The palace of Schwedt, Uckermark
In 1989 the Huguenot Society organized a weekend in Dieppe and since then we have explored historical sites that connect with the Huguenots in France and in the countries of their diaspora. There have been two Huguenot-themed tours in Ireland and in France, three in Germany, and one each in the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, Jersey, South Africa, Charleston South Carolina, and the Waldensian valleys in Italy. Last year we went to Prague and Tabor in the Czech Republic in the footsteps of Jan Huss, whose teachings were a foretaste of the Reformation. We have had invaluable help from other Huguenot societies, curators of museums, archivists, churches, owners of châteaux, schlösser and mansions.
In 2003, Uckermark to the north east of Berlin was on our itinerary, a land continually ravaged by invading armies, The region's ancient churches were built with very low doors so that entrants had to bend down to get in. This gave the advantage to those defending the buildings which served as redoubts in troubled times. In this area Frederick William the Great Elector of Brandenburg (in power 1640-1688) settled Huguenots in the villages he owned. Like most of Germany there had been severe depopulation because of the Thirty Years War, which ended in 1648. In the town of Schwedt it is estimated that in 1625 there were about 1500 inhabitants, but in 1645 only about 280. People were needed, and the Huguenot settlers were given special fiscal privileges. These depended on them still speaking French, which was a strong incentive for them to maintain their separate cultural identity. They did so until the conquerer Napoleon abolished their privileges in 1800.
In the village of Bergholz 37 Huguenot families were settled by the Great Elector, including 21 farmers. We were welcomed by the mayor and the councillors and given a sumptuous tea. The village school, now housing a small museum, taught in French until 1800. On show were agricultural machines including one for cutting cabbage. An artificial leg was a grisly reminder of the havoc wreaked by the First World War. There were documents relating to the Huguenot families of Bettac, Hurtienne and Sy. We were shown the farm of a present-day Mr Sy whose family still owned the land granted by the Great Elector. The holding had been small enough to be under the threshold at which the communist regime confiscated. Mr Sy now managed one of the large former collective farms created by the communist regime. In the relatively modern church, a memorial to those who died fighting Napoleon included French names.
The granddaughter of a Tavernier showed us her museum of local costume. She had recreated the elaborate kaleidoscopic costumes that were worn for special occasions. We had an impromptu visit to a vast tobacco barn where boards could be opened and shut according to the dictates of the weather. Huguenots were very much involved in the farming of this crop which they introduced to the area, the dry summers being perfect for its cultivation. It remained important until East Germany stopped it in 1970, when Bulgaria was declared the official tobacco producer of the Soviet bloc. Opposite the barn, by sheer serendipity, we met 96-year-old Frau Daventier, a Huguenot descendant.
In Vierraden we visited an actual Tobacco Museum, where displays show the history of tobacco in Europe and ancient machines are exhibited. When first introduced there was huge controversy, with pamphlets attacking it as the work of the Devil. A board explains that the Huguenots introduced tobacco growing to the great benefit of the local economy. By 1700 there were 37 Huguenot families from the Dauphiné and the Palatinate in Vierraden. Descendants of the Menanteau, Bettac, Deon and Berger families still live in the area. The Bergers are now Schäfer, the German for shepherd.
The well-preserved remains of the Cistercian Monastery of Chorin in Uckermark, which was formed in 1258 and secularized in 1542, were later handed over to the Huguenots who farmed the lands and used the buildings. Partly rebuilt in the 19th century, this masterpiece of Gothic architecture is now a museum and events space.
In Schwedt we met Pastor Hurtienne of Huguenot descent, his family being originally from Calais. Schwedt was almost totally destroyed in bombing in the Second World War. It once had one of the most magnificent Baroque palaces in Europe, and the famous Gilly architectural dynasty, descended from a Huguenot pastor, were involved in its construction. The communists, as was their wont, blew up the remains. Prints in the museum showed us the magnificence that has been lost (see the image at the top of this post). A fragment of the palace remains - the Berlischky Pavilion - the former French Reformed Church. This was commissioned by the Margrave Friedrich Heinrich von Brandenburg-Schwedt in 1777 for the community, which included descendants of Walloon refugees and Huguenots who moved on from the Palatinate after Louis XIV invaded in 1688. There were also descendants of Huguenots from Hofgeismar, in the district of Kassel, in northern Hesse.
The Pavilion remained a church until 1908 and again served as a church from 1945 to 1976. It now serves as a concert and events hall. Pastor Hurtienne showed us inside. There are the arms of the Brandenburg-Schwedt family, princely protectors of the Huguenots as were their Hohenzollern cousins. Pastor Hurtienne had recently retired after fifty years. He spoke movingly of his arrest and humiliation at the hands of the Stasi. They delivered him back to his family naked. The pastor had suffered in a way reminiscent of the fate that drove his ancestor to flee from France.
For more about our tour in Uckermark, other Huguenot Society tours and Huguenot-related events see https://www.flickr.com/photos/huguenotsocietyuk/page5