#27: Refugees Like It’s 1699

Kleinvillars in the foresty backwaters of Baden-Wurtemberg is a town founded by refugees who fled persecution in their thousands, finding new homes across the world, in Britain, the Netherlands, America, and here in Germany.

The only difference with the other refugees who we’ve met on our journey so far is that these people came here from Piedmont in 1699 and are now indistinguishable from their German neighbours, bar their history.

As we stand around, looking up at the French inscriptions on the old timber-frame houses, an old man shuffles up on an electric bicycle. In a thick Schwaebish accent, he tells us that this is his house. We point out the French on his wall, ‘Nothing I can do about it,’ he says with a rakish smile.

Karl Blanc and Frau (and two other chancers)

Karl Blanc is an 87 year old former cattle farmer. His surname is pronounced with a hard Germanic K, but still spelled the French way of his forefathers. 379 refugees originally settled in Kleinvillars and nearby Grossvillars, both villages named after Villar Perosa in Piedmont, now in modern Italy.

The refugees were from a religious sect known as the Waldensians, protestants who followed the teachings of Waldo of Lyon. Their major crimes, as far as the Catholic Church were concerned, were a certain contempt for the papacy in Rome and preaching poverty as the way to perfection.

When Louis XIV revoked protection for protestants in France in 1685, the Waldensians were threatened with either conversion to Catholicism or general massacre. Thousands were forced to convert or were imprisoned and slaughtered. In scant consolation for the survivors, Pope Francis recently apologised for the Catholic Church’s behaviour and begged the Waldensians for forgiveness.

Henri Arnaud led the Waldensians through years of political and military conflict, before finally crossing the Alps into Germany. Once here (as if things weren’t hard enough) the Waldensian mulberry trees failed to take root and they were forced to plant potatoes. A solemn plaque commemorates the first successful potato plantation at the nearby Waldensian Museum in Schoenburg.

Karl pointing out his ancester Jean's inscription above the Rathaus.

On a rambling tour of Kleinvillars, Karl shows us the community bakery, the former town hall (he used to be on the council and his ancestor Jean Blanc’s name is inscribed over the entrance), and finally the church (he has his own key).

Just inside the portico, there is a wooden board commemorating the war dead of Kleinvillars. The names are scattered with French: Bonnet, Miorin, Soulier and, of course, Blanc. Karl’s father Heinrich lost an arm fighting in the German army during the First World War. The pulpit is decorated with the seven starred emblem of the Waldensians and the stained glass behind the altar depicts the flight of the refugees in red, blue and green.

The flight of the refugees from Villar Perosa

Karl comes across as dismissive of his heritage and doesn’t speak French or Italian, but he’s clearly proud to be showing us around his village. The refugees who settled here took perhaps 100-150 years to almost invisibly assimilate into German culture – the church is unmistakeably German and was built in 1872 – but their history remains a lesson for today.

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

2 thoughts on “#27: Refugees Like It’s 1699”

  1. Great article. My ancestors were Waldensers and lived in Grosvillars which, as you know, is just a short distance to Kleinvillars. My wife and I visited Grosvillars and the museum in Schoenburg. That was in 1990. I have studied the Waldenser history and have spent hours upon hours researching the church documents from there. I hope you do a story on Grosvillars.
    Thank you, Mike Servais (Servay)

    1. Thanks for reading, Mike. It was an unforgettable journey back in time, that day. As I was only passing through on my bike, it’s very unlikely that I’ll ever go back to that part of the world – another reminder that I must cherish the magic of every day because every day is fleeting. Thanks so much for saying hi – and keep on enjoying your research!

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