Orphanage survivors confront German leadership

International effort to connect those who claim they were abused as children

By TAVIA D. GREEN
The Leaf-Chronicle
January 12, 2010

The fight spans across the North Atlantic for Ziska Murphy of Clarksville, Christa Morse of Oklahoma, Jeanette Lankre of Florida and thousands of other German natives who say they endured physical, sexual and mental abuse while growing up in orphanages in Germany.

It is estimated more than half a million children brought up in German church and state institutions between 1945 and 1975 suffered such abuse, according to an article from DW-World DE, a German-based multimedia company.

Many who have tried to bring this abuse to light have been met with roadblocks in getting the government and churches to pay attention to their plea, said Morse, one of the United States directors and representative for the German-based organization, Verein Ehemaliger Heimkinder, which is spearheading the movement.

Brigitte Diederich, a German representative of VEH, said their organization has been raising awareness about the abuse since its beginning in 2004. There are 400 members, and their numbers are steadily increasing. Many of the members live in Germany, but others are in the U.S., Australia, England, Ireland, Holland, Denmark and France, Diederich wrote by e-mail from Germany.

"Our association is not only looking for compensation — which of course is a very important concern of ours — we see the need of our members to get into contact with others that have suffered the same fate," Diederich said. "We are trying to help our members to get along and verbalize their memories, to find their personal documents. This is very important, as many of us don't even have the complete (proof) of the time (we) suffered in orphanages, approval schools or correctional centers."

Missing records

Morse said she requested her records, and a decade's worth were missing. She also said there are holes, unexplained statements and untruthful excuses listed for capital punishment. Letters and mail she'd received but never saw were in the records as well, she said.

Lankre, creator of the Florida-based Web site Heimkinder-USA.net and one of the directors of the U.S. branch of VEH, said many German natives across the U.S. are coming forward and sharing those stories.

The Internet has created a social network for survivors, and an international communication among them has begun — a strong force in a tough fight, Morse said.

"We were all diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and it was very emotional — a lot was buried, and it's very painful at times. I didn't talk about it for a long time," Lankre said. "It was a lot of orphanages, and it was different kinds of abuses."

Lankre said she experienced sexual, emotional, physical and psychological abuse while in foster care, orphanages and institutions run by the Catholic church.

"When you get abused, it becomes normal because you don't know any different. The child care services didn't care. They went there and came once a month, they didn't react to any screams in the middle of the night from all the beatings or the abuse," Lankre said.

Survivors are still dealing with physical and emotional problems, Diederich said.

"We were raised without preparation for a life after leaving the orphanages," Diederich said. "The majority of orphans have health issues and are unable to work."

Accountability

Diederich said she believes the government and churches in Germany do not want to accept that there was widespread abuse in their institutions.

"Things are being admitted exactly to the degree that they are so apparent they cannot possibly be denied anymore," she said.

"Maybe you can imagine how terrible it is for us ... when all your experiences are being questioned, and some politicians or church officials say in public that all you know, all you have lived, cannot be true, that there were some cases of mistreatment; however, those were isolated cases. This is very humiliating, because it only reminds you that you were always told 'You are a liar' and now you are again accused of being a liar."

The main thing the victims want is for the German government, Catholic and Protestant churches to accept responsibility.

Many of the nuns and priests who abused these children — many of those children now in their 50s, 60s and 70s — are no longer alive, but Morse said as wards of the state the children were the state's responsibility and many officials turned deaf ears to known abuse.

"There has to be accountability somewhere," Morse said. "No one wants to take responsibility, and Germany doesn't to want to take responsibility."

Morse said they are planning to start their battle from the United States. She has been in contact with an international human rights services attorney in Washington, D.C., in an effort to bring a class-action lawsuit.

"What is happening in Germany, they don't want to acknowledge it took place," Morse said. "They know it did, because a lot of our records were ordered to be destroyed. In Germany it is very hard, but we are trying to do that here in the U.S."

Sharing the story

Money is not the driving force, Lankre said.

"The compensation is not the main thing. It's part of it and an important part, but the most important part is to find a closure and bring the story out," Lankre said. "Germany is my country, but what happened there in those times is unbelievable. This is the second worst thing after World War II. We were garbage. ... It was swept under the rug and made a lot of people sick."

Coming together and sharing their stories has become a healing in itself.

"I believe there are so many who have the same problem and need to talk about it and know help is available," Morse said. "It may be a long fight, but you have people you can talk to."

With recent news of the Irish and Australian governments confronting issues of abused children of the state and in Catholic orphanages, Murphy, Lankre and Morse are hopeful it will happen for German orphans who suffered the same plight.

"We can't hold the dead accountable, but we can hold the state and church accountable. They were responsible for us. We feel they owe us something."

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