The Occupation and its Offspring Lost Red Army Children Search for Fathers

More than 60 years after the end of World War II, the children of Red Army soldiers born in eastern Germany during the Soviet occupation are now searching for their fathers with the aid of historians and the Russian media. Many of these so-called "Russian children" have endured lifelong suffering as a consequence of their situation.
Von Irina Repke und 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.

Sixty-one-year-old Herbert P. is also hoping events in his life will take a similar turn. He made a video about himself containing the few details he knows about his origins, which was shown just a few weeks ago on Moscow television. Herbert P., a retired teacher, is hoping somebody somewhere in Russia can tell him something about his father since he, too, was a Russian soldier during the Soviet occupation of eastern Germany.

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.

A Painful Reunion

In Herbert P.’s family, too, his father was a taboo subject. His three young daughters even failed to squeeze information about "the Russian" from their grandmother. On one occasion the three girls did try to get their grandma to say something, says Herbert P., but the old woman immediately started to cry and that was the end of the conversation for many years to come.

Only once did she ever talk to Herbert P. about his real father. "It was on my 14th birthday," he recalls. "She took me aside and told me through her tears how she fell in love after the war with a Russian officer named Nikolai whom she met as a young woman at a village dance when she was working as a maid on a farm."

On the day he was leaving, Nikolai gave the mother a photo of himself with the words “To my dear Rosa, in memory of our friendship” written in Cyrillic lettering on the picture. The photo turned out to be more or less a birthday present for Herbert P., who was born exactly nine months after the soldier had given the picture to his mother.

After his mother died three years ago, Herbert P. approached the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute in Graz for help in trying to track down his father. In June, war researcher Barbara Stelzl-Marx passed on Herbert P.’s video to the producers of the Russian TV program "Schdi menja -- schdu tebja" ("Wait for me, I’m waiting for you") where it was broadcast a few weeks ago. Senior citizens in Russia love the program, and Herbert P. is holding out hope that someone might contact the show's producers with information.

Embarking on the Search

Renate W. of Berlin waited for many years after her mother’s death before embarking on her search. Early this year, she wrote to a Russian Military Archive to initiate a search for her father, who was stationed with the Red Army in post-war Berlin.

Her father was an officer named Kostan, who was based at the Soviet military headquarters in East Berlin at the time. Renate W.’s sole link to her father is an old black-and-white remembrance photo from 1946. Yet she was able to tell the archivist in Moscow that Kostan spoke excellent German and “did not look like a soldier.” Apparently, he always came to the tiny apartment where Renate's grandmother, mother and aunt lived in civilian clothing. He often brought presents of food, and visitors often took him for a member of the family.

But Kostan disappeared in December 1946 -- six months before his daughter, Renate W., was born in June 1947. Looking back, she reckons her parents were “very much in love” and that they might well have stayed together. But marriage would have been impossible at the time following a decree issued in 1946 that forbade all marriages between Soviet citizens and foreigners. The law wasn't repealed until 1953, and anyone who got married illegally was guilty of high treason in the eyes of the Soviet Union and subject to harsh penalties.

As a rule, once a man had disappeared, the woman he’d loved and the children he’d fathered never found out what had happened to him. Nor could any woman claim alimony from the Soviet Union. The Russians had already taken precautions in 1944 by issuing a decree stating that illegitimate children were not related to the men who had fathered them, therefore no one had to pay anything.

Even harsher treatment was meted out to women and girls who were charged with espionage or sometimes even “incitement to desertion” on account of their love affairs with Red Army soldiers -- as happened to Annemarie Krause in 1948 when she lived in the village of Thum in the Erzgebirge mountains on the Czech border. She had fallen in love with Maxim, a tall young sergeant of 21 who came from Moldova, between Romania and Ukraine. Annemarie, who was 16 at the time, had grown up in a fatherless household. She lived with her mother and grandmother, neither of whom had any objections to her relationship, not even when she became pregnant. Her daughter Verena was born on Oct. 6, 1947.

Devastating Consequences

Maxim was thrilled about his baby and wanted to stay in Germany. The day after the birth he went to his commanding officer and asked to be discharged from military service. His enraged superior apparently bawled back: “What, stay in Germany? I never heard of such a thing!” Maxim was confined to barracks and placed under strict observation. He then started to plan his escape to the West, with devastating consequences for his new family.

Annemarie Krause is now 76 years old, but she can still remember clearly that sunny day in September 1948 when she returned home from shopping. There were Soviet soldiers everywhere in the village's main street. As she turned onto the street where she lived she had to pass by tight rows of armed men in uniform. There were more guards standing in the front garden of her house and that was as far as she got.

Soldiers had already arrested her mother and an aunt. One soldier had pushed baby Verena into a neighbor’s arms. Only days later, Annemarie Krause was sentenced by a military tribunal to 25 years in prison “in the name of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics." She was taken to the infamous Bautzen prison, nicknamed “Yellow Misery” on account of its yellow brick walls, then to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, which had been converted into a prison, and finally to the notorious Hoheneck prison for women. Meanwhile, her mother looked after her “Russian Baby,” the reason for the nightmare.

After a hunger strike in the prison, Annemarie finally received amnesty and was released, together with other women prisoners in 1954. When she arrived back home in Thum, she heard a rumor that Maxim, the great love of her life, had been shot.

In addition to genuine love affairs like these, there were many “relationships of convenience” during the Soviet occupation. Maria Schubert, for example, whose husband Gerhart was stuck in a prisoner-of-war camp, had an affair with a Russian officer who was helping her family. However, before long, the young woman was forced to abandon her home town of Friedrichswartha in Poland’s German-speaking Silesia region. She fled, already heavily pregnant, over the border to Westphalia in western Germany.

When her German husband returned home from Russia, he threatened to divorce her. The rest of the family didn't want anything to do with a Russian soldier’s child, either. In the end, the mother lied to the court and said she had been raped and didn't know who the father was. Her son Jürgen was born in July 1946 and was immediately put in a home for newborn babies after his mother and stepfather disowned him.

Jürgen Schubert only found out where his mother and her husband were living when he was 16. He wrote to his mother immediately but her reaction was cold and dismissive. Finding his real father became more important than ever to him, but he was unable to uncover much information. Finally, a former neighbor of his mother’s told him what had really happened all those years ago. But his mother’s family isn’t interested in hearing the real story behind the so-called rape. They avoid all contact with the “Russian Child,” who has long since reached manhood.

Finding the Truth

Annemarie Krause and her daughter Verena had to wait for the GDR to come to an end before they could finally find out the truth about what happened to the man the mother had loved so much. Both women had always refused to believe the rumors that Maxim, the soldier who was Verena’s father, had ended up being shot. After searching in vain for several years, Russian Television finally agreed to take up the search and both women were invited to Moscow.

Almost as soon as they touched down in Moscow, mother and daughter from Germany found themselves on the stage of a Russian TV show. A film was shown on a screen behind Verena Krause with pictures of her mother as a young girl and herself as a baby. Then came an old black-and-white photo of a Soviet soldier, then a picture of a grave.

Although the commentary was in Russian, Verena understood immediately and began to cry. Finally, eleven stepsisters and brothers appeared on stage -- tracked down by the television people -- at which point, she says, she was “completely dazed.” They told her later what had happened to her father after she’d been born. The Russian military didn’t execute Maxim, they sent him back to the Soviet Union where he married and had a family. Later, when Maxim set out to look for his daughter, he lost his job. Until he died, he was regarded as a renegade by the authorities.

One year after appearing on the show in Moscow, Verena found herself standing beside her father’s grave on a remote hillside next to the village in Moldova that Maxim was forced to leave when he was 14 in order to fight in the war against Germany.

She read the inscription on the tombstone: “Milik Maxim 1925-1990.” The other visitors in the cemetery had brought tables, chairs and food with them and, in accordance with local custom, had sat down next to their relatives’ graves.

Verena Krause didn’t have anything with her, but the local people invited her to join them. Someone placed a glass of champagne in her hand. Then she said, very softly, “Cheers, Maxim.”

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