A Hermit's Life Isn't Without Scandals
crime

A Hermit's Life Isn't Without Scandals

Fifty people applied to live without running water, electricity or internet in one of Europe's last hermitages. But life as a hermit isn't as peaceful as it seems.
June 6, 2017, 11:08am

This article originally appeared on VICE Austria

In March, the small Austrian town of Saalfelden, in the province of Salzburg, began a search for a new hermit to live in one of central Europe's last hermitages – one built into a cliff-face more than 1,000 meters above the town.

According to the job description, applicants needed a "deep connection to Christian beliefs" and a desire to live without heating, running water, electricity and internet. And the position is unpaid, so the hermit should be self-sufficient, too.

All photos by Paul Donnerbauer

Following a selection process that lasted several weeks, Stan Vanuytrecht, 58, from Belgium, beat over 50 candidates from around the world. He was chosen to ensure that the legacy of Saalfelden's 350-year-old hermitage continued.

Despite my failed attempts to contact Stan – because, well, he's a hermit – I set off find out why so many people would want a life marked by loneliness and isolation.

To get there, I travelled to Salzburg before driving the 80 kilometres south to the province. Following the course of the Saalach river, I began my ascent to the hermitage from the small village of Bachwinkl; a difficult climb made even more difficult by the snowy conditions in the mountains.

Lichtenberg Castle

The path led past Lichtenberg Castle, which was built in 1130 and used to be inhabited by robber-knights. The castle sits right below the 17th century hermitage and acts as the final stop for visitors before reaching the hermitage. Under a small dugout, you can leave donations for the current reigning hermit.

The road continued past small wooden boards and memorials, marking the importance of the area as a place of pilgrimage. A wooden hut containing "funeral boards" along its outer wall lined the path as part of an ancient alpine custom paying respect to the deceased.

Entrance to the chapel of the hermitage

But I discovered that hermits living here don't always live out their lives in quiet prayer and solitude. Karl Kurz, who moved into the hermitage in 1967, had quite an eventful time here – and what happened in the hermitage ultimately led to his death.

The late Franz Wieneroiter, also a hermit, wrote about Karl Kurz in his chronicles, describing how on the night of Sunday the 27th of September, 1970, as Kurz sat down for prayer in the living room, gunshots were suddenly fired in his direction. "An unknown person had fired eight times at the entrance…the projectiles penetrating the wood of the door and slamming into the interior of the cell. Even windows were shattered," Franz Wieneroiter described.

Entrance to the hermitage

Kurz was uninjured, but suffered a shock from which he never fully recovered. The patrol that was sent by to investigate didn't find the assailant anywhere. What they did find, however, was a note on the window, which read: "Just a warning. Later on it will be too late."

In the following days and weeks, threats continued to pour in – addressed to both the police and the parish office. One note, received on a postcard, promised "two bullets to his knees". At that point, Kurz became "very worried… and no longer responsive", according to Wieneroiter.

During the course of the investigation, after Kurz seemed to make contradictory statements, the police began to suspect he had staged the assassination attempt in order to increase his popularity with locals and visitors. Arguments brought up to suggest Kurz was an attention seeker included the fact that he had been featured in a TV show – called What Am I? – shortly before the shooting. His appearance had led to a rush of visitors to the hermitage. Kurtz eventually confessed to having fired the shots himself. A few days later, he committed suicide by jumping out of a moving train.

However, despite Kurz's confession and death, the police continued to receive threatening letters. One letter suggested Karl Kurz had been framed and hadn't staged the shooting at all. The sender of the letter placed eight bullet cases in a sacrificial container at the Hermitage Chapel to show he still meant business.

As part of an investigation into another local criminal case, the police were led to a man from the nearby village of Maishofen, about 10 kilometers from Saalfelden. The suspect had also applied for the position of hermit, but was rejected because of his criminal background. His handwriting was compared to the handwriting in the letters, and that brought certainty – the letters had come from the man from Maishofen, who later confessed to everything.

Hopefully, Stan Vanuyrecht's life as a hermit won't be plagued by violence and jealousy as much as Kurtz's was. Though I never got to meet the new hermit, I wish him all the best – may Salzburg's mountain gods and forest spirits be more sympathetic to the Belgian than they were to Karl Kurtz.