Society: Youth in GDR children's homes: "They didn't break me"

There are scenes from his childhood that Kai Oppermann can't get out of his head.

Society: Youth in GDR children's homes: "They didn't break me"

There are scenes from his childhood that Kai Oppermann can't get out of his head. How he had to scrub toilets with a toothbrush. How he was made to run up and down stairs for hours to the point of total exhaustion. How in class suddenly the bunch of keys flew at him and punched a hole in his head.

Oppermann was one of the approximately 500,000 children and young people who were housed in GDR homes. A recently published study shows that many still feel the consequences of violence and neglect. Under the leadership of the University of Leipzig, the research association "Testimony" examined the experiences of those affected. In western Germany and in other European countries, too, there was violence and abuse in many children's homes after the war, which was often dealt with late or not at all.

mistreatment and abuse

The researchers emphasize that there are also positive reports about childhood in the GDR home. "It was a turning point for the better in my life," said one of the study participants. However, 80 percent of respondents reported emotional neglect, 47 percent physical abuse, and 41 percent sexual abuse. Many reported suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Kai Oppermann is 52 years old today. He lives with his family in a house in Penig, Saxony. He has installed surveillance cameras on the property. "I always have to have everything under control," he says. "I trust no one - except my wife and my children." When car doors close in front of his house, it reminds him of the men who used to rush him from one home to the next.

When they first picked him up, he was three years old. At that time he lived in Karl-Marx-Stadt, now Chemnitz. The family with the six children was the focus of the authorities because, as Oppermann says, the parents were not loyal to the line. Kai and his brother Patrick were placed in a home, but were able to stay in Karl-Marx-Stadt. "It was really nice there," he says. The educators were nice and took care of the children. But one night he and his brother were suddenly jerked out of bed. They were still in pajamas and slippers when men put them in a car and took them to another home. To this day, Oppermann cannot say why. "They didn't even talk to us," he says.

drill and discipline

He also liked this second station, a home in Altchemnitz, at first, says Oppermann. But not for long. Ironically, the man he considered his favorite educator abused him and Patrick. In the attic - where no one could hear them. The two brothers were later separated. Kai Oppermann had to go to Meerane, to a special children's home. "Those were the worst three years," he says. There was drill and tough discipline in the facility. No privacy, no free time. It was always about "performance, performance, performance".

Today, Oppermann is tormented by his memories, especially at night. Nightmares plague him. He takes psychotropic drugs and talks to a therapist about his past. "You don't feel understood," he says. According to the study, many former home residents talk about this feeling. What was particularly bad for most of them, however, was that they were emotionally abused or neglected and prevented from developing their own personality, says a project employee. Problems in relationships and other areas of life were therefore often the result. Every fifth study participant was in prison at least once after the home.

Kai Oppermann was successful in life - despite his years of odyssey through the GDR home system. "They didn't break me," he says. At the age of 17 he began training as a driver. After reunification, he was able to work his way up to the post of plant manager in a paper mill. He started a family. "I never hit my children. Everything can be settled without violence," says Oppermann.

Only one photo remains

And yet, the past, especially the time in Meerane, gives him no rest. Oppermann was disappointed after the trial about abuse in the special home. The case against four educators was dropped in 2004 after the defendants paid fines. However, they denied the allegations.

Oppermann thinks there should be more talk about the topic. "I think that needs to be addressed." At least he was able to secure financial compensation from the "Home Education in the GDR" fund. He was happy about the money. "It's not a reparation."

Kai Oppermann never spoke to his brother about what happened in the home. That can no longer be made up for today: Patrick died in a car accident. There is a photo that shows the two brothers at school with school cones in their hands. "I have nothing left of my childhood - except for this picture," says Oppermann.