A noble commitment. Alheidis Countess von Bothmer

By Henning Kullak-Ublick, July 2013

Alheidis Countess von Bothmer, the third of five children, was born in 1928 as Alheidis von Raven on the Groß Luckow country estate in the region of the Uckermark north-east of Berlin. Until she was sixteen, she spent a happy childhood in the country, with “more time on horseback than on foot”, she recounts. She was born into a famous equestrian family, learnt all about farming from when she was a child and loved her uncomplicated life in and with nature.

© Charlotte Fischer

The Second World War put a radical end to her childhood. At the last second, she fled in April 1945 ahead of the advancing Red Army troops. Immediately beforehand she had been strafed by a low-flying fighter while she had been out riding alone; he had evidently selected her for target practice. Her flight and the loss of her home became so unbearable to her that as she crossed the river Elbe near Glückstadt “on the last ferry amid a fighter attack” she stood on the deck and hoped ardently that they would be hit by one of the bombs from the aircraft.

Her family found refuge with relatives living on the lower reaches of the Elbe where with others they replaced the Polish farm workers from whom they “took over both the fleas and the field work”. In the autumn they moved to her maternal grandparents near Hanover.

Her parents built up a “small but excellent” farm and Alheidis was able to complete a farming apprenticeship on the neighbouring estate. She continued her training as an assistant at Stuttgart-Hohen­heim agricultural college before moving north again as a specialist in animal husbandry and nutrition.

She found employment at the agricultural research institute in Braunschweig-Völkenrode where she had to undertake feed experiments with hormone preparations. “I was a real pain in the neck for my boss,” she recalls, “because I thought that keeping animals in confined spaces and feeding them hormones were both wrong and said so. Which did not mean that anybody listened to me.”

Occult Science as lifesaver

The senselessness of these experiments as well as the growing despair about ever finding substantial answers to her questions about the meaning of life, or lack thereof, increasingly led her to the decision to put an end to herself. While she was preparing to do so, she met her later husband, Hans Jörg Count von Bothmer, to whom she entrusted herself after some hesitation and who started to read Rudolf Steiner’s Occult Science to her – but who “out of a pronounced sense of integrity unfortunately started with the foreword”, as she recounts. Exasperated, Bothmer threw the book into a corner. A few days later, tidying up for the last time, she swept it up from under the wardrobe to find it lying open at the chapter “Sleep and death”. She started to read. “That saved and enriched my life from that moment onwards,” she says. A short time later she gave up her job and moved with Hans Jörg to the lower Rhine where she married him in 1950.

After an interim stop at the Dottenfelder Hof farm near Bad Vilbel, the young family moved to the Pestalozzi Children’s and Youth Village in Wahlwies on Lake Constance. There she became the house mother of a large family of twelve children, including her own two children. Her husband took on the management of the children’s village.

Shaken to the core

One morning, a farmer in the village blocked her path and said: “You are the most ignorant person I know!” In answer to her puzzled question why, he pointed out that her father-in-law, Fritz Count von Bothmer, had developed a system of gymnastics, the name of which she even bore, but in which she evidently had no interest whatsoever. Her husband had never mentioned Bothmer gymnastics although he had greatly respected his father. Hence her children were already thirteen and fourteen before her first encounter. She had once attended a presentation at the Uhlandshöhe Waldorf school which, however, had repelled her just as much as “the blend of garlic, arnica oil and sweat odours common at the time” in the audience. At the second performance she attended, she was equally relieved when the stage emptied again. But then an attractive man stepped alone on to the stage and presented a single, extremely precise sequence of movements which shook her “to the core” and awakened the longing to learn more about this system of gymnastics. Although it appeared almost impossible under the circumstances of the time, she regularly travelled to the training in Stuttgart alongside her work as a house mother on Lake Constance. On conclusion of her training, she taught all classes, trainees and staff who wanted it for seven years at the children’s village.

Jumping in a triangle

In a geometry lesson, when she was introducing the “triangle”, she noticed that some children very quickly picked up the exercise whereas others “simply couldn’t do it”, as Bothmer recounts. When she investigated the matter more closely, she discovered that all children who were aged 13 quickly and happily immersed themselves in the sequence of movements whereas they did not mean a great deal to the younger or older children. As her experience grew, it became increasingly clear to her “to what extent the individual exercises of Bothmer gymnastics are tailored to the developmental stage of the children”. She responds to the objection that the development of children today has clearly accelerated in comparison to what it was at the time that Bothmer gymnastics was created with the argument that this applied to their intellectual awareness, soul development and some physiological processes, but not to the growth of the bones and muscles. “The anatomy of the human being is the same all over the world,” she says. “We all inhabit the same church, whether we are born in Mongolia, Africa or anywhere else in the world.” Bothmer gymnastics was about a person being able freely to find their upright posture and orientation in space. “Once I have understood that, I can unite in fraternity with all the other people, never mind my destination or their origins,” Alheidis says enthusiastically.

In 1974, Gräfin Bothmer moved to Stuttgart and taught young people and adults individually or in groups at most of the anthroposophical seminars. In close collaboration with physicians, she also studied the medical and therapeutic effects of Bothmer gymnastics. Her teacher, Gretl Krause-Eppinger, had established the Graf Bothmer School for Gymnastics In the 1960s. In 1977, Gräfin von Bothmer was herself appointed to teach at the school; she taught there until 1999.

Victim of its own success

Shortly before the turn of the millennium, the school experienced an onslaught of applications from the eastern European countries but failed to ask for the course fees to be paid in advance. When the payments failed to materialise, the school had to close despite its successful work. Yet the namesake of this system of gymnastics succeeded in revitalising it after a period of stagnation. Today there are training centres in Germany and abroad. Many Waldorf schools have integrated Bothmer gymnastics into their movement lessons.

What is Bothmer gymnastics?

Human beings move with their bodies in the three dimensions of space which have quite distinct qualities.

This system of gymnastics provides exercises which create an awareness of these qualities.

The forwards/backwards direction corresponds to the will, the upwards/downwards direction to feeling and the right/left direction to thinking.

Comments

Ash , London, 01.02.16 16:02

Hello Henning, thank you very much for the biography of Alheidis and although I haven't seen it before in my research, and i can see that it has been published in 2013.
I thought to contribute the name of the person Alheidis seen in the 2nd performance this was Knut Ross from Michael Hall Steiner School in Forest Row UK.

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