In Germany, Home Is Where The Yurt Is

A Mongolian yurt in Germany
A Mongolian yurt in Germany
Titus Arnu

ÜBERLINGEN AM BODENSEE — Nadja Schotthöfer and David Schuster decided against the German Dream — a semi-detached house with garden, flat-screen TV, living room suite, fitted kitchen. They live in a yurt, where their child was born.

Outside, a warm wind caresses the tall grasses, and it smells like hay drying in the sun. The cherry tree leaves are rustling, and starlings and crows are feeding on the nearly ripe fruit. Crickets make chirping sounds. The noises in this orchard in Überlingen am Bodensee, a German town on the northern shore of Lake Constance, create the orchestra of summer.

Inside the yurt, red beets are cooking in a pot. Schotthöfer’s hands are bright red from peeling them. “The color’s so beautiful, it's a shame I have to wash it off,” she says.

Schuster, wearing some leather short-shorts and a woolen jacket, sits cross-legged nearby enjoying the peaceful vibe. Little Frieda, the couple’s one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, has fallen asleep as her mother prepares lunch.

The noises inside the tent mix agreeably with those outside, just as the smells of the food fuse with the smell of hay. In a yurt, you’re both inside and outside at the same time, the only separation between living space and nature being two layers of sheep, horse and yak hair weave. The felt breathes and keeps the heat out during the day and the cold out at night.

Underneath the light wood boards on the floor is meadow. “We live with nature, in nature,” Schuster says. He and his partner have been living in the yurt for more than two years. “I can absolutely not imagine having an apartment anymore, much less having to go to an office five days a week,” he says. “What total horror.”

A simple life

A yurt — a Turkish word meaning “home” — is the traditional housing of Mongolian nomads. It is a cross between a house and a tent. The walls consist of a folding wooden frame, felt, and canvas. The yurt can be taken down within a couple of hours and folded up so small it fits on the backs of two camels — or in this case, the load space of a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

This type of shelter might make sense for nomads moving their livestock across the Steppes — but two young Germans?

The pair says their decision to build their own yurt was motivated by a desire to own and spend less — and to reduce stress. They wanted more time, more freedom, and to be closer to nature. “We’ve gotten rid of most of our stuff,” Schuster says.

Their circular home is six meters (19.6 feet) in diameter and has room for nearly everything the young family now possesses. They don’t need a lot: a bed, a couple of stools, a cast-iron wood-burning stove, a few kitchen utensils, some tools, an accordion, carved wooden toys, a chest of clothes.

A simple wooden shelf contains 12 books: plant guides, picture books and a title by French photographer and director Éric Valli about living wild. The Valli book profiles people who have chosen different lifestyles than “regular” folks – a woman who now lives like a Stone Age hunter, for example, and a banker turned trapper.

“You get used to it”

Unlike some of the burnouts in Valli’s book, Schotthöfer and Schuster weren’t entirely fed up with civilization when they decided to make a yurt their permanent home. They had always lived close to nature, and been interested in crafts, the traditions of early man, and alternative lifestyles. They met at a woodcarving school in Oberammergau and soon moved in together.

Their first shared living space was a conventional apartment. Schotthöfer worked several jobs, including as a newspaper deliveryperson, museum guard and waitress. Schuster completed training as a wilderness instructor and started teaching bow-making courses and wilderness seminars, which is how he earns money today.

Somewhere along the way he built his first yurt — and Schotthöfer loved the mobile accommodation from the start. “Nature has a very healing effect on us,” says Schuster, whose long blond hair and beard would make him a perfect Jesus in the world-renowned Oberammergau Passion Play. He believes the round form of the yurt is good for the soul because he says all the right angles in conventional housing give him a terrible “boxed in” feeling.

He also praises their abode for its harmony and romance. But what about when it rains and rains, like it did in May? Or in winter when it’s -10° Celcius (14° Fahrenheit) and water has to be fetched at the well and wood chopped? And doesn’t everybody being in the same room all the time sometimes get annoying? Couldn't those things also make you feel “boxed in”?

Schotthöfer says that, yes, living in nature is sometimes more difficult than it is in an apartment with central heating, an electric range, and refrigerator “but you get used to it.” Every morning, Schuster schleps a 10-liter tank of water to the yurt from the well. That usually covers enough for one day — drinking water, water for cleaning and washing, and some for a kind of rinsing station. Full immersion happens twice a week in the nearby lake or a river, and they use the toilet in a neighboring farmhouse.

Normally they cook on the woodstove in the middle of the yurt, but that makes their home too hot during the summer months. That's when they switch to two electric burners, fed by cable from the farm 200 meters away leased by friends.

Schotthöfer and Schuster, both 30, are serious about trying to limit their carbon footprint. They got the red beets, which were too small and wrinkly to sell at market, free from an area farm. They gather nettles and cook them like vegetables. The taste is surprisingly good. During the summer, the farm well where they get their water is an ersatz fridge where they keep perishables and organic beer that tastes a lot better chilled than warm.

Dreams for the future

They moved to this space near Lake Constance from Upper Bavaria a few months ago. For next year they plan to create a vegetable garden. Schuster dreams of a whole yurt village, where he could pass on his love of nature to the kids. He says he could easily see living in a yurt for the rest of his life, “a mixture of tribesman and organic farmer, with a few modern amenities.”

Schotthöfer says that some things about yurt living require more effort and time than conventional living, but they also save a lot of time because much of what apartment and house dwellers have to deal with — like washing windows and cleaning bathrooms — is nonexistent for yurt dwellers.

“You don’t have the pressure to earn a lot of money to pay a high rent for an expensive city life,” Schuster says. Their family needs no more than about 10,000€ ($13,300) a year to live, which covers insurance, clothes and food. They are fine without luxuries, he insists.

But along with those two electric burners, there are a couple of other compromises: They have a cell phone, a computer and a car, without which Schuster’s work and other demands of life couldn't be organized.

Another compromise concerns the yurt itself. Schuster cut a space in the roof and inserted transparent plastic sheeting to let in light during the day. At night, they can lie in bed and look at the stars.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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