Germany’s other, hidden shame: the babies the communists stole
Father tells the heartbreaking story of a 29-year search for his son stolen by the state - and he is but one of many thousands of affected parents
For 29 years, all Andreas Laake had of his son Marko was a single photograph of him as a newborn. Moments after the photograph was taken, Marko was taken away from Laake’s wife by the communist authorities in East Germany and given to another couple to raise as their own. Laake wasn’t even allowed to see him.
Armed with that solitary photograph, he spent 29 years hunting for his son. In 2009, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he found him.
Most people would consider that the struggle of a lifetime, but Laake’s work was only just beginning. From a tiny office, he and a few other volunteers are now forcing Germany to confront the crimes of its past, when parents deemed not to be “good communists” had their children stolen from them by the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
“The total number of people affected by this could run into tens of thousands,” says Laake. “In every case, it’s not just the child who’s affected. There are parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters.”
In 2018, his organisation presented a petition to parliament demanding a commission to investigate the practice. They have won the support of MPs and preliminary reports are due to be presented to the government in 2019.
The extent of the practice of forcing political dissidents into giving up their children was only uncovered after Laake and his wife realised they weren’t the only ones. Their research found thousands of cases, and Laake has decided to take them all up. “We have 2,500 cases in our files, and we haven’t even begun to discover the real extent of this,” he says in the small office he runs from a lock-up in the village of Naunhof, just outside Leipzig.
In 1980, Laake and his wife decided to try to escape East Germany to the West. His wife was three months’ pregnant at the time. “We wanted the child to be born in freedom,” he says. They tried to cross the Baltic Sea to West Germany in a small boat but were caught and arrested. “They separated us and took me to a tiny cell where they pressured me to agree to give up Marko,” says Laake. “Later I discovered they did the same with my wife.”
Laake refused to give up the child, but his wife gave in to the pressure and agreed. “I can’t blame her,” he says. “They held her in a tiny cell for weeks. She was pregnant. They told her it was the only way she’d get out of there. They made us choose between our freedom and our son’s freedom.”
Laake was sentenced to four years in prison. When he got out he discovered that the communist authorities had forged papers claiming he agreed to the adoption – which he has since proved in court are false. Estranged from his wife, he didn’t even know the date of his son’s birth. All he had was the photograph she gave him. “For years I went from kindergarten to kindergarten and school to school with that photograph,” he says.
Eventually his relentless work paid off. His story was covered by the German media in 2009, and within weeks his son Marko got in touch. Today the two men have a close relationship. “Things are good between us, but we can never get back what they took from us,” he says. “Twenty-nine years, that’s a lifetime. Today Marko has two fathers: me and his adoptive father.”
Not every story has as happy an ending. When Annette Hiermeier was eight years old she saw her sister Sandra taken from her mother moments after she was born. “My mother went into labour at home,” she says. “The neighbour was a doctor and he called the hospital. They sent doctors and nurses who delivered Sandra and took her away. They didn’t say a word, they just cut the umbilical cord and took her. My mother never got to see her.”
Hiermeier’s mother had incurred the wrath of the communist authorities by refusing to abort an earlier child who scans had showed would be born disabled. In East Germany, abortions were actively encouraged for disabled children. The couple who adopted Sandra were told her mother was a single parent who had given her up willingly.
In 2011, Hiermeier managed to track down her long-lost sister and reunite the family, but it was too late for her mother, who had died without ever seeing Sandra.
“What is perhaps the last chapter of GDR injustice must finally be addressed,” says Marian Wendt, an MP from Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat party who has taken up the issue. “To separate children from parents for political reasons is one of the greatest tragedies. We have to provide support for biological parents and adopted children and recognise those affected as political victims.”
– © The Sunday Telegraph