Life in Community

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Life in Community

Celebrating 100 Years of Christian Community

Sannerz 1920–2020

June 10, 2020 by

colorful sign

When my grandmother, Emy-Margret Arnold, was nine, her family left the city of Berlin for the hilly farms of central Germany to begin living in community in a large brick villa in the tiny village of Sannerz. One hundred years later, my husband and I have moved into the same old villa, joining eight other Bruderhof members. Living here helps me imagine my ancestors’ simple beginnings among these same hallways, rooms, and worn brick stairs. Our communities’ centennial provides a time to reflect on the growth of that first little group.

Emy-Margret was thrilled when, in June 1920, she was taken out of stodgy middle-class city life to live among the cows, goats, hay, bright sun, and fresh air of the country. As the postwar scarcities slowly weakened their children, her parents – Eberhard and Emmy – had decided that relocating to the heartier rural environment as the doctor recommended seemed like a good idea. But they were motivated by more than health recommendations. They envisioned a community of men, women, and children who would pool their resources and live without personal property, modeling a just society.

For a few weeks, the family of seven lodged in makeshift quarters in a storage shed belonging to the inn, while their father arranged to begin renting the looming villa across the road. I can see the old shed from the windows of the villa, and I don’t think it has changed much in a hundred years. I try to imagine what it would have been like for them to move from their comfortable home into such tight quarters with their five small children.

family Photo credit: Danny Burrows. See more of his work here.

My grandmother’s family used the veranda door – the same one we use now – when they were finally able to carry their few belongings up the narrow driveway into their new home. The stairs Emy-Margret climbed up to her room weren’t yet painted in a gaudy rainbow of colors as they are now, but it didn’t take long before they were strikingly transformed by the wave of diverse, often oddball guests unleashed by the end of the Great War. They wear those colors still today, albeit through a few fresh coats of paint.

The dramatic procession of community members, friends, and animals striding in mural up the top few flights has since been wallpapered over, apart from the streaming “Sunheart” flag on the top landing – the symbol of their love for Jesus. The scene was rendered by the eccentric “Hans im Glück,” a war veteran self-named after a folktale character and envisioning a fairy-tale future governed by peace and brotherhood. His “tree for the year 2000,” planted in anticipation of this future date, is no longer identifiable twenty years after the awaited milestone, but his vision endures in the lively songs he wrote, which we still sing today.

From the sidewalk, a front view of the house reveals a small section of wall in the middle of the second floor that is bricked over in a slightly different shade from the rest and decorated with another rendition of the Sunheart. One time, as Emy-Margret was playing happily with her friends behind the third-floor window directly above this patch of wall, she was startled by an unexpected shout and the triumphant face of her brother Hardy. Not to be outdone when the girls refused to let him play with them, he had placed a ladder on a small balcony on the second floor. This childish prank led to the removal of the balcony by the concerned landlord, and to this patched architectural reminder.

woman in a forest Photo credit: Danny Burrows. See more of his work here.

The little group grew, and the big house slowly filled – with young radicals of all stripes as well as foster children. The number of occupants always seemed one step ahead of the growth of resources with which to feed the mouths and furnish the newly occupied rooms. My grandmother’s determined excursions into the neighboring villages with her brothers to sing from door to door, painted vividly into my memory by her retellings, not only relieved the shortage of eggs but also forged many friendships in the neighborhood. Some have persisted until today. Just last week I visited an old couple, whose mother was best friends with Emy-Margret, and we pored over old photographs together.

I often climb the hill behind our house to the Waldquelle, a quiet little spring in the woods where my grandmother was baptized as a young woman. Sheltered by trees from the hubbub of trains and cars, the spring bubbles out from between two big stones and down over mossy rocks into a pool before disappearing into the woods below. I love to come here to contemplate all that happened in this area a hundred years ago and all that the Bruderhof movement has experienced in the intervening years. May we hold on to the same faith in Jesus that sustained our forebears through years of hardship, poverty, and war. We need that same faith today.

Else Mercoucheff and her husband, Sergei, live at Sannerz a Bruderhof house near Fulda, Germany.


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