Nearly 30 years have passed since East Germany's homes for "difficult children" were shut down. It has taken this long for the former inmates to speak out about their ordeals, and, even now, they're not always heard.
At an exhibition about East German children's homes, Renate Viehrig-Seger is standing in front of a photo of herself as a 17-year-old. She doesn't linger. It brings back profoundly painful memories, and she needs a smoke. Now in her late 50s, she hadn't talked about her past for decades until, a few weeks ago in Leipzig, she spoke at a hearing on the findings of an independent inquiry into the sexual abuse of children in the East German dictatorship, which, the study shows, was widespread in children's homes and juvenile reformatories.
Now, Viehrig-Seger says, she has finally found her voice. It took her over 40 years.
"I know justice will never be done for me personally," she says, pulling on a cigarette outside Potsdam's former military orphanage, where the exhibition is being held. "Giving evidence at the inquiry is my way of ensuring that sort of abuse isn't allowed to happen ever again."
Viehrig-Seger spent 180 days in Torgau, East Germany's most notorious closed juvenile home. Between 1964 and 1989, about 4,000 youths aged 14 to 18 were locked up in the country's 150-odd homes for "difficult" children and subjected to a punishing program of retraining as "socialist persons."
It didn't take much to be considered "difficult." Many inmates were unruly kids who skived school or had run away from home. Some were admitted because they listened to the "beat" music reviled by East Germany's leadership or talked back to their teachers. In many cases, they hadn't done anything wrong at all and the state was actually cracking down on their parents — perhaps for signing a letter of protest against the oppressive regime, perhaps because a neighbor had told the dreaded Stasi secret police that they were planning an escape to the West.
The children almost always came from troubled homes. One of 10 children, Viehrig-Seger was sexually abused by her father from an early age. She initially thought that if she told the authorities, they would protect her. But in East Germany, child sex abuse was a taboo topic.
"They said I was making it up," she recalls. She started stealing, hoping to be caught and taken out of her parents' care. It worked. In 1975 she was admitted to Torgau. There, she says she was put in solitary confinement for days on end and was raped by the facility's director.
These days, the institutionalized abuse and shocking conditions that prevailed in Torgau and East Germany's other children's homes, from withholding food and thrusting heads into toilets to beatings and rape, have been well-documented in memoirs and media coverage. But it took decades for former inmates, used to being told they were lying, worthless failures, to start speaking out about their ordeals. Only relatively recently have they begun coming together in encounter groups. And it was not until 2012 that the German government established a fund for former inmates of East Germany's children's homes.
To many, however, this was a sop. The deadline to apply was September 2014, when few former children's home inmates had even heard about it.
"To me that fund was an attempt to placate us," says Roland Herrmann, who spent six months in a juvenile home in Bad Freienwalde, Brandenburg, at the age of 14. "Some people let themselves be fobbed off with financial compensation."
In his view, rehabilitation is worth more. A series of laws have allowed people who were wronged by the East German system and officially rehabilitated to claim a "victims' pension" of about €300 ($350) a month. Equally importantly for former victims of institutionalized abuse, the official rehabilitation is an acknowledgment of what they endured at the hands of the state.
The trouble is proving it. When the children's homes were shut down after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, their files were destroyed or lost. Not only does this mean that few people have the paperwork to prove their cases: It also explains why none of the staff in these juvenile "prisons," as many former inmates describe them, were ever subject to criminal investigations and put on trial.
"Another reason why no one was held to account was because the former inmates never spoke up, because they were afraid of being stigmatized or because they felt guilt and shame," says Gabriele Beyler, the head of the Torgau memorial committee.
"Turning Torgau into a memorial site in 1997 was a first step towards making amends," she says. "It was the first place where an interest in the fates of the former victims was taken, and one of its aims was to raise public awareness of what they went through. All many of them want is that society recognizes and understands what happened to them."
Viehrig-Seger is a case in point. "A million euros couldn't make up for what happened to me," she says. She now gives tours of the former facility in Torgau and said telling visitors her story had helped her come to terms with it more than money or therapy ever could have. "When I tried therapy, the counselor wanted to refer me to a psychiatric clinic for a few weeks as an in-patient," she says. "But there's no way anyone is ever putting me in an institution ever again."
Roland Herrmann has another coping strategy. He has founded an association that lobbies for the complete rehabilitation of all former inmates in the Bad Freienwalde home. On November 9, the association will be unveiling a memorial in the town by the artist Axel Anklam.
But the public reaction shows that the recognition that he, Viehrig-Seger and their peers so badly want remains elusive.
"There has been public hostility, and what happened in this facility is still often denied," says Jutta Lieske, a member of Brandenburg's state legislature who has given her support to the initiative.
"Back then, no one cared what went on behind those doors," Herrmann says. "Lots of people saw the inmates as delinquents and were happy to have the 'filth' kept off the streets." Unfortunately, it seems that some of those attitudes haven't changed.
"East Germany's history still hasn't been fully examined," Hermann says. He and others who survived sojourns in its children's homes are determined to raise awareness of their part in this history, but few expect to find closure.
Horst Kretzschmar, the director of the Torgau facility from 1968 until 1989, died in hospital the day the Berlin Wall fell.
Renate Viehrig-Seger says she'll never have peace of mind. "But I'm done hating," she says. "I've got no more anger left in me."
The exhibition "Kindheit im Heim" (Childhood in Homes) at the Grosses Waisenhaus Potsdam runs through March 31, 2018.