Last week, Dietrich Schmidt went to the call center where he works like it was any other day. When he arrived, all of his colleagues were busy talking about the "monster mother" who killed her nine newborn babies. What an unnatural, frightening crime! What a trollop! And how about the neighbors in her apartment block. What a bunch of riff-raff. Nine pregnancies, nine babies born and no one noticed a thing.
Schmidt said nothing, because suddenly his mind went foggy. The same question kept running through his head: Why, in God's name, hadn't he noticed? He had been the woman's neighbor for 15 years, first across the hall and then directly under her. But he didn't notice at all. His son Oliver didn't either, although he's still a close friend of the woman's 18 year-old son. His beloved wife Roswitha also didn't pick up on anything unusual, although she often would water the flowers when the family went on vacation. Those were the same flower pots that some of the babies' bodies were discovered in on Aug. 2. They were buried there by their mother, a 39-year-old woman now known to all of Germany as Sabine H. "I simply can't believe it," said Roswitha Schmidt. "Something like this hits you like a battering ram."
The shock ran through all of Germany last week. A crime like the one discovered in Frankfurt an der Oder has never happened here before, although the nation has already lived through the horrifying story of the German cannibal -- a man who chopped up and ate his lover for dinner. But, nine dead babies, their bodies found in flower baskets and a sand-filled aquarium, is even more grisly. All the infants died, at least according to Sabine, in her four-room apartment on Democracy Square in Frankfurt an der Oder. When she was evicted from the apartment, she carefully transported the flower pots and aquarium to her parents' house in Briekskow-Finkenheerd, a small village in the East German state of Brandenburg.
The scene of the crimes, her apartment -- a plattenbau, one of the blocky, pre-fabricated apartment blocks erected under East German socialism -- wasn't the sort of place where neighbors lacked contact with each other. In fact, at the time of the killings, the brown concrete block was packed with professional spies. All 44 people who leased apartments at the time receieved checks from the Stasi, the East German state secret police. On the ground floor lived a man in charge of "economic security issues." An eighth-floor resident supervised tourists crossing the border. Even today, many of the building's inhabitants remain the same -- all former members of "the Firm." Yet none of these paid informants noticed anything unusual.
Thus, one of the most important questions that investigators have to answer is why, when they have a photo from the period between 1988 and 1999 that shows a noticeably pregnant Sabine, do so many of the people here deny they saw anything? And why have so many others, while suspecting that she was pregnant, still maintained that she didn't appear pregnant at all? There's one exception, but it just makes the case look still stranger: In 2003, when she was pregnant with her last, still-living child, Dietrich Schmidt says "she looked like a lamppost with a bump." But otherwise, no one remembers anything.
As such, police are looking into the possibility that Sabine H. had the babies elsewhere, and then later buried the corpses in the flower pots on her balcony. That would answer some, but not all, of the questions facing investigators. The questions raise huge doubts about Sabine's own version of events. She's told investigators that she gave birth to each baby on her own, and that she only remembers details of the first two births. She passed out during both of those and said in all other cases, she gave birth while completely drunk. How did she do it? Total amnesia on that score.
There is, for instance, the question of why no one heard her cries during birth. What about the babies? Did no one hear them either? Sabine's apartment walls are so thin that conversations going on two floors above can be heard in the bathroom. Why didn't the neighbors even ask? Also, how did Sabine, supposedly totally drunk, manage to put her dead infants into the flower pots, cover them with soil and clean up the blood from the births all before her husband and children returned or saw what was going on? Moreover, how is it possible that time and again she happened to give birth when her kids were at school and her husband, who had long been unemployed, happened to be out of the apartment?
And then there is the most hideous question, that of the flower pots themselves. They don't appear to be large enough to fit an average-sized newborn. Did Sabine hastily bury the children somewhere else and then move them after they had decomposed?
This theory would explain the painstaking searches going on in the rooms of her parents' house in Brieskow-Finkenheerd, as well as in the garden and small camper there. Despite statements to the contrary, police seem to still be looking for more bodies and for evidence of the births. And were all the children really Sabine's? Investigators are exploring that angle, too.
The case is raising so many questions that neither police officers nor psychiatrists will ultimately be able to explain it all. Throughout, the story centers on one woman, a woman with two faces and many secrets.
Chasing the Socialist Dream
In August 1988, Sabine H. moved into the Stasi apartment with her husband Oliver, now 42, and their three children -- Steffanie (born in 1984), Dan (1985) and Ivo (1986). She'd grown up in Brieskow-Finkenheerd, not far from Frankfurt an der Oder, in a musty house with her parents. Her father worked as a signal-box operator for the rail service and was also highly involved in the local evangelical church. According to an acquaintance, her mother worked hard to create the outward image of a perfect family: "If someone tried to scratch the surface of their world, they'd be label the enemy. Criticism slipped right off." And any problems were hidden behind the clean-swept middle-class facade, says the acquaintance, to be "suppressed and kept secret."
Sabine followed the typical path of someone growing up under socialism: Pioneers (akin to a socialist version of Boy Scouts), the Free German Youth (FDJ), Jugendweihe (a civil initiation ceremony common for East German youth). Yet, a career as an academic in socialism came to nothing, despite the fact that her teacher from that time still says, "She was the best student in all my years." Instead, she studied to become a dental assistant at a school in the East German town of Eisenhüttenstadt from 1982 to 1985 -- although she told a friend she never wanted such a career.
While still studying, she got to know Oliver H. He's a lot like her in many ways, quiet, peaceful. He worked for the Ministry for State Security, a fact that didn't seem to bother Sabine or her family at all. In 1983, she became pregnant.
Oliver H. shows up in Stasi files as having worked for the "Rückwärtige Dienst," or rear services for the Ministry, a post that basically meant he took care of other people's menial tasks. Driver, cook, cleaning man: Some days Oliver would work as a coat checker, on others, he would organize other people's holidays. But Stasi is Stasi, and that authorized the couple to go for the goal of all GDR couples: an apartment. After their wedding in 1984 and the birth of their third child, the pair got to move into their socialist dream apartment: four rooms, 76 meters square, on the 7th floor of the Stasi complex on Democracy Square, then called Otto Grotewohl Square.
It was no love nest. But then, maybe no one should expect happiness in an apartment full of Stasi infomers. It was the sort of place where alarms would sometimes be set off at midnight, to test how quickly residents could make it to their pre-arranged posts in the nearby Stasi district headquarters.
While the couple was living in relative socialist luxury, their marriage was falling apart. Oliver, according to Sabine, was not happy that she had already become pregnant with their third child, Ivo. He didn't want to have any more. And yet soon after Ivo's birth, in the late summer of 1988, she was already pregnant again.
A Burial Lost to Memory
What Sabine now says about this birth and the one that followed it three years later is so bizarre that it's impossible not to see a huge gap between the story itself and the probability of its being true. Nevertheless, this is the version of events Sabine told investigators and that they are using as the starting point of their investigation:
When she realized she was pregnant, Sabine was afraid to tell her husband. Then, one night, as Oliver and the kids lay in their beds, she woke up with an "urgent need to urinate." In the bathroom, on the toilet, she had a miscarriage, without any labor pain. She fell unconscious, and awoke next to the toilet, covered in blood. In the toilet bowl she saw the afterbirth, umbilical cord, and her dead child -- its skin had a bluish sheen, and there was foam around its mouth.
Sabine says she then wrapped the body in a blanket and laid it out on the sofa. She sat down next to the child with a bottle of liquor "to wash away the nightmare."
If she had gone to the doctor then, there would have been questions as to why she hadn't told anyone about her pregnancy. Was she worried that the carefully constructed facade would come apart? Or that it would show up in personnel file that Oliver's wife was untrustworthy, desperate, even moronic?
On the sofa, Sabine says, she drank until she lost consciousness. She woke up in the early morning on a bench on the apartment's balcony. Slowly, she remembered the birth, the dead child on the sofa. She went inside, but the body was gone. She searched through the entire apartment -- with her husband and children still sleeping -- but couldn't find the bundle. She finally found the child on the balcony. The sand in an old aquarium there looked odd to her, and upon closer inspection, she found the dead baby.
Could this version of events be right? And if that's how it really happened, why had her husband apparently not noticed the pregnancy? District attorney Ulrich Scherding "can't imagine" that he didn't know anything. "We're looking at him very, very critically."
Sabine has avoided such questions. During each pregnancy, she waited for Oliver to say something. She'd hoped he would ask about it one night in bed or that he would question her somehow. But he never did. Not in all those years, although Sabine is sure he must have noticed something, even though she wouldn't let him see her naked while she was pregnant, and even though she started wearing loose-fitting dresses. It was a strange game of hide and seek.
Perhaps she rejected the children because her husband didn't want them, speculates Günter Esser, a psychologist at Potsdam University. That agrees with the findings of adoption expert Christine Swientek from the University of Hannover, who says that more than 50 percent of women who give up their pregnancies feel pressure from their husbands. Oliver was not available to SPIEGEL for comment on this story.
In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, and life crumbled for Sabine's family. The dream apartment became a house of pariahs. Oliver fought through it all, and managed to switch careers and become a renovator, replacing floors. And Sabine, too, had to find new work. Over the years, she changed jobs 12 times. In 1991, she took a vocational training course for two-and-a-half days in Goslar, in the Harz mountains in central Germany. She didn't go alone: Sabine was nine-months pregnant, and again supposedly no one knew.
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