A Story from Switzerland

Tragically, the Universal Postal Union archive is closed on the weekends so I spent my first few days in Switzerland taking in the beauty of the Alps. I hiked, fed carrots to marmots, and ate fondue with the loveliest of people instead of spending three consecutive days in fluorescence, straining my eyes at the scrawled handwriting of a nineteenth century tri-lingual Frenchman. Needless to say, this weekend was a welcome respite from archival research. During my first days in Switzerland, I had the pleasure and privilege of being hosted by Manuela–a friend of a Fordham professor–and her family. To be more precise, Manuela is the childhood penpal of my professor. The two were brought together across national borders (Switzerland to Canada) by the postal service and have been exchanging stories and building an intimate friendship ever since. Even though this leg of my trip was not research-driven, it does provide a lovely anecdote of how the international post can bring people together.

Rather than authoring this update with my usual postal service tunnel vision, I want to share a good story from my first weekend in Switzerland. A few tram rides and a short hike through a flock of mountain sheep (with bells!) led us to the vista of the Aletsch Glacier in Bettmeralp. At 46 square miles, the Aletsch Glacier is the largest glacier in the Alps and, to put it simply, is one of the most magnificent spaces I’ve ever seen. With the aura of both mountain and desert, the glacier extends beyond sight with tundric majesty. We were lucky enough to be at the vista when there were very few people around, which meant a quiet that wasn’t exactly so. In the quiet of little human bustle, beneath the sound of the wind, I could hear the glacier. I could hear the underground streams and the way they would moan and echo through glacial crevices. The whole experience was chilling. Certainly, the Aletsch Glacier is endowed with a mythic quality.

According to Manuela’s mother, in some folktales the Aletsch Glacier is a space of purification where poor, sinful souls expiate their sins. During my trip I got to hear one of the folktales of the glacier from Switzerland’s rich culture of storytelling. Inside the glacier museum, I heard the story of Schmidja, a pious old woman who lived in a hut by the glacier (thanks to a video with English subtitles and various additions from Manuela’s mother).

In the tale, Schmidja prays for the lost souls ailing in the glacier. She can hear their cries each night while she is spinning wool at her wheel in her warm hut. Despite her continual prayer, the souls still moan for relief from the freezing glacier. One night, attracted to the candlelight in her window, the souls’ cries grew louder and became more oppressive. Whether from compassion or fear, Schmidja cracked open her window and said “come in and warm yourselves, but for the love of God, don’t hurt me!” The souls’ cries subsided as they warmed themselves through the night and left with the rising of the morning sun.

This became routine. Shmidja would spin at her wheel until five o’clock every night, then she would make her way to the window, open it a crack and say “come in and warm yourselves, but for the love of God, don’t hurt me!” The poor souls began to expect the respite of Schmidja’s warm fire and she always allowed them into her home.

One night, Schmidja became lost to time in her spinning. It was well past five o’clock and she kept at her work. She was deaf to the cries of the souls until they rose to a pitch of desperate fury. Immediately knowing her lapse, Schmidja ran to the window and threw it open, shouting “come in! Come in!” The souls poured into her hut, crowding every inch of space. Howling with anger and cold, the poor souls forced Schmidja to her wheel. They were angry at Schmidja’s oversight and were determined to make her remember their need for warmth above all else. Because she did not utter her usual request for the souls not to hurt her, they could punish the old woman. The souls put Schmidja to work at her wheel, spinning and spinning all through the night. With no rest, she spun and the souls howled. When the poor souls left in the morning, Schmidja could barely move her hands from all the work. The souls’ punishment was effective, indeed: Schmidja never forgot to allow them in at five o’clock and always upon the condition of not hurting her.

Not too many years after Schmidja’s harrowing night of spinning, she passed away in her warm hut. The poor souls, remembering the old woman’s kindness and hospitality, lined up like candles across the glacier to meet their friend. Together, the souls and dear Schmidja, glowing like candles, moved across the glacier into the afterlife.

I was deeply touched by the hospitality of my Swiss hosts and I am incredibly grateful that they shared this story–and many new ones–with me.

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