When eight friends decided nearly four decades ago that they’d like to move in together, they had little idea they would end up as one of the longest-surviving communal living projects in Germany. They were simply a group of friends, including a few teachers, a lawyer and an architect, who knew each other from their school days and the university and wanted to try out living together.
Since then, the group has raised six children and grown old together. They often get visits from those thinking about creating their own communal projects and looking for advice on how to build this kind of alternative family.
In 1977, Renate Funck, Eggert and Jutta Rohwer, Birgit and Michael Schumacher, Ute and Reimer Vollguth, and Christian Engmann moved into a big red brick house in Wedel, a town on the River Elbe near Hamburg. They purchased the house in a foreclosure sale for the equivalent of €127,000 or $171,000.
The house, called Elbburg, was first built as a hotel in 1912. It later had various other incarnations, including a brothel and a student accommodation.
The friends knocked down some walls and created six apartments over four floors. The ground floor was to serve as the communal space. A big room in the center was home to a long table where the household would eat together every evening, while the former billiard room was a playroom for the children. A big office became home to all their parents’ books. In the intervening decades, that collection of books has spilled out across the house.
“We would have been lost if we hadn’t had each other,”
On a Sunday morning, the women of the house sat at the round table by the window drinking tea.
Asked why did they set up this community and how have they kept it going for so long, Mrs. Schumacher said: “We would have been lost if we hadn’t had each other.” It was the answer to the big question that many women faced 40 years ago, she recalled: How to combine a career with a family? The answer was to open up the nuclear family to others.
There is a saying that it takes a village to raise a child. In this case, it required a big house. Every day, one of the group was responsible for the kids – taking care of them after school and cooking their dinner. The arrangement brought freedom for both the grown-ups and the children: The adults could work while the children could choose between many mothers and fathers. Often they would only decide on a given night where they would sleep.
At school, the children called themselves Elbburg kids as if it were their family name.
At one stage, a psychologist warned them that it wasn’t good for children if so many people were telling them what to do. After that, they decided that if one adult set a rule, the others would abide by it. It worked, without the parents having to resort to too much pedagogical theory. Today, many of those who come to ask the group members for advice about communal living are fixated on ensuring the maximum amount of agreement and making sure everyone gets along.
“But really,” said Mrs. Schumacher, “it’s just about discipline, exactly like in a couple.”
The group believes that their marriages have proved stable, thanks to their experiment in communal living. A spouse or partner doesn’t have to be everything to the other half. When Christian, the sports teacher, didn’t have any interest in going running in the evening, his girlfriend Renate simply went with Birgit. Since Ute had no interest in singing, her husband Reimer joined a choir with Eggert and Birgit.
The Elbburgers are also aware that it was their relative prosperity that allowed them to indulge in this kind of experiment. When a friend who had less money wanted to join them, it didn’t work. They didn’t want to be always counting pennies. Over the years, they have all paid the same sum into the communal kitty – used for items such as groceries, wine and cleaning products – regardless of whether they were on holidays or had guests staying. That might seem generous at first but “really it all works out in the end,” said Mr. Schumacher.
These days, all of the original Elbburgers are retirees. And they’ve learned from each other how to deal with this new phase in their lives: to let go of their former jobs, to volunteer, to travel and to be there for the grandchildren. There are only two of those so far, but they all feel responsible for them.
As they age, the group members have had to face a tough decision: When will it finally be time to give up the house? They have drawn up a legal contract stating that the house will be sold when only three of them are still alive. With fewer people, the place just wouldn’t function, according toMrs. Schumacher. “The Elbburg is like a small company,” she said.
That evening, one of the family’s sons sotpped by with his wife, children and some friends. For a while, the next generation also lived in shared apartments. Now, however, they live in more traditional formations, as couples or nuclear families, the opposite to the model their parents chose.
One daughter said the reason was that it was not easy to settle down in one place these days. She is an assistant theater director, for example, and her work takes her all over the country. The Elbburg, however, always serves as a fixed point in her life. “You know that whenever you knock on the door someone will be at home,” she said.
Three generations of the family meanwhile gathered in the back garden for a barbecue. A bottle of wine was opened and as the evening cooled, the house’s residents passed around jackets to their guests. After 37 years, they know one thing for sure: the nights can be long at the Elbburg.