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Photo Gallery: The Horror of East German Children's Homes

Foto: dpa Picture-Alliance / Hendrik S/ picture alliance / dpa

Second Class Victims East German Children's Home Prisoners Ignored

Sexual abuse, solitary confinement and complete lawlessness -- children's homes in the former East Germany were hell on earth for many of the young people who passed through them. But unlike their fellow sufferers in the West, they are still waiting for a full reappraisal of the past.

Heidemarie Puls will never forget the director of the children's home where she once lived. The good comrade called the girl to his office too many times to forget, touching her breasts and pressing his mouth against her neck. "Please stop," Puls begged. Instead, the teacher grabbed her, forced her onto a bed and ordered her to gratify him. The abuse was followed by what he considered a part of her education: a sound beating with a stick.

Puls suffered the same fate as many other institutionalized children in East Germany -- also known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Placed into government care to protect them from abuse by their stepfathers, they fell victim to the desires of strangers instead. Their fate is comparable to that of the institutionalized children in West Germany whose plight is now being addressed by a group called the "Round Table for Institutionalized Children" in Berlin.

But Puls, 53, is a second-class victim. When the round table, chaired by former Bundestag vice president Antje Vollmer of the Green Party, recommended in December that former institutionalized children should receive €120 million ($164 million) in compensation through a fund, her case was excluded. The thousands of youngsters who had been institutionalized in East Germany, at the mercy of an arbitrary and inhuman foster education system, were not mentioned in Berlin. Some 21 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the commission had effectively resurrected the border between the two Germanys.

The Most Notorious Childcare Facility in the GDR

Manfred Kolbe, a former public prosecutor and judge in Bavaria and later the justice minister of the eastern state of Saxony, is today a member of the German parliament, the Bundestag. His district includes Torgau, the site of the most notorious childcare facility in the GDR. Kolbe believes that the cases of abuse in the former communist state were "probably even more severe" than those in the West. And they were "not isolated cases" but instead were based on "an education system that involved the systematic destruction of individuality." For Kolbe, the commission's ignorance is "bitter."

The victims of East German children's homes have been waiting at least as long as their fellow sufferers in the West for a full accounting of their past. With the exception of a brief visit to Torgau by German Family Affairs Minister Kristina Schröder and Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, nothing has been done. Manfred Kappeler, a social worker in Berlin, argues that public criticism of the conditions in institutions in the West "should have been applied just as radically to the system of public education in the GDR." According to Kappeler, conditions in institutions were "more or less the same" on both sides of the divide during those dark decades. The only difference was that victims in the East could not even theoretically expect the help of police officers, public prosecutors or journalists.

East Germany maintained a complicated system of normal children's institutions, reception and observation homes, youth homes, special children's homes, youth work institutions, and even a "Combine of Special Homes" in Berlin. It produced hundreds of traumatized victims who were to supposed to become "full-fledged members of the socialist society."

The Clutches of the Socialist System

The children, who often came from troubled families, could not expect much in the way of affection once they were in the custody of the state. The motto of Soviet educator Anton Makarenko ("The modern person must be created in a new way") was applied many times over in East Germany.

In 2004, the Berlin Appellate Court ruled that the goal of the East German 're-education system' was to "convey to the pupils the feeling of individual powerlessness and to break their individual desire for self-assertion." This was "incompatible" with the "fundamental principles of a liberal and democratic constitutional order."

Young East German citizens could easily fall into the clutches of the socialist system of youth institutions. Party officials were always horrified by youth subculture, with its "Präsent-20" suits and brown horn-rimmed glasses. Long hair and Western music were seen as suspect. Walter Ulbricht, the general secretary of the East German Socialist Unity Party (SED), had set the standard for musical taste early on, insisting that East Germans should not copy "any garbage that comes from the West, and put an end to the monotony of the yeah-yeah-yeah, or whatever it is they're singing."

In the files of the youth welfare agencies, young people were characterized as dropouts, hooligans, hippies, bums, punks and skinheads -- all government categories for "normal deviants," people who were under observation. The state justified its actions, as an East German youth welfare agent wrote in her final report, with the argument that "it's a short path from dropout to criminal."

The GDR Institute for Youth Welfare Services in Ludwigsfelde near Berlin published teaching materials in which the term "poorly educable" was defined. According to the definition, a young person could be considered a problem case simply if he or she had a "relatively stabile feeling of self-worth" and only displayed an "occasional recognition or experience of his or her own incompetency, or lack of any psychological strain." Egocentrism was considered suspect, while bed-wetters and nail-biters were believed to be on a fast track to failure.

Living Hell

With boys, transgressions were usually brutality, rowdiness and poor grooming, while the girls were accused of "frequently changing sexual relations," having an "asocial lifestyle" or "belonging to a negative group." The authorities were quick to institutionalize young people who stood out from the crowd. The Berlin Appellate Court later wrote in its decision that the authorities in the GDR had completely failed to consider "that the youths, because of their backgrounds and the conditions in which they had lived, would in fact have required the enhanced care of society." The "poorly educable" were sent to expropriated manors, estates, castles, hunting lodges and former monasteries. But despite the attractive surroundings, life inside the castle walls was a living hell.

Ralf Weber was 17 when he lost everything: his clothing, his freedom and his pride. Standing naked in front of his tormentors, his head shaven, he was asked: "Do you believe in socialism?" When his eyes began to turn red the teachers shouted: "We don't cry here!" They beat him unconscious, pushed his head into a toilet and flushed it. Then they dragged him into a damp, empty cell and locked the door. Weber remembers being put into solitary confinement. But how long did it last? Four days? A week? He was cold, had nothing to eat and couldn't sleep. The toilet was a tin bucket. He was given the same treatment as all new residents at the children's institution. "The teachers had only one goal: to break us," says Weber.

In 1967, the East German youth welfare agency issued a set of regulations for solitary confinement, but prudently never published it. Under these rules, even 12-year-olds could be placed in isolation if they refused to work, tried to run away or needed to be "protected" from themselves. The cell was to measure six square meters (65 square feet) and be "solidly constructed" with "iron bars with a diameter of least 12 millimeters." The bed was to be folded up against the wall during the day, and unruly behavior was prohibited. "If found guilty of damaging the cell, the minor shall be held liable," the rules stated.

The Stasi and the Children's Homes

In 1982, a horrified mother from Berlin wrote a letter to Margot Honecker, the minister of education. Her 15-year-old son didn't want to return to a home in the northern region of Mecklenburg. The boy was becoming suicidal. What had happened? The boy had been caught smoking and was placed in solitary confinement for two days. The woman demanded that the minister "immediately prohibit" the isolation cells. The youth welfare department's reaction came swiftly. In a statement, it wrote that isolation was "appropriately incorporated into the entire complex to guarantee a stabile educational situation." For this reason, it concluded, further measures were "unnecessary."

In Torgau, the site of the toughest reformatory in the GDR, a comprehensive effort to account for the past began only last year. Some 93 victims of sexual abuse responded to an appeal from the memorial at the site, while another 190 reported psychological and physical abuse. They described how caretakers attacked and raped seven-year-old boys and girls, even taking the children home with them on weekends. According to an investigative report, conditions in the reformatories were often worse than in prisons.

Manfred May works for a Christian social service institution in the eastern state of Thuringia, where he counsels former institutionalized children. In a reference to Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago," May calls the East German system an "archipelago of children's institutions." He has counselled hundreds of people who have reported violence, mistreatment and abuse. "The number of institutions mentioned was distressingly large."

Not everyone could endure the conditions. A 17-year-old who ran away from Torgau while being transported was so desperate that he jumped into the Elbe River and drowned. Young people used shirts to hang themselves, drank industrial grease and swallowed needles. One boy locked himself in his room, poured floor wax all over his body and set himself on fire.

'Torgau Destroyed Me'

As late as 1989, a teenager tried to sacrifice himself so that others could run away. He told his fellow inmates to kill him and hang his body from the bars on the window of the dormitory to lure the guards into the room. The boy was strangled with a sheet to the point of unconsciousness, but he survived. The attempted escape failed. Almost all former inmates suffer from the effects of the abuse to this day. Many are disabled. "Torgau destroyed me," says Ralf Weber. He hadn't even started school when his father fled to the West. The authorities forbade the mother from raising her son alone. He was sent to a children's home in 1962, and then to a special children's home in 1963, a special home combine in 1968 and a reformatory in 1970.

Weber was considered violent, had a propensity for angry outbursts and refused to bow to discipline. The teachers said that he was insane and used drugs to keep him calm. He was transferred to the closed reformatory at Torgau in 1971. In 2004, Weber challenged the ruling of the Berlin Appellate Court, under which he was awarded just €300 in compensation for each month spent at the Torgau reformatory. He also demanded compensation for the time he spent in six other East German institutions.

There have hardly been any verdicts passed against officials or educators responsible for the abuse, which is partly due to silence amongst the victims. Many of the former residents of the homes are still ashamed about their past, because a lot of whispering still goes on in eastern Germany. The popular belief there is that those who were sent to reformatories probably deserved it.

In many cases, merely the fact that the parents were critics of the regime was enough to send a child to a home for years. Kerstin Dietzel, an education researcher at the University of Magdeburg in eastern Germany, often cites the case of Friedlinde Kupka, whose story is symptomatic for so many in the former East Germany. Kupka, a single mother, applied for an exit visa in 1971, and she persisted in her efforts for months. Stubborn cases like hers quickly became matters for the East German secret police, the Stasi. Its guideline 1/76 regulated the "subversion" of individuals hostile to the state by such means as "systematically discrediting the public reputation" or "systematically arranging for professional and social failures." Friedlinde Kupka lost her job as a secretary. When she rejected a job as a cleaning woman, she became unemployed in a country that preached full employment. This enabled the Rostock District Court to sentence Kupka, who was pregnant at the time, to 10 months in prison for "antisocial behavior."

Into the Castle Basement

Her nine-year-old daughter was institutionalized and her son, who was born a short time later, was given to adoptive parents loyal to the party six days after birth. A family court denied Kupka custody of her children, on the grounds that she was incapable of "raising the children to become responsible citizens." Kupka was deported from the GDR in 1975. The government blocked all of her attempts to contact the children.

The Stasi took advantage of the homes. The secret police, says former East German civil rights activist Wolfgang Templin, worked hand-in-hand with the youth welfare agencies. "The youth welfare system, which was intended to protect children and families, completely twisted its mission when it was misused to institutionalize children for political reasons or even for forced adoptions." The Stasi also turned to the children and adolescents to recruit new talent. After German reunification, spies were exposed as part of the East Berlin "Initiative for Freedom and Human Rights." Three of them had grown up as orphans in a children's home. The notorious SPD politician and Stasi collaborator Ibrahim Böhme ("IM Maximilian") had also been institutionalized as a child.

When former institutionalized children in the West made headlines last year, it gave hope to many victims of the East German system. A man from Mecklenburg, who had lived in the Pretzsch Special Children's Home in the state of Saxony-Anhalt until 1979, contacted the Leipziger Volkszeitung newspaper. He said that teachers had taken children into the castle basement, "touched them down there" and fondled them. He also alleged that the teachers had sprayed ice-cold water at the children's genitalia. There was an investigation, but the case was dropped when it was found that the victim, who lives in a trailer near Neustrelitz, could not cooperate with the authorities. A medical examination concluded that he had a phobia of investigators.

'Not a Single Conviction'

In Leipzig, prosecutors looked into claims of sexual abuse in a children's home in Eilenburg. But it quickly became clear that no matter what had happened, it would be virtually impossible to prosecute the perpetrators. The files had disappeared, and sexual abuse comes under a statute of limitations. It was too late to investigate. But amateur historians arrive at their own conclusions when the police and the courts can no longer be effective. Eberhard Mannschatz, who was once in charge of special children's homes in East Germany at the Ministry of Public Education, complained about the "reformatory cudgel" and what he called a "smear campaign against the East German youth welfare system." Mannschatz, now 83, claims that Torgau was played up to make it appear as an "historically unprecedented monstrosity." He points out that "there has not been a single conviction in trials against educators after reunification."

This has partly been the result of the malleability of the personnel. In November 1989, the reformatory in Torgau disappeared practically overnight. First the bars and screens were removed, followed by the prison doors and files. A boarding school moved into the main building. The teachers remained where they were, but now they were responsible for managing the children's extracurricular activities.

Mannschatz was a professor at Berlin's Humboldt University until 1991. His essays have been published in the "Colorful Series" of the Left Party's Education Policy Task Force. The purpose of the essays is to "support and promote open discussion of leftist school and education objectives."

Ralf Weber leans back into the cushions of the couch he is sitting on. Mannschatz is still interested in his case. He wrote a commentary on the ruling that Weber had challenged in a tone that was once reserved for the notorious East German commentator Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler. The court, he wrote, had "whetted the appetites" of other victims, and a defamatory lobby was at work.

Coping with Past Experiences

After reunification, Weber built a house in the Lausitz region southeast of Berlin. He married and had a daughter, and he tried to banish Torgau from his life. He was successful for a while, but when his daughter started getting older the bad memories returned. He did not discuss his childhood with his family for a long time. It wasn't until his depression became intolerable that he told his wife about Torgau. "I didn't want to burden her with all that," he says.

Heidemarie Puls, who, together with Weber, is on the Torgau Victims' Council, also didn't want to talk about what happened for a long time. Then she poured out her feelings by writing about them. Her book "Schattenkinder" ("Children of the Shadows") was published by a small company in Rostock in 2009. It helped Puls cope with her past experiences.

And the round table in Berlin? Family Minister Schröder had written to Bundestag member Kolbe from Torgau to assure him that "all groups would be heard there." Then there was a meeting of representatives from the states of North Rhine-Westphalia, Schleswig-Holstein and Bavaria, and from the Westphalia-Lippe and Rhineland regions. Weber, a member of the victims' council of the "Closed Torgau Reformatory" citizens' initiative, heard about the results of the Western victims' accounting of the past on the evening news.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.