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Harvesting

Life at the Bruderhof

Life at the Bruderhof

Dieter came to Shropshire as an orphan during World War II and was looked after by a religious community on Clee Hill. Find out what he thought of the Bruderhof and why he would never go back.

Dieter was only seven when he was orphaned and sent to a children's home in North Germany. He was born during World War II and had an unsettled early life. Just months after going to the orphanage, he and his two brothers were chosen by a pastor from the Bruderhof church to come to England.

They hadn't a clue what was going on and the boys' relations were not informed. The children were gathered together and, along with another two boys and five girls, they were shipped from Hamburg to Hull.

On arriving in England the children were met by a Ludlow bus and were transferred to a house high up near Clee Hill. Dieter recalls that moment with astonishment: "I knew they were queer folk when they opened the bus door. The men had got beards, funny clothes and the women had got headscarves, and long skirts. They just looked like gypsies to us and we wouldn't get out the bus. They had to entice us out with chocolate."

The children found the first few days very strange. They struggled with not knowing the language and became homesick. But they soon settled in to life on the farm and enjoyed the freedom of being away from the orphanage. They did what they wanted and had what Dieter remembers as "a good life."

A married couple was selected to become the boys' foster parents and they looked after them as if they were their own. They were from Yorkshire and were unable to have children. But three years after arriving in England the boys were given the opportunity to return to Germany. All three of them declined the offer, reasoning that they would just end up back in the children's home if they were to go back. So instead they continued as they were and were allowed to stay until they were 16 years old.

Dieter

Dieter at the Bruderhof

The community was called The Society of Brothers or the Bruderhof. When people joined they were required to donate all their possessions, although the women were allowed to keep their wedding rings. But members were often thrown out and their belongings not returned. This happened to Dieter's foster parents in the early 1960s and they were left with nothing. They had to rebuild their lives from scratch.

Dieter was offered the chance to join the community when he was 16, but having not experienced the outside world, he decided against it.

He later came to consider life at the Bruderhof as strange: "I think it was a completely weird system. It was unnatural to me, looking back at it. I mean I didn't know any different at that time. As kids I remember seeing these fat ladies who had special foods and then all of a sudden this lady is thin and she's got a baby in her arms. It certainly didn't come from under a gooseberry bush but we were told nothing."

As a teenager, without the knowledge of how the world worked, Dieter found life at the Bruderhof both strange and restrictive: "They were completely paranoid about sex. They never even talked about it. There were occasions when you felt fruity but you couldn't do anything about it. Look but don't touch. The only things we learned were from the labourers from outside."

Now, almost 60 years on, Dieter is happy with his life in Shropshire and believes the county is the best in England: " I just love Shorpshire, I really do. When I go back to Germany, I still feel that this is my home." But he would never go back to the Bruderhof.

last updated: 30/07/07

Have Your Say

Do you know anything about the Bruderhof communities? Do you have any experience of them? Have your say...

The BBC reserves the right to edit comments submitted.

Annon
Yes I was at Wheathill as a boy. Sixty years later I am still hauned by the experience.

margicourtes@yahoo.fr
I am french, my english is so so...I was there in 1958 for 1 month in summer. I have some photos about this time.Does this society still exist ? I knew a girl named Aviva called after a steamer on up she was born . She had a brother. I was 18.

Rebecca Rogers (nee Holz)
The first time my family visited the Bruderhof at Darvell, we were treated like celebrities. I was twelve at the time, and completely overwhelmed by so much attention from so many strangers. Everywhere we went there were whispers of 'The Holzes', so I really couldn't understand why my dad (Klaus,Dieter's brother)had been so reluctant to go in the first place -when my nana Alice decided to go back to them. I mean it was great -horseriding, looking after the animals in the barn, camping, village fairs...I had some very fun times there.We used to visit once or twice a year, until I was about sixteen. I even spent a month there on my own, helping to look after my nana. It was one of the most precious times I ever spent with her; we spent many hours chatting about books, playing scrabble, and talking about 'adventures' in our lives. It was largely nana who inspired my love of literature, and eventually my decision to become an English teacher.Of course, after a little while, the celebrity status waned -after all, we hadn't decided to join the community ourselves...but I didn't mind too much; I'm not an attention seeker (it was a bit sickly sweet after a while)and the most important thing was spending time with my nana.So you can imagine my complete surprise when we received a letter from nana asking us not to contact her anymore because we stood in the way of Jesus. It was definitely her handwriting, but we'd had no warning; the last visit was as wonderful as ever, so we were completely baffled. My uncle Dieter had received the same letter, and he didn't have a clue why either. We tried to call, but those manning the phones had clearly been warned that the Holzes were bad news. What a fall from grace! We managed to get through to nana once however, when the person taking the call was obviously not in 'the know' about the evil Holzes. Nana was initially confused, but very quickly delighted to speak to us, as we were to finally speak to her. But the happiness was short lived, and nana was sent to an American community. A serverely arthritic woman in her eighties...what were they thinking? Were we such a threat?I wrote to her there every single week. I sent letters, cards and pictures I'd drawn; I was determined for the contact not to be severed completely, and hoped that one day, I'd see her again. I received one postcard from the lady looking after nana, to thank me for my letters (how odd when we weren't supposed to contact her?), but nothing from nana herself. So I'm not even sure she got them.The Bruderhof have never informed us of her death, or told us anything about her last few months, despite requests. And we're not alone. There are many others who were forced to lose contact with loved ones.Now whenever I think of those early days at the Bruderhof as a celebrity, I feel sick inside. A christian community? I don't think so.

Pauline Davies
I too grew up in the Wheathill Bruderhof community. My newly wed parents sold their home and gave all thier worldly posessions to the common course, including my mother's engagement ring, when they joined during the 2nd world war, and I was the first baby to be born there, so that was all I ever had known until our family were thrown out, against their wishes, in the early 60's when I was 18 years old. They had nowhere to live, no money , no social security, no job and nine hungry mouths to feed. I'm not sure Val, what bit of that kind of treatment can be identified as Christian or loving? Recently I requested a visit with my life-long friend to visit her mum in one of their bruderhof communities, as her mum was getting very old and we wanted to see her for the last time. To our surprise and joy, we were warmly invited to spend a week with them. We were overwhelmed by the "loving" welcome we received, but as my friend's mum, (who was also like a mum to me) quietly slipped into a coma, we were suddenly, without explination, asked to leave. We were bundled off in a taxi the following day after only 2 nights there. We were completely traumatized by the experience, and realize that absolutely NOTHING has changed. What makes it even harder to take is the fact that I still love them. They are my family.Do not be deceived by their showy display of love, it really doesn't go very deep, as anyone who has been involved with them for any length of time will surely discover for themselves.

Linda (Lord) Jackson
I too was a child in Wheathill when the 10 orphans arrived. The children welcomed them and soon made friends. Dieter would often spend time in our family and was like a brother to us all - after our family also left, this continued, and for my parents, his children were their 'adopted' grandchildren too. But the Bruderhof rejected their 'family members' Why would they do that. They do not practice what they preach. As children you soon learned the inconsistencies. You never knew when you would be 'selected' to be accused of being "unpure" or in an "evil spirit" (we never understood what we had done wrong) and excluded, from as young an age as 5, and allowed no contact with other children. As child, you felt very insecure of what the adults in charge would do next. At the same time as children we formed very close ties with each other. We spent most of our time together, often without close adult supervision, We roamed the country side, enjoyed the flowers and the birds and small animals. We helped on the farm expecially at hearvest time, and became very close. We had many happy and wonderful times together. (This is the picture visitors are allowed to see) The bond we had as children still holds strong with Dieter and many others who were children then but have been 'sent out'. - But we are not allowed the same continuing friendship with those who stayed 'inside' the Bruderhof. Why on earth not? These were our close childhood friends. They even try to stop us 'outsiders' having contact with each other. They say 'love your enemy'; they class us as 'the enemy' - but they for sure do not show us any love and friendship - the sort you feel. They say: 'we love you, and want you to return to the Bruderhof' - But to me, true love is accepting a person for who they are, accepting THEIR right to their own opinion, even if they do not agree; respecting other's rights to be 'different'.

Carla Holz
I have read the posts here with interest. I have visited the Society (or Bruderhof) on two occasions as a child and I have had personal experience of their treatment of others. I have experienced their hospitality first hand - they were warm and kind in their approach to us; nothing was too much trouble for Dieter and his family. I have also spoken to them on the 'phone, pleaded with them to let me talk to my Nana Alice. We had always been able to speak freely with her so why did this change? We have never had an answer to our question and we still don't understand their reasons (if there are any). They omitted to tell us that when, eventually, they did bring her to the 'phone, she was actually in America.There may have been no biological link but Alice WAS my Nana - she gave us time, love and wonderful childhood memories. I know for sure that she also did this for our Dad. And the Society took advantage of her faith in their beliefs and way of life as well as her warm and generous nature. The people in charge do not have a very charitable attitude in my experience. They have the resources to do much good but their elders spend all their efforts shutting themselves and their members off from the world. I am grateful to them for only one thing - bringing a small, 7 year old boy to Shropshire who grew up with a warm and generous couple (Alice & Owen), thereby giving me and my siblings a loving Nana and a brilliant Dad.

Annnonymous
I am aware that the Brothers have charitable status. This has always bothered me. Can anyone explain to me excactly what their charitable intentions are? They live in a tax free Society and produce toys for children to be sold in the outside world, but so far as actual charity work goes, what do they do? I am not implying that they are not doing charitable work but I have never heard or seen any evidence of it if they have/are. I am however, aware that some members intermittently make contact (either by phone or in person), to their ex-members and offer them money. I find this further confusing - The Society of Brothers have excommunicated many of it's members, (adults and children) over the years (I have personal experience of this taking place in the early 1960's) and The Brothers have since approached many of those ex-members offering a cheque for a substantial amount money. I know that many of the people who were offered this money have accepted it and many have not, sending the cheque back (and understandably so), but could this not be seen as a ‘hush, hush’ tactic? Bearing in mind that so many of it’s ex-members have since leaving, joined the KIT organisation (Keep In Touch) a network of ex-Community members, who could be and who very probably are viewed as the Society of Brothers nemesis - as they know the ugly truth about the Brothers - (I make reference to the appalling failings to deal with so many families and individuals who suffered as a consequence of the regular mass exclusions which took place). Could it be taken as the Brothers way of admitting fault? They did after all, in so many cases cause much undoable damage to such already (in some cases) vulnerable people? I am always stunned that The Brothers are looked upon as ‘good and Christian’ – In the view of hundreds of it’s ex-members, there is very little Christian about it at all, and after all, ex-members would naturally know this best.

Author Anon.
I find all of the comments on here interesting and having had some, albeit a limited experience of the Society, I feel compelled to comment on one particular thought left here by Lukas Vetter and touched on by Tim Johnson: Though the Society may claim to by a very Christian society, their handling of, and dealing with regular 'exclusion' from the Community can only be looked at as far from Christian and in my opinion entirely unsavoury. There were many children who were affected greatly in this way. After all, you enter the Community giving up everything you have and may very well, it seems, leave the Community with absolutely nothing at all - often against your own wishes and sadly often as a young child. I fail to see how any Society (whether organised or otherwise) can be discussed so respectfully when it's goings on have had such devastating effects on its ex-members lives. It would not be acceptable in my community to exclude your children so readily, so why theirs? This point rarely seems to get raised when the Community is discussed openly - instead they are glorified because they are 'welcoming and warm' to visitors, but so what?! So am I when I have visitors! However I do not go about my business playing 'God' in other peoples lives only to then carelessly leave them with nothing fit to fend themselves with for the outside world when I have at last decided I have no particular use for them because they are not towing my line – I apologise if I sound bitter, but to many ex-members this is very much how they feel the Society have engineered their members comings and goings. I don't have much good to say about them at all I’m afraid. I too was touched by Alice Humphreys (mentioned here) and my father looked after her along with Dieter and others I think it's an utter disgrace the way that Alice’s death was dealt with and that the boys and girls she considered her Children were excommunicated from her and not even told of her death in some cases. I know that Alice would never have wanted that and I believe that if the decision had been truly hers, she would have remained in contact with them all - a very sinister reflection of such a highly moralistic outfit I think.

Edward(Eddie) James Atkinson
I visited the Bruderhof in the Clee Hills, as part of a group of National Association of Boys Clubs lads in the 1950's, I have three photographs, featuring the children and one of the elders, would they be of interest to you.Best wishesEddie

Andy Harries
Andy HarriesI have known Dieter for a long time, in fact since he arrived with his two brothers & seven other orphan children from Germany & I have kept in contact with him ever since. I can still remember when they arrived in a bus, they were staring at us wondering who these people were & we were staring at them wondering who these strange children were. Dieter & his two brothers grew up on the farm in the Wheathill hills where many of us lads spent a lot of our time working on the farm with the animals & growing crops. We also had many interesting experiences while at school. When the orphans arrived they spoke virtually no English, but many of us could speak reasonable German, so that was never really a problem & we accepted them just as the same as us. I do remember that in the beginning they used to call us older children "Lulach", a German word which I think means long lanky fellow. Dieter is a good man who has coped well with the stress of being dumped in the unknown (outside world) as many of us were. As Viv has said, they would usually treat visitors well & make them welcome, but it was different for those of us who had grown up there or if you stayed there longer. We are usually not even allowed to visit family members there, only possibly on their terms. The Bruderhof doesn't allow freedom of speech & dissent is not tolerated by the leadership. Sadly they deceive people into believing that their way of life is all sweet & honey & one doesn't find out the truth & the many down sides till one has been there for quite some time. Usually by then one has been baptised & has promised loyalty to that life & committed all property one has or will ever have to the Bruderhof. If you do decide to leave any time after, then you will be sent away with nothing.

Tim Johnson
I knew all ten "war orphans", including Dieter and his older and younger brother, as I was roughly the age of the older orphans. However, my parents were members, and indeed had some involvement in some of the outreach activities that led to bringing the ten children to Shropshire. It's a complex story, with many aspects. I believe the bruderhof was genuinely well motivated in what it was trying to do for these youngsters, but in retrospect may not have handled some of the cultural differences very well. However, I do believe that the couple who served as surrogate parents genuinely loved all ten, and Alice, the foster mother, was a warm-hearted soul who must have wept inwardly when contact was broken. I find it interesting that only one of the ten later did join the commune. In my view, the bruderhof actually became much more cultic and closed, especially to those who did not choose "the life", from the early 1960's onward, though periodically it does go through convulsions of reaching out to former members and former leavers. Yes, Dieter has it right: it was a weird place in many respects, and not only for clueless young displaced war orphans! (I was myself expelled in 1958, as were my parents and the rest of my family in the "big purge" of the early 1960's). tj

lukas Vetter
There is another side to the community that is not very savory. It's true there are many wonderful people in the communities but the elite leaders are strictly authoritarian.Anyone who questions their edicts are either placed in "exclusion" or thrown out. They have a very warped closeted view of sex and hold to an even more extreem view of homosexuality. Many people are cut off from their families for years.Many of these people remain psycologically scared for years! So sad!

Alicia James (nee Holz)
I would agree with Viv's comments, the Bruderhof receive and warmly welcome visitors and look after them impeccably. However, as Dieter's daughter I can reassure you that the orphans brought to Wheathill were not asked whether they wished to be there. Certainly they made no choices. However they were given a home, they were told to consider Wheathill their home. Problems only arose when some of the orphans did make a 'choice'- not to become baptised members of the Bruderhof. Since that time the Bruderhof have blown hot and cold- sometimes welcoming other times distinctly hostile. The Foster Mother they provided, with all the best intentions for the now grown orphans had to sever all ties with the foster children and granchildren she had grown to love. A woman who was gentle, kind and just in every sense, moved to America in her old age without her blood family knowing (let alone her foster family) until the deed was done. Sadly the Mother and Grandmother the Bruderhof gave to us died in December 1996 - in America - again without any of her family knowing. To this day we are still in the dark as to an exact date even. You may have had a lovely visit Viv - our lifetime of experiences with the Bruderhof have not left such a rose coloured impression with us.

R holz
Having been married to Dieter for 19 years, and having visited the bruderhof at first we had a warm welcome Alice had gone back to the society after being asked to leave in the sixties. I first met Alice at Roberts Bridge and respected there beliefs. My self and Dieter went to visit Alice in Oct 1995 we were marched off the premises at that time. Then we recieved a letter saying that Alice was no longer a member of our family even though the children classed her as nan. Dieter's eldest son had a accident in feb 96 and we felt Alice would wish to know they would not let us speak to her in the begining but eventually set up a link between us and America as it happened they had sent her there. In December 96 Alice died they did not give us the courtesey of letting us know even now we do not know the date she actually died as we would like to put a memorial plaque with her husband Owen if this is christianity today I do not want any of it.

Viv Simkins
I recently stayed at the Bruderhof community in Sussex for two days, and was warmly welcomed and looked after. They do not have retreats, so I joined in the work and helped in the workshop (they make excellent nursery furniture) and laundry. There are hardships and austerities as they seek to model Christianity, having all things in common, and not living for self-fulfillment as is usual in the world outside. But each makes their own choice about living there. As to Dieter's remarks about the lack of sex education, I think this reflects both the fifties era when he was at Wheathill, and their commitment to marriage.

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