fankhaus trip, after we’ve traveled from Bern to southern Switzerland, journeyed to the top of the snow-covered peaks of Schilthorn, walked through the stunning waterfront landscape of Lucerne, ventured up an open-air cable car to Stanserhorn mountain, we set out on the journey for another piece of our history.

The Forni ancestral quest is a bit different: We know people here. We’re fortunate that other family members have made similar treks to Bedretto, the tiny string of villages where my great-great-great grandfather Maccabeo Forni was born and raised before moving to America. We even stay at the Hotel Forni in nearby Airolo.

We meet up with a man named Giovanni, a well-connected lifelong resident of the area who, on a previous trip to Switzerland, my cousin happened to run into in the Hotel Forni restaurant. Giovanni then introduces us to a man named Elia, another Bedretto villager that he affectionately refers to as “The Professor” because of his historical knowledge. Elia proves to be an exceptional impromptu tour guide, showing us printed family trees of our ancestors dating back to the 1500s, taking us to the church where those same ancestors were parishioners and walking us through a cemetery dotted with Forni headstones. The highlight, though, is when he takes us on a tour inside two homes that were lived in by our ancestors, the father and grandfather of Maccabeo, respectively.

It strikes me how rare this opportunity is, and how amazing it is to not just be in the land of your ancestors but to walk in their actual footsteps. To sit by the same fireplace where they warmed their hands on a cold evening. To huddle in a kitchen where they cooked many of their meals.

Family legend says that Maccabeo and other Swiss immigrants settled in southeastern Ohio, the area where I grew up, because it reminded them of their home in Switzerland. Now that I’m here, it’s easy to see why. Sure, there are no mountains in my hometown, but there is an abundance of hills, valleys, thick forests and green space.

We finally say our goodbyes to Giovanni and thank him for a day that will certainly be etched into each of our minds for the rest of our lives. As we walk back toward our hotel, the three siblings stop at a sign that reads “Bedretto,” reminiscing about the past, yet immersed in the present.

After this stop, our European voyage will take us across the border into Italy, where sights and experiences will include cheese making on a remote dairy farm, a chapel on Lake Como and even a hike to the Forni Glacier (no familial connection, we’re told, just a name). 

There are sights that will take my breath away, like the Duomo in Milan and the alpine landscape along the Bernina Express train route. But I think the view — the one of my father and aunts staring up at the sign printed with a town name their parents and grandparents spoke about for decades — is the one I’ll cherish most of all.

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  1. says: Debbie Ellis

    My name is Debbie Ellis and I’m reaching out to any Funkhouser out there. Hans zum Vangus (1338-1370)from Fankhaus, Swizerland. He is my 15th. Great-Grandpa on my dad’s side of the family. I have been working on and off on my family tree for years. Hard to keep straight the names, dates and places gets kinda mixed up. Need all the help I can get. I live in Brazil, Clay County, Indiana USA. APPRECIATE any help anyone can help me with. Thank you

  2. says: Dave Owen

    Dear Ms. Forni,

    I was very excited to find this article you wrote about your trip to Switzerland home of your paternal ancestors. It just so happens that some of my maternal ancestors also come from Switzerland.

    My great great grandmother was Anna E Fankhauser. We believe she came from Fankhaus/Bern with her husband Johannes Muller to America around the Mid 1840’s and then to Eastern and then NW Iowa where I am originally from. My wife and I were in Switzerland in September/October of 2018. We did not make it to Fankhaus “wish we would have” but visited Lucerne, Interlaken,Bern and Zurich. Such a beautiful Country.

    I have been doing Ancestry for several years so finding tidbits of information such as yours inspires me to continue my search and even perhaps returning to Switzerland very soon.

    Best Regards
    Dave Owen

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