My parents, Kurt Zimmermann and Annemarie (Marianne) Hilbert Zimmermann, joined the Rhönbruderhof separately in early 1930. Ray Sabin makes reference to them several times in his journals. They must have married in early 1933 and were very close to Eberhard Arnold during that time. They had 12 children; their first-born, a daughter, died at two weeks from a defective heart valve. Three girls followed and then I, their first son, was born in England on November 19, 1939, just at the start of WWII. The Bruderhof had to flee Nazi Germany to avoid having their men drafted into the German Army and/or being persecuted for their antiwar views and pacifism.
The Bruderhof community consisted of many different European members, including many who were British, but when Britain joined the war, the Bruderhof was no longer welcomed by the local British community. The government gave our group a choice: have our German members interned, or leave the country with our group intact. The community decided to leave the country.
Through the Mennonite Central Committee, they found a safe haven in the remote and isolated South American country of Paraguay. Here they were able to purchase a large Estancia (ranch) of about 25,000 acres consisting of half subtropical forest and half grassland. The forest, while already extensively logged, still provided ample timber that could be used for building and for sale. The grassland was ideal for raising cattle. We cleared the forest for agriculture and started building our three villages.
Over time we built a sawmill for all our lumber needs and a kiln for bricks and tiles. For roofing we used the excellent and durable local “Colorado grass”. The first four to eight years were extremely difficult, and many of our young children died of illness and disease. Nevertheless, my parents had seven more children.
We had great and loving parents who gave us a lot of attention, so I was very fortunate, some say privileged, for living in such a harmonious family. Our parents gave us plenty of intellectual stimulus, exposing us to many different views which enabled us to develop critical thinking.
My mother studied to be a teacher but her first love was music, so everyone in my family was encouraged to play either the violin or recorder, the two instruments available to us on the Bruderhof. I myself preferred to sing. My father loved to sing but couldn’t carry a tune. He made up for it by singing lustily and with great enthusiasm.
Both my parents were nature lovers. My mother had a special love for flowers and painted each new wild flower we found, while my father loved the forest and the wide variety of trees. He planted native trees and Eucalyptus along the edge of the Hof (village), which became known as the Cedar wood. He did this both in Isla Margarita where we first lived and later in Loma Hoby. I too became fond of forestry and wanted to become a forester, but the Bruderhof did not want to pay for this. It was a pity as both my father and I felt that the precious resource of trees was being mismanaged.
Overall I had a wonderful childhood. I liked school, my classmates, and most of my teachers. My favorite was Eric Phillips,
our gym teacher. Eric was my role model and I followed his advice of how to stay physically fit and disciplined. My mother, being the intellectual in the family, provided me with a steady stream of books to expand my knowledge. In my free time, I loved to roam the woods. In Loma Hoby, we lived near the cow stall and horse stables (both wagon and ranch horses), and during siesta and on weekends, when I wasn’t helping my father in his cedar wood, I was riding or out with the older boys, hunting for armadillos, guati, aguti, or iguanas in the forest.
When school officially ended for me I wanted to study forestry, if possible in Germany, but that idea was nixed. Instead, I turned to my next interest, horses and cattle. I did however ask to receive additional instruction in animal husbandry and agriculture, which was granted, so Lienhard Gneiting and I received were taught one full afternoon a week by Johnny Robinson, a British agronomist. I learned a great deal in these special sessions, which continued for about a year.
From 1955 to 1958 I worked: first in carpentry with my father, then in the wagon department with Albert Wohlfahrt, and then in the Estancia, or beef cattle department. I loved the latter and threw all my energy into training horses. This was followed by two years working on large Paraguayan ranches, where I learned in more detail the business of managing and breeding cattle.
During this period, I was growing more and more independent of the Bruderhof. My parents were living in Ibate when it was decided that a large group from Primavera would move back to Europe. They wanted to increase the number of people living at Bruderhofs in England and in Germany. I had no desire to join my parents in Germany, but when they wrote in early 1960 and asked me to come see them before their departure, I came for an extended visit. I was firm in my intention to leave if we had any disagreements. I could not see myself joining and subordinating myself to a religion I did not believe in. But Primavera was my home; even after my parents moved away, I always felt I could at least come back for visits. Roger Allain was the work distributor, he was a hard and take-charge kind of person but the two of us got along fine. He put me in charge of the wagon department, and then four months later I was working in the Estancia once again, which had moved to Ibate. Loma Hoby—fully a third of our three-village community—had been sold to our neighbors, the Mennonites.
The days of Primavera were drawing to an end. Infighting on the Bruderhof and the struggle for control and leadership emanating from the USA under the leadership of Heini Arnold brought the existence and relevancy of Primavera into question. The American faction was bent on dissolving the Primavera community; to justify this, they claimed the community lacked the right spirit and wasn’t economically viable. The American Brothers and Heini nullified the Primavera Brotherhood and expelled nearly 50% of the community. People were summarily kicked out and given little help or resources, including local Paraguayans who had joined the community and had been there for many years. The rest of Primavera was sold to the Mennonites for a song; rumor has it that for $150,000 cash, they got our industry, our dairy, our poultry, our recently established rice project, and our extensive timber stands. Liebig, British cattle ranchers with large slaughterhouses, acquired our beef cattle. Worst of all for me was giving up all my horses which I had trained and loved.
It was a traumatic and painful experience, and one I never expected. I was surprised that the American brothers offered for me to go to the USA. With it came a warning that I would have to register for the draft. But as I wasn’t a committed pacifist, I thought I would take the risk and cross that bridge when I got there. I could always register as conscientious objector and deal with it then.
I lasted ten months at the community in Evergreen, Connecticut. I just could not warm up to the American community and the way it was run. I started to take correspondence courses to get up to speed living in an advanced industrial environment. Studies took me away from participating in the normal Bruderhof evening activities and meetings, and eventually I was asked to leave. They dropped me off at the YMCA in Hartford, paid for a week’s lodging, and left me with $10 in cash.
After a couple of short stints in the construction industry, I found a job in a steam turbine factory. One of the other men staying at the YMCA was a German doing an internship with a US organ factory, and through him I was met other Germans, as well as members of an American youth group which called itself the Suburbanites. On weekends I joined in their activities, and weekday evenings I studied at the local adult high school. One of my courses was civics, my first introduction to the American democratic system. I came to the conclusion that if I believed in this system, then I should also be willing to defend it, i.e. serve in the military. So when I had exhausted my CO claim I notified the draft board that I would serve. They immediately sent me an induction letter. I served in the USA Army from February 1964 until February 1967 with a one year stint in a Korean MASH unit. Before leaving the military I got my US citizenship and US passport. During my three years in the service, I took college courses at night, mostly in San Antonio, Texas.
I wanted to see what Germany was like, and if possible, study there. I managed to get myself there but after ten months, an ex-Army buddy convinced me to join him in New York City, where I could study under the GI Bill. By February 1968 I was back in the USA, working a job in a bank on Wall Street in the now defunct Bankers Trust and taking night classes at City College, Baruch School of Business. From the bank job I moved to an international trading firm, first as traffic manager then moving up to become a commodity trader with a seat on the commodity exchange in the World Trade Center. I loved my job, it took me around the world visiting clients. I did this for thirteen years until the recession of 1981, when my company closed the New York office. After that I worked for a few other companies, but in 1988 I called it quits, sold my house, and bought a B&B near Killington, Vermont. That went south during the depression of 1991 brought on by the first Gulf War. We closed shop in October of 1993, and I moved to Hunter, New York in the Catskills, where I owned a nice little chalet on the mountain next to the ski slopes. I could not find any steady job, so on recommendation from my younger brother, Eckehart, we moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado to start our own manufacturing business, producing portable propane gas heaters. We could not get the needed financing, so decided to go our separate ways. Eck started his own engineering consulting business, while I got a job with the mutual fund company T. Rowe Price, who was going to open a new office in Colorado Springs. There I worked for the next eleven years, retiring at age 70.
In 1999 we bought a house in Monument Colorado; Eckehart lives less than a mile from me. I met my wife Johanna at a 2011 reunion in Friendly Crossway, Massachusetts. Johanna is a fellow ex-Bruderhofer who was born in Loma Hoby. She is a daughter of Bill and Maria Patrick. We are very happy to have found each other.
Johannes G. Zimmermann