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.
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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.
Nora Klein/ DER SPIEGEL
Helga Gniess had two daughters taken from her by the East German authorities.
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.”