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'Traitors' to East Germany were forced to give up their children

world Updated: Aug 12, 2009 10:54 IST

When Baerbel Gruebel was 25, she and her husband Ota decided they would risk anything rather than have their two young children grow up in Communist East Germany.

They were happy as a family, but found their contentment limited by the harsh Communist regime and its restrictions on freedom of movement.

In 1973, the family tried to flee across the Czech border into Austria, but Czech soldiers arrested them and sent them back to East Berlin, where they were sentenced to four years in jail.

Worse, their children were separated from them.

It was a devastating moment, particularly for Gruebel, a Berliner whose early childhood had been happy and uncomplicated -- until the Wall went up Aug 13, 1961.

"I was just twelve years old at the time and did not understand what was happening," Gruebel said. "I did not realise the enormous effect it would have on my future.

"West Berlin had been my life, my playground, my home -- although I lived in the East," Gruebel said.

The Gruebels had pleaded that their children, Jens, then 4, and Jeannette, 3, be placed in the care of their grandparents in East Berlin. But government bureaucrats decreed otherwise and placed them in a children's home.

At a court hearing, the Gruebels learned to their horror that their "right to parenthood" was being withdrawn.

They later discovered that their children had been given away for adoption to a couple considered loyal to the Socialist state. For 17 years the Gruebels would not see their children again.

Their case was not unique. More than 150 couples lost custody of their children after defying the Communist authorities during the 1970s. Most did not see their children again until the Wall came down in 1989 and the full extent of the East German "enforced adoption" programme became known.

The Gruebels didn't see their children again until 1990. Years earlier, Jens and Jeannette had been told that their parents had "probably been killed in a car accident".

For Baerbel and Ota Gruebel the reunion brought mixed emotions. "The picture we'd held in front of us for 17 years was suddenly replaced with these two grown-up children," Baerbel said.

Jens and Jeannette had been given a sound Socialist upbringing and said they had never been treated unkindly by their adoptive parents. That left them torn when confronted with their birth parents after so many years.

Jens especially faced serious problems in reconnecting. Months would pass before the children could get over their suspicion that their parents had simply abandoned them.

Today, Jeannette lives with her parents in the western Berlin district of Charlottenburg, along with a young daughter of her own. Jens, now 40, has also rebuilt contact with his parents.

"The years of torment have long since passed, thank God," Baerbel Gruebel said.

After the collapse of the East German state in 1989-90, archives were found in a former East Berlin ministerial building with details of dozens of families separated like the Gruebels.

In virtually every case, officials and courts agreed to give the children for adoption to families loyal to the regime.

Attempts to prosecute those held responsible has proven complicated, legal experts say.

Margot Honecker -- the wife of late former East German head of state Erich Honecker -- was investigated for her alleged role in forced adoption cases involving children of dissidents caught trying to flee to the West in the 1970s and 80s.

For 25 years she'd been a tough Communist education minister in East Germany. Many felt she was behind the draconian measures taken against families caught making escape attempts.

"Many in the former East Germany would rather see 'the witch Margot' behind bars than Erich Honecker," wrote the German newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine, at the time. However, the allegations against her could not be proved and, by 1994, were dropped.

She eventually joined family members in Chile from where, now 82, she says she has no intention of ever returning to Germany.