Crossing Boundaries: Negotiating transnational heritage and belonging in the German Waldensian diaspora

Elisa Gosso, University of Turin PhD Candidate, Social Anthropology, Department of Cultures, Politics and Society

My PhD research deals both with the transnational paradigm in migration studies and the Alpine anthropological studies, focusing on the transnationalism of the Waldenses, a protestant Italian minority having its stronghold in the Waldensian Valleys of the Western Piedmontese Alps.

Starting from previous studies on Waldensian identity in the circumscribed field of the Valleys, I am now investigating the networks the descendants of Waldensian emigrants preserve with their forebears’ homeland. I focus on the diacritics (Barth 1969) they adopt to mark out their communities as Waldensian heritages. My fieldwork highlighted these practices as a dynamic process of dialogue and negotiations with both the social environment in which the transnational groups are involved today, and the communities living in the ancestors’ land of origin. 

One of the ancient German Waldensian colonies I selected as ethnographic field provides an instructive case study: Rohrbach-Wembach-Hahn (Hessen). The Waldensian diaspora toGermany dates back to the 17th century and was forced by religious persecutions. The community of Rohrbach officially belongs to the Reformed branch of the Evangelical Church of Germany, but their members define themselves a Waldensergemeinde, literary “Waldensian community”. Two characteristics of this group attracted my attention. One is the Waldenserfest, that takes place every year in June and celebrates the memory of the Waldensian ancestors. The second is their twinning with their forebears’ town of origin, Pragelato (Chisone Valley), whose 40th anniversary was celebrated together by both parties in 2014.

This paper aims to present and analyze the underlying mechanisms this social and religious group resorts in order to identify itself as a Waldensian transnational community and how this process of identification is constantly negotiated with both the land of origin and the context in which they live nowadays. Some comparisons with others transnational Waldensian groups will be sketched out to better contextualize the German case.

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