Monday, July 23, 2012

"THE FORGOTTEN PEOPLE" by Michael Holzach

The Hutterite Anabaptists are not “The Forgotten People” around here.  We see them in their black suits and polka dot head scarves all the time.  They believe that a child does not have the wisdom and self-discipline to obey all the rules and practices of adults and so they do not allow baptism until a youngster can comply.  Almost every blunder and misstep that a child makes is wiped away by baptism in adolescence.  After that, life is serious -- even grim.
But younger adolescents just before baptism have once a year about four hours of unsupervised freedom when all baptized persons except the littlest children go to a long service of communion and dedication.  The kids do not know that they spontaneously enact “liminal time” in which they reverse every rule just as ancient European festivals have done for millennia.  The king is replaced on his throne by a fool.  The mass that normally celebrates saints is performed in honor of the donkey Mary rode to Bethlehem and the braying of an actual donkey prodded up the cathedral aisle becomes part of the liturgy.
In this colony Heinrich is a natural leader.  On a trip the older men made to town, he went along and spent his waiting time digging through the trash heaps behind businesses, one of which was a beauty parlor.  He retrieved a lot of half-used and colorful cosmetics which he managed to smuggle back to the colony.  Here is Michael Holzach’s account of what happened at the beginning of this annual “time out”.
I see through the window their [the boys] march toward the kitchen.  Heinrich flaunts in the front, on his head a giant black cowboy hat, tall as a chimney and wide as a flying saucer.  They storm into the kitchen, a bunch of freaked-out deputy sheriffs in mutiny; their lips are painted bright red, their fingernails painted silver, gold and turquoise; they wear thick shadow around their eyes and have glimmering make-up on their cheeks in the manner of war paint.  Almost all of them wear high-heeled cowboy boots that are strictly forbidden here; under their jackets, their shirts are opened down to the chest and the rims of the hats are bent upward toward the sky -- a parade of lust of the eye, lust of the flesh, and pride, sneering at everything that is holy to the community and the teacher, a babylonic revolt!  Teacher Samuel can’t move away from the chosen people’s holy communion; he sits there less than 200 yards away while his flock goes crazy!

For the next 3 1/2 hours, square-faced Heinrich, as the oldest of the unbaptized, seizes the ark’s rudder.  Everybody now listens to his commands.

He’s got it all planned out.  He’s got a little money and has nabbed the keys to the colony’s truck.  A delegation is sent to Lethbridge for “Blueberry Liqueur.”  Even the girls, whose idea of rebellion had been to make a batch of “honey lumps” candy, have a few nips.  But the boys go wild.  Pretty soon they are vomiting into the sink.  In hours they have crashed into their beds and the next day they are in misery.  But still planning what they are going to do next year.  Holzach confessed that as a privileged observer (because of being unbaptized in their terms) he found himself not only amused but turned on after months of abstinence.  He didn’t imbibe so was spared the hangovers.  The elders pretended they didn’t see, perhaps remembering their own times “out.”
Roy Rappaport describes survival in terms of a stream, a path, within which life is possible.   The homeostasis of food, water, shelter, and the like seems to be paralleled by a kind of emotional or psychic flow in which identity and growth are possible.  Too far off to one edge is madness.  The culture pushes people into this stream bed between its shores, and yet some folks get beached, dried out, impaled, scooped out by bears.  Beyond that, streams in reality must occasionally burst their bounds in great surges of energy in order to keep the flow going, to make beaches and carry cottonwood seeds.  Likewise, human continuity.  Ya gotta blow out yer pipes now and then.

What Michael Holzach, a German journalist, longs for is simply solitude.  It is then with a fairly bad conscience that I quietly leave the bookbinder’s house every morning one hour before wake-up and, without a sound so as not to alert the dogs, sneak past the henhouse over to the lake.  The feeling of doing something secretly in God’s ark stimulates my imagination every summer morning.  My lake, which reflects the pale morning light between the softly sloping pastures, now seems to me like a lover with whom I unite day after day under the stern look of God.  Stark naked, I swim a few hundred yards and leave a bubbly trace on the mirror-like surface until both banks are the same distance from me.  Then I float on my back, listen to the quiet, and dream after the buzzard couple that flies in spirals in the upcurrent of the foothills. 

Water turns up again in the testimony of a very old man who describes how he was tortured in the United States for being a pacifist: beaten, starved, and held under ice water until he passed out.  Finally word of this treatment got out and the colony appealed to the President of the United States, who intervened.  As soon as they were able the colony emigrated once again, this time to Canada.  The persecution continues today but this time it in terms of taxation.  The larger culture resent their prosperity, their expansion, their failure to buy things and agree with worldly values.

The water trope is beyond ironic since Holzach was accidentally killed, still a young man, when he returned to Germany.  His dog fell into a canal, and Michael went in after it.  He drowned -- the dog did not.

Stephan Lhotzky, a professor of German at Augustana, must be given credit for the graceful translation of what Michael wrote in German.  (The Hutterites were astounded that he could speak German, since they didn’t understand their origins in Germany.  They had believed they were unique.)  I think he understood Michael’s yearning for the peace and order of communal living where no one goes hungry or without a bed, but also the need of human beings to find their own way.  If there is a heaven, it will be the place where the balance has been found.

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