The East German state had a habit of taking children from politically undesirable parents and giving them up for adoption. It is a horrific aspect of the communist regime that has never received the attention it deserves. That may now be changing.
When Uwe Mai thinks about his childhood, he sees the Saale River. Bending gently, it flowed past his parents’ home in Calbe just south of Magdeburg. He only had to dash across the road and down some steps to reach the riverbank, lined with big old trees to climb and rocks to skip across the water.
Mai says that he and his little brother Thomas played down by the river every day when his parents were working their shifts. His father was a steelworker in a nearby factory that was a major supplier of pig iron in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), as East Germany was officially known. His mother worked as a bus conductor.
But then came the day in early 1961 when the GDR took his parents away. He and his brother were playing down by the river as usual when they heard someone call: “Come home quick!” Strange men were standing in the kitchen, he says, and his father sitting on a chair, crying. “Mommy is gone,” he said. “I can’t feed you here anymore, you will have to go to a home for the time being.” It was the first time that Uwe had seen his father cry. He was six years old at the time, his little brother was three.
After that, things moved quickly. A woman, likely from the youth welfare office, was also there, Mai says, and she packed their things and brought them to a children’s home in nearby Schönebeck. Only Herbert, their big brother, was allowed to stay.
Where was his mother? What had happened? In the children’s home, he says, a woman who worked there later whispered into his ear: “Your mother ran off to the West with a colleague.” He says it was the only bit of information he ever received, and even today, he still doesn’t know if it is true.
Uwe Mai, 64, lives in Strausberg, a town just east of Berlin, in a building that during GDR times was reserved for high-ranking military officers and civilians working with the National People’s Army. The structure was known as the “Sound Barrier,” Mai says, because the apartments inside were unattainable for normal GDR citizens.
It’s not like Mai’s life has been a failure. He is married and has a big family of five children and four grandchildren. He was an army officer and went on to work for a construction supplies manufacturer. He retired last year.
And yet, there is this big void. He never again saw his mother, his father or his brothers. His memory of his parents has faded so much that he no longer remembers what they looked like. GDR officials found a new family for him, and Uwe Hampl became Uwe Mai.
There are a number of GDR families whose lives were torn apart in a similar fashion, with children being taken away from undesirable families for political reasons. The state, says Berlin-based legal expert Marie-Luise Warnecke, a 39-year-old who has spent years researching the issue, wanted to punish them “for unruly behavior.” At the same time, the move served to ensure the children’s socialist upbringing. Only couples who were loyal to the party line were considered as adoptive parents.
In 1975, DER SPIEGEL reported that in addition to normal adoptions undertaken in the GDR for the well-being of the child, forced adoptions were also taking place there out of political considerations. Often, these involved couples who had been caught trying to escape and were then separated from their children as a consequence. After the Berlin Wall came down, a number of cases became known, particularly after files pertaining to forced adoptions carried out up until 1988 were found in the basement of a district hall in Berlin. Some children were still at elementary school age when they were taken from their parents.
A ‘Significant Gap’
But even today, 30 years after the demise of the GDR, the practice has not been adequately processed. Marian Wendt, a center-right member of federal parliament from the eastern German state of Saxony, calls it “one of the last, significant unexplained chapters of the unjust state of the GDR.” Only in spring 2018 did the Center for Contemporary History Potsdam complete an initial study on the issue, with the researchers noting a “significant gap in research.”
They estimated that there were “at least several hundred” politically motivated forced adoptions, but there are no reliable statistics. Now, a much broader study is planned to learn the true dimensions of the practice. Warnecke, who has proven five such cases and one failed attempt, says that cases that have thus far been confirmed are likely just “the tip of the iceberg.”
For the victims, it’s about time. They have been waiting for answers for too long — and for recognition of their suffering. Instead of the clarification they had hoped would come with the collapse of the GDR, there are just a lot of questions and a lot of scars.
“Many of us became sick and experienced extreme anguish,” says Andreas Laake, 58. Originally from Leipzig, he was stopped in 1984 by the GDR coast guard as he was trying to flee to the West across the Baltic Sea in a rubber dinghy together with his pregnant wife. Laake says he claimed full responsibility and was thrown in jail. When his wife gave birth, he wasn’t even allowed to see the child and a court simply withdrew his parenting rights. His wife was presumably pressured into giving the child up for adoption.
Andreas Laake found his son 29 years later. Other parents have also been able to track down their children — but are often unable to make up for lost time. “You can’t turn back the clock on life,” says Laake. “We didn’t watch our children grow up, we weren’t there when they started school, when they won in sports, when they fell in love for the first time.”
Now, he continues searching on behalf of others. He has founded an organization called Stolen Children of the GDR, which has more than 1,700 members. “Seventy-year-old women come to me and say: Mr. Laake, I only have one wish left: I just want to know what happened to my child.”
In the Schönebeck children’s home, just a half-hour’s drive from his parent’s house in Calbe on the Saale River, Uwe repeatedly asked in spring 1961 when he would be allowed to go back home. He never received an answer, he says. Instead, he was brought to the director’s office one day and introduced to a married couple who brought him home twice for trial runs. “And suddenly, I was told it would be forever,” Mai says. He says he wasn’t even been given the opportunity to say goodbye to his little brother.
Fifty-seven years later, Uwe Mai is sitting in the living room of his apartment in the “Sound Barrier” and digging through a cardboard box full of old pictures. He doesn’t possess even a single photo of his mother and father; the pictures are all from his life with his adoptive parents. His new father was a division head in the administration of the town of Egeln and, Mai says, he was an active member of the SED, as the East German communist party was known. His adoptive mother was in charge of daycare centers in the municipality. She even had her own driver.
‘I Suppose I Was Lucky’
He shows black-and-white photos of vacations taken in Thuringia, of a yard with chickens, sheep, pigs and rabbits. He says he had to do a lot of yardwork and that his adoptive father was strict, punishing him with beatings or by grounding him. He says his adoptive mother would sometimes relieve him of his duties on Sundays so she could take him to the movies. “On the whole,” Mai says, “I suppose I was lucky.”
Mai is a large, burly man who seems pragmatic, not the kind of guy to talk much about his feelings. The only insight into just how difficult his past is for him is the frequency of his sighs or the way he clears his throat and takes deep breaths.
The box with the photos and the certificate of adoption is all that he has left. When he cleared out the house after his adoptive parents died, all of his old toys were gone — including his beloved teddy-bear with its crocheted suit. Even the only picture of him with his little brother, taken in the children’s home, was gone. “It’s as if my childhood had vanished for a second time,” he says.
In winter 1963, Helga, a 21-year-old waitress in the Interhotel in Halle, met Erhard from Stuttgart. She begged him to take her to the West. They planned to escape through the Harz Mountains on New Year’s Eve, thinking that the noise of the fireworks would give them cover.
But they were unable to find their way in the darkness. “It was bitterly cold, and suddenly, they caught us,” Helga remembers. Now 76, she lives in the Baltic Sea town of Travemünde and goes by her married name Gniess. The border guards threw bedsheets over them and put them in handcuffs. “One of them held a gun to my head. I feared for my life.”
She spent a year and a half in political detention the “Red Ox,” as the notorious prison in Halle was called. Only in 1984 was she finally able to leave the GDR, moving to the West German city of Lübeck, which confirmed in 1985 that she had been a political prisoner. The Stasi officer who interrogated her after her arrest, Gniess recalls, called her a “traitor” and said: “Elements like you cannot raise a child.” Her small son Andreas, who had been with her during her escape attempt, was sent to her mother.
After that, she was forced to work shifts in a chocolate factory, carrying boxes, labeling chocolates and weighing packages. For three years. Her ID card was confiscated, replaced by a document known as “PM12.” “As soon as you showed it, you were marked out,” she says.
Within the space of two years, she had two separate relationships and each one resulted in a child: Ramona in November 1969 and Diana in October 1970. Gniess says they all lived together in her mother’s small apartment and that it was not an easy situation. When she and her mother were at work, the girls spent their days at daycare, as was normal in the GDR. To earn a bit of extra money, she would do seasonal work on the Baltic Sea coast. She didn’t see her children much.
‘An Upstanding Woman’
One day, she says, she was told by the youth welfare office that she would never see her daughter Diana again, even though the girl was just a few months old at the time. The officials told her they were looking to place her with “an upstanding woman who would educate her according to socialist values.” Gniess says she was ultimately pressured into approving the adoption with threats of a trial and another spell in prison.
After that, proceedings were also launched for the adoption of Ramona. “I didn’t have a chance,” Gniess says, “even though I had remarried by then and my husband wanted to adopt the girls.” But, she says, a court withdrew her parenting rights in absentia.
Gniess had two more children with her husband, but she repeatedly filed applications for permission to leave the country. In justifying her desire to leave, she wrote that she wanted to live with her brother in Hamburg. But despite her desire to travel, as she complained at the time, she wasn’t even given permission to go to other countries in the communist bloc. In her applications, she also mentioned the two daughters that had been taken away from her: “I cannot get over the two adoptions, nor do I want to,” she wrote in an application to leave the country filed on Sept. 30, 1983.
She was repeatedly interrogated, watched and likely spied on. The director of the factory where she worked reported to Halle city authorities on Nov. 9, 1983, “that she isn’t quiet about the fact that she doesn’t feel free in the GDR.”
Helga Gniess has spread out the papers pertaining to her life in the GDR on a table in her small, ground-floor apartment in Travemünde. They include her applications to the state authorities along with copies of reports from GDR authorities about her and her husband, which she received from the Halle city archive. She was finally allowed to leave in 1984 “in a darkened train,” she says, together with political prisoners from Bautzen whose freedom had been bought by the West.
When the Wall came down in 1989, she says, she began looking for her daughters, initially driving to Halle with her husband and putting an ad in the local paper. “A short time later, I received an anonymous tip about where and under what name my daughter Ramona was living.” A young man opened the door, she says, and said that his wife was still at work. Gniess said she was from the youth welfare office and waited. Then her daughter arrived. “She was beautiful, slim, thick black hair, she looked like Snow White, blue eyes and pale skin. I hadn’t expected her to be so beautiful,” Helga Gniess says. When she insisted that she was from the youth welfare office, the young woman replied: “You’re lying. You are my mother. I recognize you.”
The Search for a Long, Lost Child
Her daughter Ramona, 49, remembers the moment well: “I came home and there was this woman standing there in our living room with a huge file under her arm. I knew immediately who she was.”
She says her mother felt like a stranger. “She wanted to meet with me, but I couldn’t relate to her,” says Ramona, whose last name is now Neumann. “The bond is broken, you can’t fix it. Something is missing.” Ramona says her mother asked how she could say “mom” to her adoptive mother. She answered: “I grew up with her, for me, she is my mother. I’m doing fine, I have a good relationship with her.” Ramona says that Helga, as she calls her biological mother, spoke poorly of her adoptive mother — which she didn’t like. “I grew up happy. I don’t know how things might have been.”
Today, Ramona lives in Halle, only a couple of houses away from her adoptive mother Inge Queiser, 75, in the same quiet street she grew up in.
Sitting together over coffee in Queiser’s small living room, they seem to have a good relationship. Queiser, a resolute, strong woman with short hair dyed red, says that Ramona often drops by for lunch and that they take vacations together. She insists she has nothing to be ashamed of: “I didn’t do anything wrong. Not everything was bad in the GDR.”
When asked how it came about that she was able to adopt Ramona, Queiser says: “The youth welfare office didn’t tell me much, but in the newspaper, it was reported that the mother had been caught stealing and was in jail.” When the court then withdrew her parenting rights, the youth welfare office called her, Queiser says. “Ms. Queiser, we’re ready. You can adopt her now.” The biological mother, Queiser says, “threw a fit” at the youth welfare office.
“It wasn’t voluntary,” Ramona reminds Queiser, to which her adoptive mother responds: “I reject the notion that it was a forced adoption.” But it was, Ramona insists, raising her voice. “When you have to give up your child, then it is a forced adoption, mom.”
Ramona says she can no longer remember the children’s home where she was staying when Queiser, who was single at the time, arrived and chose the little girl for adoption. “I only remember hiding behind a railing at one point because I was afraid that someone would come and take me away,” Ramona says.
When she was in the first grade, another child told her that her mother wasn’t her real mother. Queiser says that’s when she told Ramona that she had been adopted because her real mother “had done something wrong.” There was no mention of any attempt by Ramona’s biological mother to flee to the West.
Ramona says she set about looking for proof and found her vaccination records. She scratched the name off and found a different name and place of birth underneath. “I didn’t know that!” says Inge Queiser in astonishment.
At the time, Queiser was working for the SED party in the Halle municipality, responsible for member relations and recruitment. “She called me a red swine,” Queiser says angrily, referring to Ramona’s mother, adding that she had written nasty letters to Queiser after the Wall came down. But, she insists, the party had “nothing to do” with the adoption. Ramona interjects that her membership had certainly been “an advantage.” “Maybe,” says Queiser, but adds that she had been checked “like anyone else and that she had had to submit a certificate of good conduct and a medical report. “Everything was done according to the rules.” She says, though, that the party provided her with a driver for her visits to the orphanage. “The best thing that I did in my life was getting Ramona,” she says.
Helga Gniess was also able to track down her daughter Diana in 1989, finding her adoptive family in the Saxony town of Aue. “She was living there in a lovely house with a yard.” Gniess was invited in for a coffee and they talked, “but she didn’t want any contact either,” Gniess says. “She told me she had a mother and wanted to stay with her.”
Sounding bitter, Gniess says she can’t understand why her daughters don’t want to have anything to do with her. One of them accused her of being a traitor and of having contributed to the demise of the GDR. When asked about the theft accusation, Gniess says that none of it is true and it was merely invented to justify taking her children away. She spent several months behind bars.
There was one time when she grew hopeful that her relationship with Ramona might actually grow closer. Her daughter visited her in Travemünde for New Year’s in 2000, but the ice refused to break. Helga Gniess continued to call her daughter on occasion. “She would always say: I’ll call you back.” But she never did.
According to East German law, parents were required to raise their children to become “active contributors to socialism.” If they didn’t do so sufficiently in the eyes of the state, then, in a worst case scenario, their parenting rights could be withdrawn.
This law, says Wernecke, the lawyer, “opened the door” to punishing aberrant behavior displayed by parents. It meant that children’s development wasn’t just seen as endangered if parents didn’t feed or care for them properly, but also if they exhibited political misconduct. Fleeing the country, or even attempting to, was considered a “seriously negligent breach of duty,” Wernecke says. Parents could also lose their children for “subversive agitation.” Indeed, says Wernecke, “essentially anything that was adversarial to the state” was considered in violation, “including saying anything that was critical of the regime or reading the foreign press.”
The law also foresaw another political justification for interfering in a parent’s rights: a “non-socialist lifestyle.” That applied to people who were active in the church, to those who did not fulfill the “obligation to work,” or to women who frequently changed partners and had many children. “The practical hurdles to separating children from their parents were easy to overcome for officials at the youth welfare office,” according to the preliminary study conducted by the Center for Contemporary History Potsdam. Writers for the pro-regime publication Youth Welfare (Jugendhilfe) demanded that the state also explore the withdrawal of parenting rights in cases of “crimes against the GDR.”
Thus far, no proof has emerged that the Ministry of National Education, under the leadership of Margot Honecker, issued orders to separate children from their parents. But numerous cases provide strong indication that the Ministry for State Security, which controlled the dreaded state security agency commonly known as the Stasi, “wielded significant influence over cases aimed at withdrawing parenting rights,” says political scientist Christian Sachse. He adds that the Stasi’s role in the practice has not yet been sufficiently investigated.
Sachse has reconstructed the 1963 case of one mother using Stasi files. The woman’s parenting rights were withdrawn after she was imprisoned for political reasons, having been accused of listening to Western broadcasters and having contacts in Switzerland. In another case, an underage young woman was committed to a youth labor center for “drifting.” Later, after she had become pregnant from a partner from West Berlin and said she wanted to visit him, officials launched an investigation for “shirking work.” The woman was jailed and ultimately pressured into giving up her child for adoption.
There were Stasi informants working in youth welfare offices, Sachse says. According to files that DER SPIEGEL has seen, a senior youth welfare official in Berlin was also an active Stasi informant under the codename “Norbert.” On one occasion, a senior member of the opposition group “Umweltbibliothek” was to be pressured with the threat of having his children taken away. In a Stasi report documenting a 1988 meeting with Norbert, it was noted that the informant’s “official position should be used to examine the degree to which the youth welfare office could provide assistance.”
Some children didn’t even know that they had been forcibly adopted, says Laake, from the organization Stolen Children of the GDR, because there is no requirement to tell them. Biological parents or siblings do not have the right to examine the adoption files. Even the affected children themselves can find their access limited.
Laake’s organization is now demanding that a requirement now be introduced to share the information, to establish a public clearinghouse that can shed light on cases that need it, and to launch state investigations. They are also asking that the compulsory period for retaining documents be lengthened for youth welfare offices, courts, municipal offices and maternity clinics. Laake and others are concerned, however, that a significant number of relevant files have already been destroyed.
The petition has, however, had the effect of arousing interest in the issue among German parliamentarians. Last June, the Petitions Committee in the federal parliament, the Bundestag, listened to expert testimony and conservative lawmakers say they are currently deliberating with parliamentarians from the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) on a motion that would allow for the “legal and political examination of a long-ignored element of GDR history,” says Committee Chairman Marian Wendt, of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). “Part of that is the possible rehabilitation and compensation of parents and children as political victims.” Senior conservative parliamentarian Arnold Vaatz, a former human rights activist in the GDR, is also demanding both the establishment of a DNA database and a right for parents to view the documentation.
A Faked Death?
Katrin Behr of Berlin, who in 2007 launched the first web portal for those affected by the forced adoptions, says: “It is time to publicly declare: A terrible wrong took place.” She, herself, was forcibly adopted as a child.
Petra Wehnert, 54, is fighting back tears as she stands before a fresh pile of dirt at the Neuer Annenfriedhof cemetery in Dresden. It is a warm day in September, four weeks after she had the body of her son Frank exhumed. He died at the age of five months on June 23, 1988, though even today, Wehnert doesn’t know the cause of his death. She isn’t even certain that he is really dead. Could it be that the hospital just faked his death to take him away from her?
It is a suspicion that other former GDR citizens also harbor. In Laake’s organization alone, he says, around 900 of the members are parents who were told after giving birth that their baby had died — but they don’t believe it, suspecting that their children were declared dead and then given up for adoption. “Thus far, no evidence has been found” for such a practice, said Maria Nooke, the Brandenburg official leading efforts to confront the consequences of GDR communism in the state, in testimony before the Petitions Committee in the Bundestag. She believes that the traumatic loss combined with present-day knowledge of the crimes committed by the GDR have fed the notion “that the children could still be alive.”
But why do so many mothers and fathers have their doubts? “Parents come to us and ask: Why did we never receive the autopsy results? Why is data about the child’s size inconsistent?” Laake says. It’s his belief, however, that there are only a limited number of such cases. The Petitions Committee, meanwhile, wants to commission a study into the controversial newborn deaths.
Petra Wehnert also stumbled over some inconsistencies. For several years, she tried to come to terms with her fate, but was never able to. In 2002, almost 24 years after the death of her son, she began what turned into an almost criminological investigation.
Wehnert and her husband had been in the cinema together on that day in June 1988, with neighbors taking care of the baby. Once they returned home, her husband went to check on the child, and suddenly called out to her that she should call an ambulance. He then shut the door of the room in her face, she says. The ambulance brought the baby to the hospital and she was told later that he had died. She says she hadn’t been able to see him again.
She believed the doctors at the time, Wehnert says, and she had been afraid of her husband, saying he had threatened her. She says he had found the baby to be a nuisance. The two separated many years ago.
Despite the many hurdles, Wehnert arduously collected a vast quantity of data and files, compiling it all in a thick file folder. It contains the emergency doctor’s report, the report from the doctor on duty at the hospital, the certificate of death, the autopsy application and the pathologist’s report. She tracked down the doctors involved and even spoke with the funeral home director and the embalmer. “With every new sheet of paper, with every partial answer that I receive, new questions arise,” Wehnert says.
And the hospital papers do, in fact, reveal conspicuous errors and contradictions. On one document, for example, the date of birth is incorrect, on another, the box for “female” is checked instead of “male.” One paper indicates that the child died at home at 10 p.m., whereas another states that artificial respiration at the hospital was stopped at 11 p.m. One claims that the child had a high fever, another, though, lists his temperature at 38.4 degrees, only slightly higher than normal. The doctor’s report notes that the child had been found at home in its own vomit, but Petra Wehnert says: “The bed was completely dry.”
The ward physician told Wehnert the next day that her boy had died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome: “She told me I had had a totally healthy baby.” But the autopsy report indicates there were signs of serious illness and that the baby had been suffering from pneumonia, meningitis, laryngitis, conjunctivitis and even myocarditis.
“None of it makes sense. How could all of these things be true of one child?” Wehnert wonders. All of the doctors she visited, she says, told her: “It’s time to let go.”
But how can she? Every day, she looks at the picture of her son, a sweet boy with dark eyes. She has set up a kind of shrine to him on a shelf, complete with his teddy bear, which she bought in an Intershop with Western money. Thirty years have passed since then, but the pain is still there. “I wasn’t able to see him grow up, I could never again take him into my arms and comfort him. I couldn’t share his delight,” Wehnert says. “I have to stop, otherwise I’ll start crying.”
A Pair of Exhumations
In 2003, she decided to have her child exhumed. She says that by the time she arrived at the cemetery on that March 12, the grave had already been opened. She says they showed her a brown clump of earth and told her it was a piece of ear cartilage, a sample that she has only recently been able to get back from forensic officials and she is now having tested. It looks more like a piece of skull, she says. She didn’t recognize the blue-and-white striped sweater that they claimed to have pulled out of the grave. She says she had provided a light-colored T-shirt for the baby’s burial.
But what possible political motive could there have been for taking her child from her? “Maybe it was because I consistently refused to join the party and the Society for German-Soviet Friendship,” she posits.
At the time of the first exhumation, she was told that nothing had been found that would be usable for DNA testing. But with the support of Laake’s organization, she had the grave opened again in August, this time by an undertaker of her choosing. And this time, she says, other things were found: red tights which still had an ankle bone inside, and a yellow-and-blue patterned sweater. Neither of the articles of clothing belonged to her son, Wehnert says decisively. “The clothes were strangely balled up in the corner, almost as if they had been thrown in later.” A clavicle was also found, with the undertaker saying it belonged to an adult.
Now, Petra Wehnert is waiting for the results of the DNA test. She is impatient and desperate, and hopeful that she will finally receive an “honest, comprehensible result” along with “absolute certainty.” It could confirm that her son is, in fact, dead.
It also took Uwe Mai from Strausberg a long time before he began searching for his past. “There was always something else to do,” he says. He posted several questions about his little brother on orphanage forums but got no leads. He learned at some point that his father had died. But then his daughter Nadin came to him with the idea of creating a family tree. “You’re going to have to sit down,” he told her, and then shared with her the story of his adoption for the first time.
Now, the two are looking together — and they have already stumbled across a couple of surprises. Mai, it seems, was likely born in prison in 1954, meaning that the conflict between his mother and the regime had begun even earlier. “Maybe she took part in the 1953 uprising or in the demonstrations marking its one-year anniversary in 1954,” Mai says. He now knows that his mother died in 1988 in Bonn — meaning that she did, in fact, make it to the West. But how? And he knows that his brothers are dead. But questions remain: What happened to his beloved little brother after they were separated in the orphanage? Was he also adopted? Did he maybe have children?
When spring comes, Mai plans to travel to Calbe, where he lived with his parents as a child. He wants to go across the street and down to the river. Maybe he’ll find a couple of flat rocks and throw them into the Saale, just like he used to do when he was six, back when he was still called Hampl — and didn’t know that his childhood was about to come to an abrupt end.