Sat, Sep 04, 2010 - Page 9 News List

The legacy of East Germany’s forced adoptions

German families torn apart by forced adoptions during the Cold War are still looking for answers — and their lost relatives

By Marten Rolff  /  THE GUARDIAN, LONDON

It took exactly four minutes to steal Andreas Laake’s baby son — that was the length of the court hearing that swept away his paternity rights.

Some 26 years later, Laake can still recall every detail of the trial — his aching wrists cuffed behind his back, the musty smell of the courtroom, the steely voice of the young female judge.

Then there were the vague words of the social worker who said that after his attempted escape from the German Democratic Republic (GDR): “We do not believe Mr Laake has the ability to bring up his son for the purpose of socialism.”

Laake was not even allowed to defend himself. All he said in court were four words: “I do not agree.”

Several weeks later, his son Marco was adopted by people who were considered, in ideological terms, much more reliable parents.

“Since then, I’ve spent half a lifetime searching for him,” Laake says.

It took a matter of minutes for Katrin Behr to be separated from her family too.

It was a cold winter morning in 1972 when three men in long, dark coats knocked on the door to arrest her mother. Behr was four and a half years old at the time, and can still remember the panic in her mother’s voice as she urged her daughter to get dressed quickly, but Katrin Behr was left behind.

The last words she heard were: “Be brave. I’ll be back tonight,” before her mother was spirited off to a socialist boot camp.

It would be 19 years until they saw each other again.

After short stopovers in various foster homes, Behr was adopted by a strict woman, a secretary of the Socialist party. She tried to adapt as best she could.

“I did what I was told,” Behr says. “As a little girl, I really thought that that was the best way to avoid trouble.”

Stealing children was one way the GDR muzzled its people — Behr and Laake belong to an estimated 1,000 families torn apart by the socialist authorities.

Forced adoptions were a tool that the regime “could impose on virtually anyone who was considered suspicious,” Behr says.

All it took to be judged a bad parent was to infringe on vague “socialist guidelines.”

In Behr’s case, her mother, a single parent, was arrested after she had lost her job and decided to stay at home to care for her children — a major transgression in the eyes of a state that believed in compulsory labor.

In her new family, Behr always felt “like a second-class daughter,” she says.”A Cinderella who had to clean the house and care for my younger adoptive brother while my adoptive mother was at work.”

She was told repeatedly that she had been put up for adoption because her natural mother did not love her.

“I desperately tried to cling to a positive image of her, but any abandoned child would start to doubt that love after 19 years,” Behr says.

She was granted limited access to her adoption file following German unification and learned that her mother had never had a chance to get her daughter back. She also found out that her mother had spent several years in prison. Still, it took Behr a whole year to get in touch with her.

“I hesitated because I was afraid that the negative comments about her would be proved right,” she says.

When Behr finally met her natural mother, she says she was obsessed with the idea that everyone in her extended family would get along. She therefore arranged for her natural and adoptive mother to meet.

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