It was the Best of Times, it was the End of Times
“You wake up one morning and find 4 million people suddenly missing.” Sign of the End of Times #6, in a pamphlet handed to a friend by a street preacher last weekend.
Recently I was having my hair cut in a small, home based hair salon in Southwestern Ontario, quite enjoying the head massage on my conditioner laden hair. The owner, with a red spiky do and a few conservatively placed tattoos, was chattering away about saving up for a new kitchen that she planned to put in within 5 years. As I faced the window looking out onto the backyard of her house, I admired the half dozen neat rows of grapevines she and her husband had recently planted.
“Thank you,” she said, “we’ll be harvesting the grapes for the first 50 bottles of wine in about 3 years.” I then saw a few honey bees buzzing around the vines and brought up the strange disappearance of over 90% of the bee population over the past couple of years. It was shortly after the bee conversation that she mentioned she would be buying a plane ticket for May 27, 2012. “Where will you be going?” I asked casually, pondering over who planned weddings or other such events two years in advance. “I plan to be in the air when the world ends,” she said matter-of-factly. I silently wondered where she would land, but instead asked who would bottle her wine. She paused with the scissors in the air, and then said she would have to think about that.
Martin Luther predicted that Jesus would return to earth 300 years from his time, placing his arrival some time between 1830 and 1850. The bible is full of signs for his arrival and the end of times, including famine and pestilence, earthquakes, moral and economic decline and wars between kingdoms.
In 1836, people began dying of a disease by the thousands in Vojvodina and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Some blamed the deaths on God, believing that death was punishment for the sins of the individual, or worse, was a general punishment from God upon all of man. Others blamed the deaths on the government, in a vast conspiracy theory that those in authority were trying to kill off the burgeoning middle class in order to maintain power and authority.
There had been many childhood deaths amongst the Šuster family from illness in the decades before that. Beginning in the early 1800s, one epidemic after another swept through the Austrian Empire about every two years – scarlet fever, typhus, whooping cough, German measles and other diseases long since eradicated. Of the 29 grandchildren of our oldest known ancestor Štefan Šuster, 8 died before the age of five in the first three decades of the 19th century.
Little Anna Šuster, Štefan Šuster’s great granddaughter, was nearly 2 years old when she died in 1836, following a bout of severe, watery diarrhea (4 gallons in a single a day!), fever, extreme thirst and fatigue. Sixteen year old granddaughter Katarina Šuster would die next, soon followed by her cousin, one year old Peter, and then his five year old brother Michal, all with the same symptoms. About half the people who became ill died from the disease, and more people began to die than were born that year.
What was killing people at such a rapid pace? Was it a previously unknown illness caused by some government conspiracy or was it God’s punishment and a sign of the end of times, wondered our Lutheran ancestors.