The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Families used to be split up in East Germany, too. It caused lifelong trauma.

Central American refugees and asylum seekers, led by the humanitarian organization People Without Borders, walk in the town of Santiago Niltepec, Oaxaca state, Mexico, on March 31. (Jordi Ruiz Cirera/Bloomberg News)

BERLIN — Katrin Behr was only 4 years old when her life was turned upside down forever.

“They came early in the morning and took away my mom,” Behr recalls of that fateful day in 1972 in East Germany, when she became the victim of a large-scale, secretive socialist scheme to separate children from parents considered politically defiant. Her mother’s crime? She wanted to flee the repressive socialist country into U.S.-protected West Germany.

Like tens of thousands of others, Behr was later adopted by families considered more regime-compliant. It took almost three decades for her to be able to tell her story.

“In 1989, the Wall finally came down and truth saw the light of the day,” she wrote in her autobiography.

Even today, almost 30 years after the end of socialist reign in Germany, some daughters and sons still search for the mothers who were forced to leave them behind — a quest that can end in tearful reunions or lifelong uncertainty. In many cases, the early family separations have manifested themselves in trauma not only for the grown children, but also their parents.

While the socialist regime painstakingly tried to hide its practices for decades, ironically it’s now the Soviet Union’s former archrival, the United States, that is facing criticism for a scheme some say could have the same devastating effect on thousands of children.

President Trump himself has criticized the practice, tweeting Saturday that it would be necessary to “put pressure on the Democrats to end the horrible law that separates children from there [sic] parents once they cross the Border into the U.S.” He did not say, however, that his own government is responsible for implementing the policy.

In the United States, family separations are rising mostly because of a “zero tolerance” policy that Attorney General Jeff Sessions implemented this year. “If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law. If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally. It’s not our fault that somebody does that,” Sessions said in April.

The practice made renewed headlines in recent days after it was suggested that the Department of Health and Human Services had lost track of nearly 1,500 immigrant children placed with sponsors in the United States — even though that characterization turned out to be incorrect.

In a now-unified Germany, forced adoptions have become synonymous with the state terrorism and injustice that was rampant in the formerly socialist East, known as the GDR. Reached by phone Wednesday and told about the U.S. controversy, Behr, 50, drew a direct comparison between her experience and the fate of children now being separated from their parents in the United States.

“Of course when I hear of this, I immediately think of my own upbringing. Witnessing the arrest of my mom and being separated from her at that age caused a lifelong trauma for me,” said Behr, who lives in Berlin and is involved in research projects about childhood trauma caused by family separation during the GDR.

“Even when they’re babies, children notice what’s happening and it shapes their mindsets. Separating parents from their children is inhuman and in Germany, the long-term repercussions are only emerging now. They may still manifest themselves in 50 or 60 years because the trauma is passed on to subsequent generations, according to our research,” Behr said.

Children who were separated from their parents for political reasons are today 50 percent more likely to be affected by anxiety, a study by German psychologists published in 2012 indicates. One out of every two separated children they interviewed suffered from one or more psychological disorders.

“Victims who feel defenseless often start blaming themselves. Through self-recrimination, children who were forcibly separated from their parents later often find sort of an anchor and a way to deal with their past,” said Stefan Trobisch-Lütge, the director of Gegenwind, a nongovernmental organization that supports victims of the former socialist regime’s crimes.

Similar schemes were in place elsewhere in Europe and across the world, including in Australia, Canada and Ireland. The United States also separated some Native American families and allowed white parents to adopt the children. Those practices were stopped almost half a century ago and the extent of the scheme back than was limited, making large-scale research on its longer-term effects difficult.

But the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 subsequently paved the way for particularly unsparing investigations of the practices of a socialist regime that was in large part overthrown by its own people. Some of those studies have been published, while others are still underway, said forced adoption victim Behr.

When Behr finally met her mother again, she was 23. Almost two decades had passed since her forced adoption, but the joy of reunion was soon overshadowed.

“That day I realized how much we had involuntarily grown apart,” she said. That divide has persisted ever since.

Read more: 

The U.S. lost track of 1,475 immigrant children last year. Here’s why people are outraged now.