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Culture

Play Sheds Light on Dark East German Secret

A decade after it was rejected as too controversial and staged in Ireland instead, a play on forced adoptions in East Germany has made its debut in Germany. Playwright Renate Ahrens shares her odyssey with DW-WORLD.

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The perfect world of Marion (played by actress Anna-Maria Kuricová) comes crashing down when she learns the terrible truth of her adoption.

Timing has played a key role in Renate Ahrens’ career as a playwright ever since she penned her first play in 1993. At the time she approached several theaters in Germany with the manuscript, but remembers that the reaction from all of them was similar --"nobody wants to see anything like that now, come back in 10 or 15 years," she was told.

"It must have been too early then, just three or four years after the fall of the wall," the author told DW-WORLD in an interview from her Hamburg home.

Ahrens' script dealt with a dark, little-known chapter of history in East Germany. In the 1970s the communist government forcefully wrested away young children from parents they thought might try to flee to the free West and gave them up for adoption to conformist East German couples.

Renate Ahrens

Renate Ahrens

Now a decade after those initial hesitations and rejections, the time seems to be right as Ahrens’ (photo) play, Mütter-Los, translated loosely as "Motherless" -- once deemed too controversial for the German public -- opened to packed audiences at a Nuremberg theater last weekend.

The play deals with the classic East-West conflict through the confused and anguished lens of 18-year-old Marion. The girl, who lives in a small eastern German town, is suddenly confronted by her real mother from the West after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the terrible truth of her adoption. Ironically, Ahrens found it easier to stage the play in Ireland than in Germany.

Timing of play coincides with Ireland's startling discovery

"I didn’t want to wait 10 or 15 years, I decided to go ahead with it," the 48-year-old says as she explains how she took the manuscript with her to Dublin -- where she has also lived since 1986 -- after it was rejected in Germany and was translated into English as part of a writers’ group. In 1997, Ahrens was approached by an Irish director who showed interest in staging the play.

"The time was right there," Ahrens says when asked how an Irish audience would react to a play with such a strong German theme.

In 1997, adoption files were discovered in a musty archive in Dublin that shed light on a wave of adoptions in Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s. At that time, women in the strictly Catholic Republic of Ireland who gave birth outside of wedlock often had to give up their children to Catholic institutions, which in turn gave the children to childless Catholic couples in the United States.

"Often the mothers were as young as 17 or 18, had to promise that they would never try to find their children, and their children were given other names, so there was no way to find them," says Ahrens.

Magdalene Sisters (2002)

Magdalen Sisters

"These children were by then in their forties or fifties and the discovery of the files suddenly caused a wave of American citizens coming to Ireland to see their real mothers. It caused quite a stir in Irish society," she said. The acclaimed recent film "The Magdalena Sisters" (photo) documents that difficult chapter in Irish history.

It was against that background that the Irish theater group Storytellers began performing Ahrens’ play in English in 1998 under the title When the Wall Came Down. They toured successfully through Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Though the theme of the play was quintessentially German, the Irish -- with their sudden discovery of a long-kept secret -- were able to relate to the play better. "It’s easier if you see something of yourself in something foreign," Ahrens says.

Play passes litmus test in Berlin

In July 1999, Ahrens faced her first real test with the German public, when the Irish group performed the play at a small English-speaking theater in Berlin's Kreuzberg district.

"We were warned that the audience might find this quite patronizing -- an Irish company performing in English a play that’s so German in Germany," Ahrens says. But instead the performances opened to packed audiences and the local media went overboard with reviews and portraits of it.

"People from both the east and the west were there. It was fascinating. There were actually people who said they knew families whom it had happened to," says Ahrens. But the overwhelming reaction from the majority of people, especially from the east was "we never knew," she says.

Interest sparked by newspaper article

Ahrens first stumbled upon the topic of forced adoptions in East Germany through a chance reading of a newspaper article in 1990. The issue had been quashed for years by the communist East German government .

Ahrens recalls that one of the offices of the newsmagazine Der Spiegel in East Berlin was shut down in 1975 by the communist government after a correspondent reported on the forced adoptions. "There was a huge outcry at the time, but after that the story disappeared totally and for the next 15 years I didn’t hear anything," she says.

But in the time that has lapsed since, Ahrens has spent considerable time pondering difficult junctures in Germany's past. "I’m really interested in the history of the two Germanys. I was born and grew up in West Germany and every time I went to East Berlin, it was so incredibly foreign to me though we spoke the same language! Discovering that article jarred something in me and I decided to do something about it," she says.

Ahrens then dug around in newspaper archives and libraries, and what she came up with, she says, was "amazing."

"I initially thought there were perhaps 10 or 15 politically motivated cases of forced adoptions, but there were more and more running into the hundreds," she says. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 also opened the gates to classified files of the East German secret police (Stasi) that threw much light on the true extent of the forced adoptions.

Intense and poignant

Ahrens’ play takes place in 1990, when the Berlin Wall has just been torn down, but the formal reunification of the two Germanys has not yet taken place. Roswitha Berger, who has lived with her husband in West Germany near Hamburg for several years, makes her way to the crumbling East, her old home.

In the early 1970s, her attempt to escape to the West with her husband and baby failed and she landed in prison, where her child was forcefully taken away from her. Berger and her husband were eventually deported to the West, but had no idea what had happened to their child. With the opening of the Wall, Berger comes across a Stasi file which reveals that her child is now called Marion and lives in a small eastern German town.

Mütter-los Szenenfoto Kammerspiele Theater Nürnberg

Renate Ahrens Mütter-Los

Berger arrives in the town and meets with the unsuspecting 18-year-old Marion, who lives a content life with her adoptive East German parents, but harbors great dreams of being a musician and going to the West. Marion’s world begins collapsing as she learns the terrible truth of her adoption and begins to question her identity. The scene is set for an intensely emotional and poignant family and personal drama.

"Time's now right for a discussion"

"I didn’t have a certain political aim when I wrote the play, I was interested in their characters and stories. I feel all of us in Germany have to live with this past, with two Germanys -- I see Marion as a sort of incarnation of that," Ahrens says.

Ahrens admits that she was terrified when the play finally opened in German for the first time in Nuremberg last week. "I was scared to hear and see it (the play) in my mother tongue , I was afraid it would be too close. I didn’t even attend the preview, just the opening night because I decided to just fold away the experience of the past five years and open a new page and see what they did with it," she says.

Ahrens returns to her favorite theme of time. "There are still huge wounds and scars on both sides, I don’t think the two Germanys have really grown together, but I have a feeling from the reactions to the play, that at least there’s a sort of opening up," she says. "The time seems to be right now here for a discussion."