The legacy of forced adoptions

Marten Rolff, Sunday 22 August 2010 20.30 BST

German families torn apart by forced adoptions during the cold war are still looking for answers – and their lost relatives. Katrin Behr was separated from her mother as a child. 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: “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,” says Laake.

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 German Democratic Republic 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 labour.

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,” Behr says, “but any abandoned child would start to doubt that love after 19 years.” She was granted limited access to her adoption file following reunification, 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,” she says, “because I was afraid that the negative comments about her would be proved right.”

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. This was a disaster. Behr had to separate the women when they literally went for each other’s throat: “You stole my child, you communist bitch!” Behr’s natural mother shouted. Today Behr is only in touch very occasionally with both women.

Three years ago, Behr set up a support group for the victims of forced adoptions, and since then the 43-year-old has been contacted by hundreds of people still searching for their children, parents or siblings. The 20th anniversary of reunification this October has prompted a flood of interest: a number of films on the topic have come out in Germany, and have been greeted with huge surprise by the public – they have also prompted victims to talk about their cases publicly for the first time. Like Laake, most of them feel betrayed twice over. The GDR destroyed their families, and the reunified German state did nothing to redress the injustice.

Walking through the dismal Leipzig suburbs feels like being transported back 20 years: there are potholes, weeds growing through the tarmac, dozens of uniform grey apartment blocks. Laake, a slim, frail man of 50, lives in a ground-floor flat in one of these blocks. Over the years, he has tried everything to find his son. He has posted notices on the internet. He has sent letters to politicians. He has recruited lawyers and private investigators. And he has continually been reminded that, while times and political systems change, his situation has not.

He is eager to tell his story, he says, despite the intimidation he has experienced. Laake and his family have been attacked by a man in the street; his car has been damaged twice; someone broke into his cellar; the only photo of his son as a baby has disappeared. But Laake says he is not afraid. “I am certainly not going to be paranoid. Not after all these years.”

Laake’s career as an “enemy of the socialist state” was never political. It started as a harmless teenage rebellion. He refused to join the youth organisation of the Socialist party, and at school in the 1970s he often wore a faux stetson and a black denim suit he’d made himself. This provocatively “western” outfit made him a target for his teachers’ criticism. “But my mother always supported me,” says Laake. “Our family agreed on the importance of personal freedom. As long as I can remember I wanted to get out of East Germany.”

Early marriages were common in the GDR and so, at 19, Laake proposed to his childhood friend, Ilona, who came to share his dream of life on
the other side of the iron curtain. Three years into their marriage, when she was expecting a baby, they decided to flee. Their idea was to cross the Baltic sea overnight in an inflatable rubber boat. It was hazardous: the beach became a prohibited zone after dusk, closely monitored by military police. “But when you are on the run, you stop thinking,” says Laake. “You are in a sort of survival mode. It’s all about: get on the water. Cower down in the dinghy so you’re not shot. Then paddle for your life.” They did not even make it to the water. “You can’t describe the pressure you feel when there are five Kalashnikovs pointing at you.”

Andreas Laake is still searching for his son, who was adopted as a baby. Photograph: Eva-Helen Thoele As an ex-prisoner and attempted refugee, Laake is officially acknowledged as a victim of political injustice, and he has even been granted a small monthly pension by the German government. But as a betrayed father, there are no documents proving his case. The GDR authorities effectively covered their tracks. Laake never received any official papers about his trial and because of data privacy laws his son’s adoption file is closed to him for 50 years. The only person who has limited access to the file – other than the case officers – is Marco himself. And there’s no way of knowing if he’s ever even been told that he’s adopted.

With no access to the details of his case, Laake has had to commit everything he can to memory. The words of the security agent who beat him during questioning. The document he signed to spare his pregnant wife imprisonment, confessing that he alone was responsible for the escape. The Hannibal-Lecter-style cage they built inside a cell, where, for several weeks – as a special punishment – he was kept in solitary confinement. He was in prison for six-and-a-half years altogether.

Marco was born and put up for adoption while Laake was under arrest; his wife had buckled under the massive pressure to give their child up. “She was only 21 years old, she was afraid, they threatened to make her life hell, they mentally broke her.” Laake knows that she had no real chance to prevent the forced adoption, but the couple nevertheless fell out over the loss, and are now divorced. “In the end I simply couldn’t forgive her,” he says.

While telling his story Laake shows me a number of photographs of Marco: in a rowing boat, aged eight, and as a teenager at a party. They were given to him just a few months ago, as a result of his persistent campaign, by a social worker who is apparently in contact with Marco’s adoptive family. She also read out a short letter, supposedly from Marco, now 26, who said that he has a good life and does not wish to get to know his natural father. Laake was not allowed to see the letter himself, for reasons of data protection. “His language sounded clumsy and strangely impersonal,” he says. “As if someone had desperately tried to put himself into Marco’s position and then made the whole thing up.”

Laake knows that “there is no law that could turn around my situation”. When the reunification treaty was signed in 1990 the new German state had not distinguished between legal and illegal adoptions, so every case today is dealt with according to the old West German law, which prohibits natural parents from finding out about children they voluntarily gave up. The builders of the new German state 20 years ago either forgot to classify “adoptions against the will of the parents” as a violation of human rights or, as the historian and GDR expert Uwe Hillmer suggests, they simply were not interested. “Even members of the Kohl government admitted internally: forget about the past,” says Hillmer. Many of the Socialist
administration’s files were destroyed during the last days of the GDR, and a former officer of the Stasi, the East German security service, once told Hillmer: “You haven’t got the slightest idea about the real extent of injustice, and you will never find out what really happened.”

That Stasi officer might well be right, but reading through Behr’s victim support website gives some sense of the scale of what went on. Behr has collected more than 300 cases of alleged forced adoption so far, and she is trying to help more than 200 people to find family members. There are 93 unsettled cases regarding the deaths of newborn babies: Behr has documented the stories of mothers who were still lying in the delivery room when they were told that their babies had died – but swear they heard their child crying. They were not allowed to see their baby’s corpse. One mother visited the grave of her twin daughters for more than 25 years before seeing two young women tell the story of their adoption on TV. They were her daughters. It’s unclear why this cruel practice took place; most of the people involved in the forced adoptions have refused to talk.  Hillmer says there are suspicions that Socialist party officials who could not have children “ordered” newborns from cooperative gynaecologists, although this has only been proved in one case so far.

Behr’s objective is to make the victims’ voices heard. She gives lectures across Germany about forced adoption. “Many victims find themselves in the humiliating position that no one even believes them, and the strangeness of their cases doesn’t make it any easier,” she says. Most of them suffer from depression, and some question their own memories, as Behr has herself. The separation from her natural mother destroyed her self-esteem and she suspects she will never fully recover.

Laake refuses to accept that the data protection law is the only reason he is prevented from contacting Marco; he suspects that Marco’s adoptive parents don’t want their son to know the circumstances of his adoption. “If they told him,” he says, “it could destroy their family.” He keeps turning questions over in his mind: what if Marco’s clumsy letter was written by someone else? What if old Stasi networks are still operating in Leipzig? What if Marco’s adoptive parents are former party officials trying to hide their past?

Behr is helping Laake with his investigation, and worries about his safety. Until recently, she didn’t believe the rumours about Stasi networks being operational, but “looking at Laake’s case with all its dodgy incidents made me change my mind”, she says. After Laake was attacked in the street, police advised him to search for a new flat for his own safety.

There is another reason that Behr is concerned about Laake. She says that many victims of forced adoption build up high hopes that things will change for the better once they find their natural family. “They focus on a happy ending that is never going to happen.” Behr has helped more than 100 people to find their lost family members so far, but most cases end like her own: there is an initial sense of relief, followed by disappointment that the parent or child in question has become a complete stranger.

Laake knows that there may be no happy ending for him, that the problem of East Germany’s lost children “is probably not solvable”. Nevertheless he will carry on searching for Marco. He has started to call the adoption office twice a week, and he is also planning a sit-down strike outside the office, “with a sign around my neck: give me back my son!” He says he doesn’t expect anything from contact with Marco. “I could even understand if he didn’t wish to meet me.” But he wants to hear that for himself. Laake is tired of all the threats and delays. “All I want is certainty. That’s the minimum a father can expect.”