By Irina Repke and Peter Wensierski
Sixty-one-year-old Jan Gregor can still remember "every little gesture and every word my mother said on the day she decided to tell me the truth.” His mother had just finished making the beds, recalls Gregor, who was born in the eastern German state of Brandenburg, and was smoothing the bedspread, as she always did, with her broom handle. After carefully putting the broom away, she finally came and sat on the edge of the bed, next to her son. After a long while, he said, she started to tell him her story.
Gregor remembers his mother talking very slowly and deliberately and, although only five years old at the time, he knew instantly what she meant when she talked about “being made pregnant by force."
"I was very mature for my age," he says.
Fifty-six years have passed since his mother told him the truth and for 56 years Jan Gregor has been engaged in a constant search for his father or, to be more precise, his fathers. Gregor's mother revealed to him during their bedside conversation that she had been raped by four Red Army soldiers during the final days of the war. Gregor says he’ll continue searching for them “even if it takes a lifetime."
Meanwhile, Verena B., the daughter of a German mother and a Soviet soldier, has come to the end of her long search. After hearing about a “Search Show” on Russian television, she wrote asking if she could appear on it and was promptly invited to Moscow, where she got the surprise of her life. She discovered she had lots of half-brothers and half-sisters she knew nothing about -- her Russian family.
Like so many others, Jan Gregor and Verena B. were children of the Soviet occupation and almost all of them remember the discrimination and words that dominated their lives: the derogatory term "Russian Children."
For decades, the fate they suffered was a taboo subject in eastern Germany; initially in the Soviet Occupation Zone and later in the German Democratic Republic (GDR, the former East Germany). For 40 years in the GDR, posters and banners sang the praises of the “Soviet-German Friendship” and stories involving rape did not fit the image of the glorious and heroic Soviet army. The rapes that took place were swept under the carpet -- they were seldom registered, and officials looked the other way. In the old GDR days, Soviet soldiers were officially regarded as heroes who had smashed Fascism and rescued German children. They couldn't possibly have been rapists -- that, at least, is what the propaganda would have people believe.
And even within the families of "Russian Children," the whole issue has always remained a highly emotional topic, says Barbara Stelzl-Marx, deputy head of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute in the Austrian city of Graz, which helps victims of the consequences of war conduct investigations into their circumstances. “The subject is still often a taboo in many families, even today,” says Stelzl-Marx.
With the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall, a number of German children of Soviet occupation soldiers set about trying to trace their roots, encouraged by the new atmosphere of glasnost and perestroika. But there were no agreements obliging the Russians to provide any information to the offspring of Soviet occupation soldiers in East Germany. Consequently, the archives of the (former) Union of Soviet Socialist Republics long remained off limits to the victims of the occupation, and many “Russian Children” had to conduct their own investigations.
Even today, it is still not clear how many children were fathered by the Soviet occupation forces. Norman M. Naimark, a professor of history at Stanford University whose book “The Russians in Germany: A History of the Soviet Zone of Occupation, 1945-49” documents the events of that time, reckons there could be tens of thousands of children involved, though no one will ever know for sure.
Stirring Up Painful Memories
As if the past societal discrimination weren't enough, children searching for their fathers also often meet with hostility to the idea within their own families. Jan Gregor’s half-sisters in Germany, for example, didn’t want to know about what had happened during the last days of the war. In fact, he says, they told him he should keep quiet about it and just let things rest instead of asking questions all the time. His sisters saw no reason to stir up old memories that had brought shame and disgrace on the family. Yet for Jan Gregor it was a question of tracing his roots as well as finding out when his mother’s sufferings had begun.
His mother was the wife of a German soldier fighting on the Eastern Front. As the bloody battle to capture Berlin raged in the Brandenburg forest and Soviet soldiers seized the small village of Summerfield close to the capital, she was alone in her house.
One day around noon, in the final days of the war, four Red Army soldiers marched purposefully towards the small house inhabited by the Gregor family. They wrenched open the wooden shutters, burst into the front room and attacked the young woman. She found out later that the soldiers who raped her were not Russians but Ukrainians or Crimean Tatars from the Crimean Peninsula. A farmer living nearby had given the soldiers directions to her house, so as to divert attention from his own daughters.
From then on, most people in Summerfield avoided Jan’s mother, although she was the victim, just as they later avoided her son. From a very young age, he was routinely tormented by the other children in the village. "They hit me and shouted insults at me and they knocked the milk out of my hand,” recalls Jan Gregor, “they kept calling me a “Russian pig” and told me I didn’t need any milk.”
For a long time his mother said nothing, so her son simply couldn’t understand why the children called him "Ivan." It was only after school bullies had beaten him up and thrown stones at him untill he was crying with pain that the five-year-old decided he was fed up being brave. He ran home to his mother, demanding an explanation.
After telling her son what had happened, the mother went on to report the rape to the authorities. She also managed, in what was possibly the only instance of its kind, to get state support amounting to around 100 East German marks per month. Soon afterwards, Jan Gregor was sent to another school after some youngsters had threatened to tie the “Russian Child” to a tree.
But only a small number of rape victims were courageous enough to deal with what happened to them in the way Jan's mother did. Even women whose children were the result of love affairs with Soviet soldiers seldom discussed the father’s origins with their offspring. If caught, the couples were forced to separate and the soldiers were sent back home. Many of the women never got over what had happened.
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