For a lot of people of European descent, it’s somewhat straightforward — you’re able to name actual countries your ancestors were from. Your parents and grandparents may be British, German, Polish, et cetera. And then you can say stuff like, “I’m going to such-and-such country, the land of my people!” I imagine that’s pretty cool.
I can’t really do that.
I’m a Mennonite. Andrew is also Mennonite. And our forebearers were constantly on the run throughout Europe before safely arriving in Canada. This makes it kind of difficult to really connect with any one country. We’re not really “from” anywhere. I’ve heard that my maiden name is kind of Dutch, and Menno Simons, the originator of the Mennonite faith, was from the Netherlands, so this makes me think I *might* be slightly Dutch. But, Andrew’s relatives are Bergmans and Ungers. “Unger” means The Hungarian, sooooo… we can only assume that as the Mennonites made their way across Europe they met friends who joined up with them along the path. And it seems to me I’ve heard my maternal grandmother speak of Prussia a fair bit… not that she was ever there. But yeah, I’m pretty sure the Mennonites hung around Prussia for awhile at some point. For many, Ukraine was their last European stop before arriving in Canada. So you see, they were all over the place.
For awhile there, Andrew and I had been planning on joining a tour to visit places of Mennonite historical significance in Europe, see where his grandfather was born, stuff like that. We began paying a bit more attention to our history. Now here’s the part where being Mennonite comes in really handy. You’ve heard of ancestry.ca, right? Costs about $150 per year. Well, there’s a Mennonite ancestry website called Grandma’s Window that costs about $20 for a year and it seems pretty amazing to me. We learned a few things, like that there’s a French Huguenot mixed in with my ancestry, and that one of Andrew’s ancestors had lived in Ghent in the 1500’s.
But then, the Mennonite tour idea was dropped, we planned this other trip instead, and we stopped paying so much attention to Grandma’s Window.
So. Our entire objective in coming to Belgium was to enjoy excellent Belgian beer. And eat the frites and chocolate and waffles too of course. When I envisioned what our time in Belgium would look like, I pictured us flitting from pub to waffle stand to chocolate shop with nary a care in the world.
And so we found ourselves in Ghent. The objective was to locate the Bierhuis, and enjoy delicious beer therein. But when we arrived at the Bierhuis, there was something nearby, something fascinating looming over us. Our attention was captured by the most castle-y castle I’ve ever laid eyes on. I mean, some are more-or-less ruined, some are smaller, some are more like fancy cathedrals, et cetera. But this? Straight out of a fairytale! Or rather, a very dark tale straight out of the Middle Ages.
Andrew and I were drawn to it.
We took about 20 minutes, perhaps less, to trot across the bridge and take some pictures. After all, Steve was waiting for us at the Bierhuis.
Later that day when we had a moment, Andrew casually checked out some Mennonite history sites online, and looked up details about the castle that had so arrested our attention.
It was Castle Gravensteen, built by Philip of Alsace in 1180. Later used as a courthouse.
While there, we had read a bit about how there had been many torture devices used there, a dungeon, and a guillotine for beheadings.
We now learned that well over 100 Mennonites had been tortured and executed in this castle in the 1500’s.
Tortured and executed.
And we remembered Andrew’s ancestor had been in Ghent at this time.
We sat there as this realization washed over us.
I felt lightheaded. I blinked at Andrew. “Whoa.”
We have no idea if Andrew’s ancestor was killed in Castle Gravensteen. Perhaps he saw what was happening and simply got the heck out of dodge.
But one thing is for sure.
The castle that had so delighted us, and captured our imaginations… was the very same castle that had cast horror into our ancestors.
What a difference 500 years can make.