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The day the GDR took my mum away from me

Life in the GDR was not all Spreewaldgurken and flowery wallpaper. The socialist dictatorship’s Zwangsadoption (forced adoption) programme separated thousands of children from their parents. Katrin Behr was one of them.

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Photo by Anna Agliardi

Life in the GDR was not all Spreewaldgurken and flowery wallpaper. The socialist dictatorship’s Zwangsadoption (forced adoption) programme separated thousands of children from their parents. Katrin Behr was one of them.

Behr was four when her mother was arrested by the Stasi in their hometown of Gera. She and her brother, then six, were to never see her during their childhood again – Behr was adopted by another family, while her brother grew up in foster care. This Zwangsadoption (forced adoption) happened to thousands of children of GDR citizens. The exact number remains unknown: many children were told their parents gave them up voluntarily, some parents were told their children had died, and most of the files have been destroyed.

It took Behr 19 years to find her mother, and it will take her a lifetime to understand and confront her personal history. The co-founder of the organisation Hilfe für Opfer von DDR-Zwangsadoption e.V. (Help for Victims of GDR Forced Adoptions), she has set up online forums where families can find each other and written a book about her experience (Entrissen – Der Tag an dem die DDR mir meine Mutter nahm, or Torn apart: The day the GDR took my mother away from me). She recently won the media award Goldene Henne for her engagement.

Do you remember what happened the day your mother was taken?

It was on February 7, 1972. My brother and I were still in bed when the Stasi banged at the door. Our mother was really nervous and we had to hurry to get dressed. When she opened the door, five or six men and a woman stormed into the flat and pulled my mum out on the street while I tried to hold on to her very tightly. They handcuffed her and threw her in a car while I was still holding onto her. I was in tears. She gave me a hug as well as she could and promised she’d be back by nighttime. Then the car drove off and my brother and I were left with the woman, who took us to our grandmother. I cried all day that day. My mum never came home.

Do you know why your mum was arrested?

A few days earlier, as we arrived at the kindergarten, my mum had been informed that my place had been given to someone else. She couldn’t leave me there any longer, and that was that. My mum got so angry. She shouted: “You red pigs! How am I supposed to find a job if I can’t leave my child at kindergarten?” I remembered that because I didn’t know of any red pigs, only pink ones, so I couldn’t understand why she had said that. I also remember because we were supposed to have my favourite food, “Falscher Hase” [meatloaf], on that day at the kindergarten and it made me sad that I wouldn’t eat it. We went to a café afterwards where my mum sometimes helped as a waitress, and she came in, threw her bag on a chair and said: “I can’t take it anymore. If things continue that way, I’m going to go as well.”

What were the official reasons?

Officially, it was because of Paragraph 249 [the “Assiparagraph”, a GDR law targeting individuals who were “asocial” i.e. unwilling to work – often single mothers]. You can read in her files that she tried to find work, but they didn’t want her to find any – it was just a smokescreen. I know that because in 2009 my adoptive mum let it slip in a phone conversation that in my mum’s case they were suspecting she would flee the country.

When you were finally adopted four years later, you were eight, right?

I was in the foster home on and off. When the third family came to take me in, I was massively under pressure to go with them; they told me I would have to stay in the foster home if it didn’t work out this time. Even my grandmother came and told me to grab that last chance. There was one worker in the home that was particularly nasty to me, so I was eager to go. In retrospect I’m glad I didn’t grow up there. I wouldn’t have had the strength to survive that.

How did you deal with the whole situation?

I felt totally traumatised – my world had fallen to pieces. I didn’t understand, no one explained anything to me. I learned pretty quickly to always keep my eyes in front of me and never look to the right or left. Always stay in line, otherwise people could come, put you in a car and take you somewhere. That’s what has stayed with me since my mum’s arrest.

How much did your adoptive parents know about your mum’s situation? Did you ever ask them about her as a child?

I asked my adoptive mum once, when I was about 12, but it was a huge taboo and I didn’t get a real answer. She said that my mum preferred to “go dancing” rather than take care of me and my brother, but I knew that wasn’t true. In fact, adoption was taboo back then – not just for political reasons, but because people were ashamed for not having biological children. But when I asked my adoptive mother, I saw right away that she realised, for the first time, that I was still thinking about my mum.

Eventually, you found her. How did it happen?

I was pregnant with my son in 1990. Since I have a small genetic anomaly, a missing bone in my hand, the doctors wanted to find out whether the boy would have it as well, and they needed blood from my mum. I told them that that was impossible because I was adopted. I don’t know why he knew, but the doctor I went to told me that I could get the address of my biological mother from the Jugendamt. So that’s where I got her address.

When did you get to finally meet her?

I met her shortly after Easter 1991. We hadn’t done the testing, and after I had my son I was busy. However, Easter is a family celebration, and I was quite sad that year. So I wrote a letter on a Tuesday and got her reply on Thursday. I was so afraid to open it! And then, I read her words: “I had been waiting for that letter all my life.” As a mother she had no legal way to find me – she had to wait till I found her. I went to see her on the Saturday after the letter came.

What were your feelings towards her then? Did you think she had abandoned you? Were you angry?

Not at all, my mum always remained my mum to me. Somehow my adoptive mum never had the chance to get into my heart, that place was taken. She was never really warm, it was just not her personality, but I was also not open for a new mum and probably subconsciously thought I was betraying my real mum when I gave her a hug.

What happened after that?

Meeting her was so touching, and we are similar in so many ways. However, there is one huge difference. While she didn’t want to dig up the past, I had to. I was totally determined to get to the bottom of things – I believe she couldn’t do it because she was very ill then. And she would even get angry at my incessant questions. We lost contact again because my own life got very complicated. Also, I could never manage to deal with my mum and my adoptive family at the same time. It tore me apart. But when I called my mum after 11 years, she welcomed me back with open arms – no accusations, nothing. We both understood that things need time.

And the relationship with your adoptive mother?

We had contact on and off until a big argument about inheritance which made me understand that she never considered me her “real” daughter. It hurt me, but it also helped me realise that I needed to define who I was and prompted me to read my adoption files. That is the crazy thing: I felt rejected but also empowered to find myself. In retrospect, I have to thank her for that. The realisation that she never saw me as her own child freed me from the guilt of never letting her into my heart. Everything happens for a reason.

Did your mum and your adoptive mother ever meet?

They did, but my adoptive mother was inconsiderate enough to say, “Didn’t we do well with Katrin?” That’s when my mum exploded and resorted to her old insult: “You red pigs, you didn’t give me a chance.” It didn’t go very well!

What was your reaction when you first read your adoption files in 2007?

Funnily enough, on that day they must have cooked Falscher Hase at the Amt cafeteria because I could smell that smell again, and it brought back all the memories from the day my mum spoke about the “red pigs” and I realised how powerful the system behind the adoption was. I also realised that the people who did that to us were also caught in a system, and that it wasn’t personal – they did it out of ignorance or lust for power or whatever. Those people were children of the War and probably experienced so much horror themselves that they didn’t see why it wouldn’t all be all okay for me by the time I got married…

Was that when you realised you were one of thousands of children taken away from their parents?

At first, I was afraid to look too closely into it. When I started to read my adoption files I said to myself: “Please, God, give me everything only one piece at a time, so that I can handle it.” It is hard to come to the realisation that everything you thought was your world is worth nothing… and that many people had to suffer.

Did you find an answer to all your questions?

I have tried to find out more and more, but they won’t let me take the files home – and what I find really shocking is that in the last seven years, documents have disappeared. When I came back for my second appointment to look at it, the file was smaller than the last time. I had seen my new birth certificate and my mum’s sentence, for example, but they are not there anymore. I don’t know why. Especially because all the people working in the Amt looked so young and I don’t think they are related to the GDR… but maybe they found that all too difficult to deal with, and chose to get rid of the documents. I find that shameful.

Do you think the issue of Zwangsadoption has been overlooked, or worse, covered up? Is that what prompted you to start your association?

It is angering, but it makes me stronger. After reading more and more of my files and realising that I am not the only one that was adopted against their parents’ will in the GDR, I founded the Verein and set up web pages where people can find their relatives. It had to be made public.

Do you feel supported by political will?

I’m aware that everything takes time. It took me 35 years to start my research and confront my personal history. However, that doesn’t mean we can wait forever, I am getting a bit impatient. [Bundestag president] Norbert Lammert said in 2008 that Zwangsadoption is a dark chapter in German history and that we have to work on it, but that politicians couldn’t do it on their own: the media and the public had to help. I believe that journalists have delivered, that I’ve been delivering for the last seven years, and I think it is now politicians’ turn. For one, we’d like victims of Zwangsadoption to be recognised as victims of human rights violations. There are long-term mental and physical damages – a trauma that needs to be addressed.

Originally published in issue #132, November 2014.